Misawa pilots gain survival know-how with SERE training
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady had it before ejecting over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995.
So did Navy and Air Force crewmembers aboard a Navy P-3C that made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island in 2001 after colliding with a Chinese fighter.
Capt. Steve Tittel, a Misawa F-16 pilot, has had it, but hasn’t used it yet.
“It” is SERE — the survival, evasion, rescue, and escape training given aviators in all branches of service — tips and pointers that can save their lives.
At Misawa, Tech. Sgt. Tim Foster is the “go-to” man for SERE training. He’s one of only two such instructors in mainland Japan; the other is at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo.
Foster is a rare breed. He is one of 300 Air Force SERE specialists who provide survival training aimed at pilots who might find themselves in remote or hostile environments far from the safe cocoon of the cockpit.
“I grew up in Golden, Colo., and was always out camping; that’s what got me interested in the survival field,” says Foster, a 15-year veteran of SERE training.
Foster also recently was named 2002 SERE instructor of the year for Pacific Air Forces. His reaction: “I just did my job.”
Early in their careers, Foster said, Air Force pilots attend a 17-day survival course at Fairchild Air Force Base in eastern Washington state, where basic survival and evasion skills are taught.
“When they get to assignments like Misawa, we give them additional refresher training periodically that takes into consideration local conditions,” he said.
For Misawa pilots, that means flying over icy ocean waters and mountains — and possibly having to eject over such inhospitable terrain if the single-engine F-16 ever seriously malfunctions.
With 1,300 hours of F-16 flight time under his belt, Tittel says he appreciates Foster’s efforts.
“It’s a great thing to have in your hip pocket if the worst should happen,” he said. “It’s absolutely indispensable to have this knowledge.”
Tittel said he never has had to eject from an aircraft, and so never has had to test what survival training he’s learned.
“I prefer it stay that way,” he said — while looking for some wood to knock on.
Foster also provided survival and evasion tips to Misawa pilots deploying to Southwest Asia for Operation Southern Watch, which morphed into Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I teach them how to hide any signs of their presence if they land in hostile territory,” he said. “They have to get rid of the parachute, harness, a life raft and a rucksack — between 50 and 100 pounds in all.”
Pilots are taught to bury or camouflage equipment as the first step in evading possible capture, he said.
“It’s an excellent course,” said Tittel, a 14th Fighter Squadron “Samurai” pilot who recently returned from a stint of desert duty. “It’s pretty stringent and challenging.”
Foster said all pilots here carry a rucksack holding a bonanza of lifesaving gear. Stowed beneath the cockpit seat, it goes along when an explosive charge ejects seat and pilot from the plane.
“It holds a poncho, space blanket, desert hat, wool socks, a first aid kit and 14 packets of water,” he said.
Also inside: a whistle for signaling, flashlight, infrared strobe light, flares, fire starter, radio beacon and a survival manual. In the pilot’s survival vest are global positioning satellite radios, including a type Foster said he helped to test in Alaska in 1995.
He said survival training given pilots today is part of Code of Conduct training. The code embodies principles set forth to guide hundreds of U.S. prisoners of war, and potential prisoners, for almost 45 years.
Article two, says Foster, epitomizes the need for survival training: To avoid surrender and to evade capture at any cost short of death.
During televised coverage of the war in Iraq, Foster said, he sometimes wondered if those taken hostage, notably the seven 507th Maintenance Supply soldiers who eventually were freed after a week of captivity, had received SERE training.
All U.S. services give troops survival training tailored to their specific missions but the Iraqi POWs “probably didn’t have the resistance training since they weren’t aircrew members,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t want to be in that situation myself.”