YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — In World War II, hundreds of airmen were rescued by submarines, ships and flying boats after they bailed out or ditched into the Pacific Ocean.
Almost 70 years later, the U.S. Air Force is still training aviators to survive a plunge into the vast waters of the Pacific.
At Yokota Air Base in April, flight crew members from the 374th Airlift Wing underwent hands-on water survival training in a large indoor swimming pool.
The airmen, wearing their flight suits, donned parachute harnesses and life preservers and jumped into the pool. They took turns releasing their harnesses while being dragged backward through the water on a rope designed to simulate a parachute being blown across the surface by strong wind.
“We do a lot of island hopping; so, for us, in the Pacific, water survival is probably our No. 1 concern,” said one of the airmen getting dunked in the pool, Capt. Carmen Young, 28, of Xenia, Ohio.
The C-130 navigator, who flies regular eight-hour missions across the waters surrounding Japan, said she’s thankful that much of the water she flies over is, at least, reasonably warm.
During the survival training, Young and the other airmen had to submerge themselves under a canopy, find their way to its edge and scramble into a small rubber raft of the type that is slung from their parachutes during missions.
They also practiced clambering into larger, 20-man, rubber rafts that crews would use if their C-130 aircraft ditched in the Pacific. While pool staff tossed buckets of water onto the raft to simulate high seas the airmen had to erect a shelter to protect themselves against the elements.
In a real-life survival situation, the airmen’s next task would be to call for help using radios included in their emergency gear.
Capt. Chrystina Jones, 27, of Wichita, Kan., a pilot with the 374th, said there is a danger with C-130s that their large propellers could snag the surface and flip them.
However, Jones said she’s prepared to try to save herself and her crew in an emergency. She said she is inspired by “Sully” Sullenberger, a former Air Force pilot who served in the Pacific and, in 2009, successfully ditched a disabled commercial jetliner into New York’s Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people on board.
The possibility of ditching into the Pacific is on aircrews’ minds during long flights over the water, she said.
“If you fly back to the States there are islands like Wake … that, if you miss them, you will run out of fuel and have to ditch,” she said.
The last part of the training involved airmen swimming to a hook similar to one that a helicopter might lower, clipping onto it and signaling to their rescuers to pull them from the water.
Staff Sgt. Robert Rogers, 28, of Waynesville, N.C., a Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract specialist with the 374th Operational Support Squadron, said every flight crewmember must do the water training once every three years.
Modern maintenance and pilot training mean aircraft ditchings are rare in the Pacific nowadays. Rogers said he doesn’t know of any C-130s ditching into water, but he has heard of U.S. military helicopters going down in the Pacific in recent years.
Advances in communications and tracking equipment mean the U.S. military should be able to reach downed aircrews within a couple of hours off the coast of Japan and, at the longest, 12 hours in other parts of the Pacific, but the goal of survival training is to enable them to survive as long as possible, he said.