Air University Review, September-October 1968

Survival Training

Second Lieutenant Robert M. Zickes

Air Training Command prepares its aircrew members to be the best in the world. One of the fundamental and absolutely essential segments of ATC’s air training program is the survival course conducted by the USAF Survival School at Fairchild AFB, Washington. This training provides the principles, procedures, and techniques that may directly save an aircrew member’s life and enable him to return to his unit without giving aid or comfort to the enemy. It is often the final and, to the individual, most important step in preparing the man.

Survival schools for training military personnel have been in existence since the early part of World War II, but they were scattered, and no attempt was made to centralize control or standardize curricula.

In December 1949, under the stimulus of General Curtis E. LeMay, then Commander of the Strategic Air Command, a school for survival was established at Camp Carson, Colorado. Training began on 1 April 1950. Initially, the school was operated by the 3904th Training Squadron of Strategic Air Command. The faculty and staff were a cadre of survival specialists gathered from Air Force, Army, and reserve sources. The school was designed to satisfy the needs of SAC and its mission of that day.

In 1952 the school moved from Camp Carson to Stead AFB, Nevada. The Air Training Command assumed responsibility for providing Air Force survival training on 1 September 1954. The school operated under a wing, group, and squadron setup. The wing was a crew training wing originally, finally becoming a flying training wing. The squadron as such went through a series of name changes and finally was known as the 3637th Combat Crew Training Squadron, operated by the 3636th Flying Training Wing. After Stead was deactivated, elements from the old wing, group, and squadron moved to Fairchild AFB, Washington. There are two entities at Fairchild—the USAF Survival School and the 3636th Combat Crew Training Group, which operates the school.

Since Camp Carson days, the Survival School has trained almost 100,000 students in the art of combat survival. (From 1 April 1950 to 21 December 1967, 93,000 students were trained.) During fiscal year 1968, the school trained 9317 students in its several courses, 7965 of them in the regular survival course.

Knowledge gained during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and the continuing cold war has necessitated changes in the curriculum to satisfy the requirements of the larger number of students now attending the courses. These include not only U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine personnel but military personnel from many allied countries. “The School’s mission is to train selected personnel in the employment of principles, procedures, equipment, and techniques which permit a person to survive regardless of climatic conditions or unfriendly environments, and return to his organization.” The goal that challenges all students is to return with honor. In addition, the student will understand the basic concepts of guerrilla activity, causative factors of insurgency, and the organization concept of Special Forces. Under Air Force Regulation 53-28, 26 July 1966, the school’s functions are, among other activities, to conduct academic and operational training in basic survival (the preservation of one’s life against immediate perils such as starvation, drowning, dehydration, heat, cold, injuries, bacteria, and radioactivity); in combat survival (those measures to be taken by service personnel when involuntarily separated from friendly forces in combat, including procedures relating to individual survival, evasion, escape, and conduct after capture); in evasion and escape (the procedures and operations whereby military personnel and other selected individuals are enabled to emerge from an enemy-held or hostile area to areas under friendly control); in counterinsurgency operations; and in special training as directed. To carry out these functions, the USAF Survival School conducts the regular survival course (S-V80-A), which develops as follows:

a. On-base training (exclusive of Resistance Training Laboratory)

b. Resistance Training Laboratory

c. Field training (operational training):

(1) Static camp (transition training)

(2) Mobile training (advanced transition and operational training).

In reality the course is not “phased.” For example, training in the on-base portion lays the foundation for the Resistance Training Laboratory and field training which follow; training in fieldcraft and travel techniques must be accomplished on a continuing basis throughout all the field training that is accomplished under direct instructor influence, both in static camp and during mobile training.

The classroom portion of survival training prepares the aircrew member by giving him basic and advanced survival theory. In order to give a student the background and tools which he will need to complete this rugged course successfully, he is given a wide variety of classroom and practical instruction. During the nine days (formerly 12) devoted to classroom and laboratory training, the student is instructed in parachute control and landing; water survival; survival medicine and hygiene; special problems posed by life as a prisoner of war, resistance to all aspects of exploitation, and escape; the procurement of food from available plants, fish, and game; and other survival principles. He is informed of the representative types of terrain and climate the world over and the hazards associated with each. He also learns the principles of land navigation, camouflage, and evasion movement.

Some of the more interesting segments of this on-base training are lab phases in parachute training and water survival.

Five academic training hours of Course S-V80-A are devoted to parachute instruction and helicopter recovery. One hour is spent explaining the principles and procedures for control of the parachute in the air, landing falls, and recovery. Four hours are spent in actual practice.

The class is divided into five separate groups, which interchange after each segment of demonstration and practice is completed. Group 1 practices control of the parachute in the air, recovery from a faulty opening, and body position for landing in open field, water, high-tension wires, and trees. The instruction includes how to make a mid-air modification that will give a more steerable parachute (e.g., the four line cut).

Group 2 meanwhile is being taught how to make a parachute landing fall (PLF) from four basic positions—front, right side, left side, and rear—starting from a standing position on the ground and advancing to a four-foot platform. The correct falling procedures for a successful injury-free parachute landing are demonstrated. Then each student participates and is critiqued on his ability to effect a good landing, regardless of the direction of the fall.

Group 3 is being taught how to make a successful recovery or rescue by helicopter. The student learns how to use the new tree-escape letdown device which enables him to reach the ground if he becomes hung up in a tree after a parachute jump. He gets three rides in a simulated helicopter hoist (stationary tower), which is approximately 25 feet high; one ride is with the conventional sling, and two are with the newly designed forest penetrator.

Group 4 is learning how to avoid being dragged by a full canopy if caught in a high wind. This is an important phase of jump training, for a full canopy in a 20-knot wind can be a great danger to a person who has otherwise made a good landing. Here the student is taught to lie on his back, head and legs raised, spring open the quick releases, and spill air from his parachute. A method for a quick roll from stomach to back is also taught and practiced.

Group 5, starting in January 1966, began using the newest parachute training aid, the swing landing trainer, which more realistically simulates a parachute landing fall.  The student is in a harness while being lowered and swung as he falls approximately 12 feet.  The instructor can control the speed of the fall, but the student cannot predict where or in what position he will land.  This is advanced PLF training and is an important new segment of parachuting instruction. 

The parachute training received at the USAF Survival School is not designed to jump-qualify the student.  Its purpose is to give him confidence in his parachute equipment and in his own ability to take care of himself in survival situations.  The student generally enjoys and appreciates this training, knowing that one day it may help him make safe parachute descent and landing.

Water survival is another important segment of survival training. The student gets two hours of instruction in emergency parachuting principles over water and the use of water survival equipment until rescue and recovery. He becomes familiar with his emergency water gear through a preliminary lecture before moving to the pool area for actual water instruction. The student is dropped from a high tower, simulating a water parachute landing. He learns how to prepare for the water landing, correctly enter the water, and release his parachute. Thus he enters into instruction in using life preservers and one-man and multiman rafts. A recent addition to the course teaches the student how to cope with a parachute canopy that collapses on him once he has hit the water.

Survival Course S-V80-A also includes resistance training. After being given intensive classroom preparation, the student enters the Obstacle Penetration Lab. After sunset, he covers the mile-long obstacle course. He is hindered by barbed wire, flares to betray his position, obstacles like those found on many territorial borders, and school instructors acting as guards.

Upon completing the obstacle course, the student is captured by school instructors masquerading as the enemy. This signals the beginning of the Resistance Training Laboratory, one of the most significant sections of training, particularly in what the student learns about himself. He is faced with simulated enemy interrogations and periods of isolation and cramped quarters. Later he is confronted with compound life in a prisoner-of-war camp, where the students as a group are faced with more and different problems relating to honorable survival while in captivity.

After each segment of this training, the student is critiqued by school instructors so that problem areas can be identified. These critiques are designed to make the student aware of his mistakes and give him the information necessary to correct them.

With his on-base classroom training and Resistance Training Lab completed, the student moves into the next portion of training, the static camp portion of field training. Instruction in the field is extremely important, for it is in the field that the survival principles, procedures, and techniques taught in the classroom take on new meaning as they are applied in actual situations.

Students are taken to one of the three training areas in the Kaniksu and Colville National Forests, approximately 65 miles north of Spokane, for their field training, which is divided into static camp and mobile training. For the training period of 5 ½ days, each student is issued survival and fresh rations totaling approximately 2500 calories. This supply of food, augmented by what the enterprising student can procure off the land, will be his sustenance during this period.

Transition survival training, conducted in the static camp for three days, gives the students an opportunity to practice field techniques while living in a semi-permanent camp. They are grouped in small training elements, each with its own instructor. The instructor explains, discusses, and demonstrates survival principles, techniques, and procedures, and the student practices under the instructor’s supervision. Static camp serves as a transition between the academic phase and the mobile phase of training, as it gives the student an opportunity to review knowledge and skills introduced during on-base training and permits him to integrate this introductory material with field application.

The student learns the principles and techniques of personal protection (shelter and clothing); shelter location and selection; shelter construction; fire-craft; care and use of equipment; improvised clothing and equipment; procurement, preparation, and preservation of food and water; field medicine and personal hygiene; survival under radioactive fallout conditions; preparation of communications; position determination; and day and night navigation on the ground (orientation).

At the end of each day in static camp, the instructor evaluates the performance of his element and each individual member. Constructive criticism and extra instruction when needed ensure that every student learns the essential survival principles and can put them into practice.

Following static camp, students move into perhaps the most demanding portion of survival training, the mobile training.

 Mobile field training gives the student the opportunity to apply basic field-craft and travel techniques under changing conditions. Gradually the enemy opposition buildup (in the form of aggressor forces) and combat survival situations put a greater demand on the student’s capabilities. While under this stress, he must put into practice what he has learned in the on-base and static camp training. The mobile training is the real test of the principles and techniques he has been learning. The last portion of the mobile training is called “confidence training,” and rightly so. Successful completion of the mobile phase significantly increases the student’s confidence that he can apply what he has learned and return safely from any emergency.

In the mobile training, which lasts two and one-half days, the students are again grouped in small training elements, each with its own instructor. However, direct instructor supervision and assistance are gradually withdrawn. The first two days, the students travel as an element force with their instructor nearby; after that, they pair off without an instructor.

The students travel by day and night, are harassed by a simulated aggressor enemy force, and attempt to evade capture by the enemy. A major problem encountered is ground navigation, but other important segments of training are presented: enemy harassment, evasion problems, cooperation with friendly forces, plus all the basic field-craft learned in static camp and the early part of mobile training (shelters, food, water, equipment, etc.). Upon completing the mobile training, each man can look back with a smile that reflects his feelings: “I survived.”

The USAF Survival School has a staff and faculty of highly skilled specialists with a wide range of the knowledge required by global combat survival training. The philosophy of the school is to teach the skills which will enable the student to survive in the event of a future emergency. The school must keep up to date on changing world conditions, keep abreast of military and technology developments, and continually adapt itself to the requirements of various commands of the Air Force.

In the last analysis, the main concern of the school is with the man, the individual. The goal of the school is his safe and honorable return from any emergency, whether it involves dealing with an enemy or not. That he may “Survive To Fight Again,” the school is dedicated to providing the individual with the tools and training which will enable him to cope with any emergency anywhere on the globe.

Hq Air Training Command


Second Lieutenant Robert M. Zickes is Information Officer, USAF Survival School, Fairchild AFB, Washington. Before graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1967, he worked for the school radio station as an announcer and public relations director. Commissioned through Officer Training School in September 1967 Lieutenant Zickes joined the 3636th Combat Crew Training Group (ATC) (Survival) and took the Survival Training Course before assuming his present duty.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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