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Instructor Staff Sgt. Tony Raciborski, right, stays in the water with F-16 pilot Capt. Scott Wuenstel during water survival training Friday in Lake Ogawara at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Instructor Staff Sgt. Tony Raciborski, right, stays in the water with F-16 pilot Capt. Scott Wuenstel during water survival training Friday in Lake Ogawara at Misawa Air Base, Japan. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Instructor Staff Sgt. Tony Raciborski, right, stays in the water with F-16 pilot Capt. Scott Wuenstel during water survival training Friday in Lake Ogawara at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Instructor Staff Sgt. Tony Raciborski, right, stays in the water with F-16 pilot Capt. Scott Wuenstel during water survival training Friday in Lake Ogawara at Misawa Air Base, Japan. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Maj. Mike Briggs, left, helps fellow F-16 pilot Capt. Scott Wuenstel zip into several layers of flight gear, to include a water-tight “poopy suit.”

Maj. Mike Briggs, left, helps fellow F-16 pilot Capt. Scott Wuenstel zip into several layers of flight gear, to include a water-tight “poopy suit.” (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Fighter pilots here fondly call it the “poopy” suit: an anti-exposure watertight suit with no open flaps for when nature calls. They’re not fashionable, but they’re necessary, especially when your job entails doing 90 percent of your flying over choppy ocean waters that in winter dip below freezing.

Also essential for such a job description is water survival training. At many bases, it’s done in indoor pools. But at Misawa, where pilots must be certified in water survival every three years, Lake Ogawara — albeit in summer — is the classroom.

“Our water survival training, people listen,” said Lt. Col. Franz Plescha, 35th Operations Support Squadron commander. “We take it pretty seriously.”

Plescha and three other Misawa aviators waded into the 60-degree lake Friday decked out in full flight gear to practice surviving what would be one scary ride: If something goes wrong while you’re cruising more than 10,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean in a single-engine F-16 and you have to eject, what do you when you splash into the water?

That rubber “poopy” suit certainly helps, but it’s no invitation for bobbing in the water. In freezing temperatures, pilots without the suit might have 30 seconds to a minute before hypothermia sets in and they can’t do much, said Master Sgt. Alec Rehms, 35th Life Support Section superintendent. The poopy suit generally doubles their survival time, he said, “but it’s not designed for them to hang out in the water.”

The aviators are trained to get into their raft, which should be inflated and attached to them, along with a survival kit, as fast as possible. But first they have to lose the parachute.

Misawa’s fliers were pulled backward from a rope off the back of a motorboat, a drill simulating the drag of a parachute. They had to scrunch in a ball to create an air pocket in order to detach their harness from the rope.

“The bad thing about the parachute is it will sink,” Rehms said. “If they get tangled up in it, it will take them down.”

Once in the raft, they can radio for help, set off flares or release sea dye to help rescuers find them.

After an hour in the water, a drenched Lt. Col. Pete Zuppas, 35th Operations Group deputy commander, remarked that the training was time well spent.

“It’s like buying a little insurance,” he said. “In case you ever have to do it, it could save your life.”

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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