Movement and contrast. Crouching in the undergrowth, I kept reminding myself that these two things give you away to a pursuer every time.
Gunfire echoed through trees ahead of us. The rounds were blanks fired by my instructors at the Air Force Survival School. They were pretending to be enemy troops searching for downed American fliers.
My two partners and I listened as the bad guys captured some of our classmates less than a mile ahead of us. Their shouts were closer than I wanted them to be.
“Over there! Two Americans!”
Another burst of automatic weapons fire.
“Hit the ground, pig! Get your face in the dirt!”
My map showed open ground ahead of us. Our captured classmates must have been spotted in the open.
We now had to remain absolutely still and hope our camouflage uniforms and face paint prevented any color contrast with the woods. There was nothing to do but wait out the enemy, then make our way around the meadow. I wanted to see whether the map showed a safe course, but I couldn’t risk even the noise of crinkling paper.
Several minutes passed in silence. Hearing no shouts, we began to breathe more easily.
Too soon. We heard one person’s footsteps, getting louder and coming our way. We did not dare turn our heads. I began to worry that sweat might have erased some of my face paint. There was nothing I could do about it now.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a man with a rifle walk to the edge of a small clearing. He looked slowly from side to side. He turned away. He never saw us.
Games of hide-and-seek in the Colville National Forest north of Spokane are part of three weeks of Survival School instruction. The goal is to increase a downed flier’s chances of making it out of hostile territory or remote areas.
Capt. Scott O’Grady is one of the school’s better-known graduates. The F-16 pilot’s rescue in Bosnia in June 1995 is a textbook example of how survival and recovery techniques work. A native of Spokane, he survived six days eating bugs and grass and drinking rainwater after being shot down.
The survival courses are mandatory for air crew members and any others deemed to be at high risk of capture. The course work is based on lessons learned the hard way in Europe, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
Early in the classroom portion of the training, students receive what amounts to the thesis statement of Survival School, the survivor’s mission:
“To return to friendly control without giving aid or comfort to the enemy; to return early and in good physical and mental condition.”
Easy to say, but sometimes hard to do.
We had to learn many back-to-nature skills that are far from our rarefied technical world of altitudes, airspeeds, hydraulic pressures and turbine temperatures.
For example, if ill fortune forces you from the cockpit to the ground, water becomes a top priority. You can last a month without food, but only a few days without water. So you learn to watch the birds. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, some kinds of birds fly to water sources.
Finding water in my own six days of field training was easier than that; streams coursed down the mountains. But their gurgling hid the sound of our enemy’s approach. I dreaded every stream crossing. In a survival-and-evasion environment, even drinking is a calculated risk.
Depending on climate, you also need shelter. A flier’s bailout provides the perfect material for a tent: a parachute.
On our first night in the woods, it rained as seven of us made camp. But even slightly porous material sheds water when pulled tight and placed at an angle.
I passed the night dry and fairly comfortable under part of a chute canopy. And, for the first few days, our group had the relative luxury of an instructor and a trainee instructor to ease us into our wilderness experience.
I became less comfortable as hunger set in. The school had provided each of us with three Meals Ready to Eat and a handful of granola bars--hardly my idea of a week’s rations.
I wanted to conserve my MREs, and I waited two days before breaking into them. In the meantime, I grew hungry enough to overcome what the survival school calls “food aversions.” Evergreen needles became a staple for me.
“They make better tea than salad,” an instructor said.
I was too hungry to care.
Later, during a navigation exercise through the woods, we came across a stump crawling with ants.
“Here’s a food source,” the trainee instructor pointed out. “Ants taste like lemon drops.”
He was right. At that moment I would have eaten anything.
And had our situation been real, I would have given anything for rescue.
If I remember nothing else from survival school, I will not forget how to vector a helicopter to my position. Fieldcraft keeps you alive, but signaling and communication get you home.
During that portion of our training, I listened as the thumping of the chopper blades grew louder. I turned my compass around to take a bearing that would bring the pilot in my direction.
Reversing the compass is a small act, but it has huge consequences. If, in your excitement, you neglect to do it, you give the aircraft a heading that takes it directly away from you.
“Fly heading one-eight-zero,” I said over an emergency radio. A buddy signaled with a mirror.
“One-eight-zero,” repeated the pilot. In the distant sky, I saw a dark speck turn. The noise grew. The speck came nearer. But it was on a course that would miss me.
“New heading one-niner-zero,” I said. The speck made a slight turn and came fairly straight.
“You’ll overfly my position at my mark,” I said. The copter grew larger, then roared almost overhead.
“Three, two, one, mark,” I said. “Popping smoke.”
I pulled a tab attached to the igniter cord of a smoke grenade. Thick orange smoke billowed through the trees.
“Tallyho on your smoke,” said the pilot. Had this been a real rescue, salvation would have come down to simple mathematics.
Before the course ended, a senior instructor stood before our class and gave us a warning: “Every Air Force flier captured since this school began operating here has sat right in this room and thought, ‘It can’t happen to me.’ ”
Like most military fliers, I still believe it won’t happen to me. Without confidence, you cannot do this job. But I feel far better prepared for the worst.
For example, rough terrain seems less intimidating. I pounded over so much rocky ground that, for weeks afterward, I could not feel my toes.
And I remember some things--just in case. Like the cotton balls. If you carry a couple of cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly, you have tinder that will burn in the wettest forest.
And, of course, there’s the thing about turning the compass backward to bring in your ride home.
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An Associated Press reporter who is a flight engineer with the Maryland Air National Guard recently completed the Air Force’s Survival School and filed this first- person account. The story was submitted to military censors. Some of the school’s instructions are classified.