FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - With temperatures dropping below minus 20, soldiers here in Alaska brace for the long, cold winter where training doesn’t stop just because of a little snow on the ground.
Soldiers in Alaska must be Arctic tough to work and train in the cold during the day-to-day missions, as well as be prepared for anything that may spring up in a moment’s notice – none more so than soldiers with U.S Army Alaska’s Aviation Task Force.
Members of aviation units travel great distances over terrain that may or may not be accessible by motorized vehicles. For this reason, they must know how to survive in the elements if they ever crash or become stranded due to weather or mechanical problems.
This year, a new cold-weather course was introduced to the men and women of UATF designed specifically for aviators and their crews and taught by their own experts on subjects that would help them to survive in the Arctic if the need arose.
One of the instructors, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Rucker, CH-47 (Chinook) pilot currently serving as the aviation life-support officer for 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, said with the vast area of operations USARAK covers, this course was not only needed but asked for by several soldiers in the unit.
“This course is driven more towards aviators or those performing aviation duties,” said Rucker. “These individuals that can pick up from here and be hundreds of miles from this location in minutes versus days or weeks - that’s who this is geared towards.”
Many soldiers in Alaska attend a variety of cold-weather courses such as the Cold Weather Indoctrination Course, Cold Weather Leaders Course or the Cold Weather Orientation Course which, according to the Northern Warfare Training Center, are intended to prepare USARAK soldiers, mentally and physically, to operate safely and effectively in an inherently dangerous Arctic environment and train soldiers in critical skills required to conduct safe operations and training in Arctic environments.
Emphasis is placed on the effects of cold on personnel and materials, use of basic cold-weather clothing and equipment, winter field craft, snowshoe techniques and winter/cold regions navigation and route planning.
“This course has taken the CWIC one, two and three courses and redesigned (them) to give a survival spin to help out a lot of the aircrews that are flying around in the local flying area because we’ve got a pretty big flying area compared to a lot of installations,” said Rucker.
“For a lot of the soldiers in this class, this is the first time they have ever seen any of it,” he added. “For them to get this level of training, they would have to attend CWOC or CWLC and some type of survival school such as Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE).”
These soldiers learned tasks included in the regular cold-weather courses as well as aviation-specific tasks for survival, including how to recognize and prevent cold weather injuries, in-depth instruction on their survival kits, building shelters and starting fires to stay warm, food and water procurement, movement techniques for snow covered terrain, as well as aviation-specific tasks, like proper use of signaling devices to get help.
“A lot of people tend to think that deserts are the worst place they can find themselves. I would say that this is probably the worst. In this environment, without some type of training and a little bit of knowledge, it can kill you the quickest I think,” said Rucker. “There are places you can fly where you are not near any roads with no way to get to you quickly.”
He added, “A lot of the non-rated crew members have never had any type of formal survival training.”
Some of the survival tasks soldiers learned were not as easy as people may think.
According to Rucker, procuring water in Arctic conditions is not as easy as one may think.
“It’s very difficult to melt snow at a campfire,” said Rucker. “You can fill a canteen cup full of snow and set it on the side and think you’re going to have some water shortly.”
“Usually, what happens is, you char the outside of the cup long before the snow starts to melt,” he said.
Aside from learning skills and having knowledge on how to stay a life, soldiers with the UATF learned to trust and have confidence in their gear.
Aviators and crew members are issued uniforms that differ from ground troops due to the hazards and nature of their jobs.
The Fire Resistant Environmental Ensemble, or FREE gear, is the uniform for aviation crew members
“The reason a lot of our equipment looks different is that it’s specialized because of the nature of hazards and risks associated with our duties,” said Rucker.
“A lot of this course is getting them out there and getting them to trust the FREE because the FREE is kind of new,” he said. “They wear it a lot, but they never stay out long enough to trust it and instill the confidence it.”
“The FREE, was designed to compete with the (extended cold weather system),” he said. “It was designed to have the same protective properties as far as insulation. The only difference is they tried to get it down to fewer layers and all of the components in that system are inherently fire resistant.”
After the soldiers received classroom instruction and some hands-on exercises, they were taken to the NWTC Black Rapids training site for a field exercise where they learned more tasks and put what they learned to use.
“This is to take them out and get the exposure so they have something to come back and build upon on their own. They can learn from the mistakes or challenges they were given out in the field,” said Rucker. “The skills that we teach them are basic human skills.”
He said, “Having the courage to face the elements is great - but confidence is a much better tool to have and the only way to garner that confidence is to go out and learn so that the next time the odds are not in their favor, that confidence will help guide them through.”
Spc. Jacob Baldwin, a Black Hawk crew chief and mechanic for A Company, 1st Battalion, 52d Aviation Regiment, UATF, said he learned a lot.
“In my job, we fly around a lot and we don’t have a stationary place to go, so we learned a lot of stuff to get us through the night or even longer than one day,” he said.
Baldwin said his favorite part of the course was building thermal shelters, a small, two-man shelter built with items on hand and covered with snow for insulation.
“We got to build them and customize it to make it ours,” Baldwin said, “and we had to sleep in it.”
“It was cold at first, but once you get in your sleeping bag and you warm up, your body produces enough that it actually gets pretty toasty,” he said. “It was like negative 20 outside and above zero inside.”
Baldwin said he enjoyed the course and would definitely do it again if given the opportunity.