Service members conquer extreme Alaska at 'Cool School'

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Peter Reft
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The piercing cold invading your lungs as your legs and hands begin to go numb. It is 50 degrees below zero and you have two hours of daylight before darkness envelopes your world. Every useable resource is gone, either burnt to ashes or crushed into oblivion. With only your knife, a few feet of synthetic cord, a handsaw and a parachute, you must quickly build a shelter. The only choice you have is to fight every second for your survival.

In the U.S. Air Force's only arctic survival school, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialists prepare military service members to endure Alaska's frigid winter grip and survive its harsh and unforgiving environment.

Specialists at Detachment 1 of the 66th Training Squadron conduct training, known as "Cool School," in a specially equipped facility on Eielson each year from November to the end of March. Pacific Air Forces fliers and specific career fields exposed to cold climates are required to attend the vigorous week-long training. Failing to meet the training requirement will bar unprepared individuals from flight duties.

"Everything you do in the arctic takes much more energy and everything you touch is colder ... drawing heat out of your body," said Airman Seth Reab Det. 1, 66th TRS SERE specialist. "Preparedness and planning is going to be your saving grace."

There is no room for mistakes as temperatures can dip to 60 degrees below freezing. Only a few minutes of exposure is all it takes to succumb to cold injuries, so the instructors make certain the learning environment is safe, yet challenging. Students learn skills such as cutting firewood, finding food, producing drinkable water, and starting fires for heat or signaling.

"Before entering the field training environment, students are given classroom and lab instruction including tactics, techniques and procedures they will use once isolated in the arctic," said Master Sgt. Charles Bouck, Det. 1, 66th TRS superintendent. "The course uses a crawl-walk-run learning approach imperative to teaching personnel to survive in one of the harshest environments."

But simply starting a fire, pitching a tent and zipping up in a high tech sleeping bag is not enough to conquer the sub zero climate. Students in the class are also taught to build a thermalized A-frame. This shelter can be built by a trained individual within a matter of hours and provides excellent protection from the elements.

"Three trips ago it was negative 4 degrees outside, and I had a second lieutenant that created this shelter and he said it was positive 46 inside his shelter," said Reab.
In a real world survival scenario where several survivors are fighting to survive, efficient teamwork is paramount. Pilots are not the only ones who need the SERE training; every member must know the survival basics and be prepared to do their part.

"You're not just a doctor who takes care of medical needs--you can also help out building shelters, gathering wood, building fires and obtaining resources," said Capt. Hyon Joo, 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron flight surgeon from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

In addition to educating the students in survival, the SERE specialists ensure the students are safely withstanding the harsh climate. The training required to become a SERE specialist results in an individual that is not only trustworthy enough--he knows exactly what he is doing.

"They can send this guy off into the woods with potentially a couple million dollars in Air Force personnel and know that they're going to come out of the course fine," said Reab.

SERE specialists at Eielson are proud of what they do. Their career is not only their job, but also their lifestyle. A visit to their detachment demonstrates, through the countless displays of survival gear, trip photographs, hunting trophies, squadron patches and miniatures of arctic shelters, just how much pride they have in their line of work.

Bouck, a 17-year SERE vet, said one of the biggest rewards of teaching is seeing the confidence level in students rise throughout the course.

"It is always great to see people gain confidence in their new-found abilities and equipment, and ensure they are given the most professional training available so they can return with honor," he said.