Training to survive: Dover reservists fly to Florida for Liberty Sands

  • Published
  • By Capt. Bernie Kale
  • 512th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

After wading through knee-deep swamp waters and hiding behind Florida foliage, the escaped prisoners should be rescued within the hour – Special Operations Forces were enroute.

Although this was a staged exercise scenario, the elements of Mother Nature and perseverance of 512th Airlift Wing reservists were very real.

About 100 members in 14 Air Force career fields from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, embarked upon Liberty Sands - a six-day, off-station training event for the 709th Airlift Squadron March 29 to April 2 at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.

Condensed Training

The training was designed to combine the typical instruction that would take place throughout the year into a one-week event, ensuring 709th AS reservists remain current for their ground and flying training requirements, said Lt. Col. Michael DeSantis, Acting 512th Operations Group commander.

“Having a group in an instructor-led training environment makes the most efficient use of both the reservists’ and the instructor’s time,” said DeSantis. “Most importantly, this accomplishes job number one – improving the mission readiness of the 512th (AW).”

During Liberty Sands, aircrew and ground personnel trained on 23 currency events, including Aircrew Chemical Refresher, Small Arms, Combat Survival and Water Survival.

The idea is if all aircrew become current at the same time, from that point on they will be due for training at the same time, allowing for larger future training events instead of one or two reservists at a time, said Master Sgt. Bobby Bottoms, a 709th AS loadmaster and Liberty Sands participant.

“It resets the clock for all our currency training,” said Bottoms. “It allows us all to be on the same page and know that the majority of us are all up-to-date and ready for global engagement.”

Intense Training

Whether they were avoiding the Florida waters or neck deep in it, Dover’s reservists were immersed in the training environment for up to 16 hours a day, conjuring realistic feelings of combat and being forced to react under stressful conditions.

The Chemical Refresher Training kicked off the week, when aircrews brushed-up on the decontamination process while moving from a compromised environment to a sanitized one. The four-hour training block facilitated hands-on instruction with the various chemical suits, protective masks and air flow systems, which provided them clean breathing air as they continued their mission.

Water training was another large-scale movement with two dozen aircrew jumping into a 12-foot deep pool, wearing flight suits and helmets, simulating a real-world water emergency.  Members became knowledgeable in life raft procedures, swimming together and deploying canopies for protection from the elements while floating in open waters.

Although rolling thunderstorms, lightning and wind prevented them from “playing” in the ocean, the Airmen were flexible and able to think on their toes, said DeSantis.

“Watching how agile our reservists are in a dynamically changing environment was one of the highlights for me,” said DeSantis. “The quality of instruction, facilities and equipment was excellent, which allowed us to inject some realism to the training.”

Agile Airmen

Along with uncooperative weather, some logistical challenges were present as well. Some coordination between different organizations and attempting to sync up moving pieces in the training environment for the first time proved a challenge, said Bottoms.

“There were some teething issues with this fly-away,” he added. “It was treated like a deployment, so everyone moved around as a single, large group. So, there was a steep learning curve.”

Fortunately for Bottoms, he needed all of the training provided during the trip which saves future Unit Training Assemblies from time-consuming, one-instructor specific training.

“Ironically, the specialized training we need during the UTAs aren’t typically provided during UTAs,” said Bottoms. “It’s something you have to come in for during the week, since the 436th Airlift Wing has the instructors.”

Personnel and instructors from the 436th AW attended the fly-away to provide support for the reserve aircrews, ensuring they were current in vital areas for a world-wide deployable qualification.  

Strong Finish

The final day proved to be the longest and toughest for the trainees. It included small arms 9mm pistol qualifying, hand-to-hand combat and Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training, exposing service members to evading capture and survival skills.

SERE instructors from active-duty Air Force and water survival instructors from the Navy helped provide a seamless, multi-service cadre that facilitated excellent in-depth training, said DeSantis.

Combat Arms reservists from the 512th Security Forces Squadron facilitated the weapons qualifications course. Every member who fired the 9mm pistol officially qualified for Air Force pistol weapons handling, reinforcing the ideal that the reserve aircrews are ready for deployment at a moment’s notice.

 After the trainees handed in their guns, they turned to something more primitive – their hands.

The 512th AW reservists went through a series of combat drills, from punching a torso named “Bob” to grappling full-sized, 100-pound dummies in the grass. Most of the reservists who went through the gauntlet of blows were out of breath by the end of their short training, expending what little energy they had left to share with their wingmen about the landed punches.

“You were amped up on adrenaline, so you didn’t really think about it when you were punching the dummies,” said Tech. Sgt. Karista Lowrey, of the 512th Force Support Squadron and 1 of 13 ground support troops at Liberty Sands. “But after the training was over, you began to feel how much effort you actually put into it.”

The scenario was meant to be up-close and personal, since escaping potential captors could be the most intense moment of the trainee’s life, a SERE instructor said during the training.

“I can’t say enough positive things about the men and women who made this (training) possible,” said DeSantis. “The success of this trip is a direct result of the flexibility and foresight from these planners.”

Grand Finale

The aircrew were brought into a classroom where the blinds and doors were closed; and, after a series of intense and sensitive training sequences, they were captured and loaded into a van and driven to a wooded area, where they escaped into the Florida everglades in an attempt to evade their captors.

For the next five hours, the reservists used their ingenuity, teamwork and SERE training to flee through the swamp and await rescue. Three teams of seven used a radio, compass and map to plot their way to the rescue pick-up point. The teams took turns as “lead,” radioing into the makeshift headquarters and receiving new coordinates all while avoiding detection from the simulated enemy, played by instructors and ground crew dressed in different colored camouflage.  

Although there were snake sightings and armadillo detours, everyone made it out cold and wet – but qualified.