Camp Gruber hosts Air Assault Course

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

by Oklahoma National Guard

Oklahoma Frontline

CAMP GRUBER, Okla. – Soldiers and Airmen rappel from UH-60 “BlackHawk” helicopters as a final test following two grueling weeks of air assault training at Camp Gruber.  The Oklahoma National Guard hosts aviators and trainers from around the country every few years to conduct the air assault training program.

Despite the freezing temperatures, heavy rains and thunderstorms, the servicemembers have undergone extensive training such as combat marches while carrying all necessary combat equipment, learning how to rig and inspect sling loads, make Swiss seats for rappelling and proper repelling techniques.

Before the 203 students were admitted into the air assault school, they had to survive “zero day,” an intense physical test designed to separate those who were able to endure the rigid training requirements.  Approximately 25 percent of attendees for the air assault school dropped out after either the pre-qualification obstacle course or two-mile run.

“It’s the challenge; I wanted to see how far I could push myself,” said Cadet Kelsea Schultz, an Oklahoma State University ROTC candidate of Stillwater, Okla., and member of 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

Schultz moved through nine obstacles, including rope climbs, belly crawls, high climbing obstacles and more physically intense wooden structures. She said the obstacles weren’t the toughest; it was moving between obstacles that required the most energy.  When candidates moved to the next obstacle, often 50 yards away, they lunged, walked on all fours or performed another type of intense workout routine.

The last part of “zero day” is a full inspection of the servicemember’s equipment, making sure all necessary items were brought by each student and in good serviceable condition for the tough training days that lay ahead.

Acceptance into the air assault school isn’t a guarantee to the students who show up for the school; it’s earned by demonstrating commitment and the fortitude to complete the difficult challenges of “zero day.”  The students are only given two attempts to complete each of the nine obstacles.  Failing to finish two or more obstacles, or failing the initial obstacle, “The Tough One”, means that the Servicemember is removed from the course but is allowed to try again in another course at a later date.

“‘Zero day’ is the toughest day I’ve seen in any of the schools I’ve gone to,” said Sgt. Bryce Behrens, of Altus, Okla., and a member of the 171st Target Acquisition Battery, 45th Fires Brigade.

“A lot of people have trouble with “The Tough One”, the first rope climb obstacle,” Behrens added. “For me, it was the rope swing that was toughest; I had to do that one twice.”

The course is broken into three phases, each presenting its own challenges while pushing the students to physical exhaustion.  Phase one of the course is combat assault, familiarizing students with aircraft safety and orientation, hand and arm signals and combat assault operations with various attack helicopters.

“Air assault course covers all the different aircraft the Army uses, like close combat attack helicopters, as well as some aircraft from sister services,” said Sgt. 1st Class Wesley Colinger,  a member of the Kentucky Army National Guard and assistant air assault instructor for this class.

Surviving “zero day” and completing the first phase of air assault is still not a guarantee each student can expect to graduate and wear the coveted air assault badge on their uniform.  In phase two, students are expected to master sling load operations in which items such as vehicles, supplies and fuel are suspended under either a UH-60 “BlackHawk” or CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter for quick transportation. 

Sling load operations are vitally important in today’s combat missions, and the students are expected to thoroughly understand the process from beginning to end.  Air assault school teaches each servicemember the planning phase of sling load operations, proper rigging procedures, and how to inspect equipment and items being sling loaded.

The students must pass an in-depth written test and stringent hands-on assessment covering everything learned on sling load operations in order to move to phase three of the course.  Typically, another 20 percent of students are dropped from the course during this phase because of the high-level of difficulty.

Phase three focuses on rappelling, where the students learn how to make a Swiss seat rappelling harness and belay procedures.  During this phase, servicemembers complete several tower rappels from different heights and some while wearing all their combat gear.

“There are three days of rappelling,” said Colinger.  “The first day is on the ground with a small slant wall. The second day allows students to rappel from a tower and the third day is rappelling from a helicopter.”

A cold front passed through the area the night before the students conducted the helicopter rappel.  Cold and exhausted from two weeks of rigorous training, the students loaded into helicopters in groups of four to rappel from nearly 100 feet above ground. 

Schultz said freezing temperatures made simple tasks such as getting snapped in more difficult, but the adrenaline rush helped her get through each challenge.

Students can still be dropped from the course even during this final phase if they demonstrate a “fatal hook-up” when loading into the helicopter.  The students are expected to correctly prepare riggings and hook into the helicopter.  If an instructor spots a student with an incorrect rigging, the student can be removed from the course.

With the repelling phase behind them, the students of the air assault course must complete just one more draining task before they could graduate and wear the honored air assault badge on their Army uniform.  The servicemembers are required to complete a grueling 12-mile road march in three hours or less on the morning of graduation.

“I think the toughest part for me is going to be the 12-mile road march tomorrow,” Schultz said. “I think it’s going to be rough, but I’m going to get through.”

Considered to be one of the military’s elite specialty schools, every student is expected to be proficient in all areas of the course to earn an air assault badge.  The instructors push every Servicemember to their physical and mental breaking point during the course, ensuring every graduate has truly earned the air assault badge they sought out to achieve.

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