Getting the vector: tanker aircrews receive life-saving training

LAKE PLEASANT, Ariz. -- More than 60 Airmen from the Phoenix-based 161st Air Refueling Wing participated in classroom and hands-on water survival training here, May 7.

The pilots and boom operators who fly the wing’s eight assigned KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft all over the globe are required to practice what they would do if they were forced to ditch their aircraft at sea.

Although the training course, conducted every two years at the wing, is essentially a refresher course, Master Sgt. Monica Martinez, Aircrew Flight Equipment, life support noncommissioned officer-in-charge, emphasized its importance. 

“The training is life sustaining,” she said. “The aircrew needs to know how to be able to utilize the equipment when their life depends on it. They need to know what equipment is on the aircraft, how to use it and what changes have taken place. The aircrew needs to make sure their training is up to date.”

The instruction was broken into a classroom portion and a hands-on portion, with most of the hands-on training taking place in the water.

During the hands-on portion, Soldiers from the Arizona Army National Guard Detachment 2, Company G, 2-238th Aviation, provided a real-world feel to the training by flying a UH-60 Black Hawk over the desert hills. The aircrew utilized radios and compasses to vector in the helicopter rescue crew and then signaled them with flares and smoke.  

Tech. Sgt. Johnathan Meyers, a 161st Operations Group boom operator, said the training was invaluable since he doesn’t always get hands-on with the equipment.

“You hear the acronyms and other training stuff, but to actually hold a flare - see and feel what is happening with it – is much more beneficial,” said Meyers. “If anything catastrophic actually does happen, being able to hold a flare to signal the rescue team, actually use the radios to vector them in and to feel the shock of jumping into cold water - while not as cold as it’d be in the North Atlantic - helps you better understand what you may have to do and what your body would go through. You can learn things and theorize about them, but to actually do it and see it is totally different; it prepares you both physically and mentally.” 

Martinez said being prepared for a mishap over water can literally mean the difference between life and death. 

“If the aircrew are in the raft and it has a hole in it, having physically performed the task will better prepare them to know how to quickly use the patch kit and pump,” she said. 

During the classroom portion, Airmen from the wing’s aircrew flight equipment shop went over each item contained in the survival kit, which is loaded onto the aircraft before every overwater flight. They also received self-aid buddy care training.

Martinez said the classroom portion is just as important as the hands-on as some people are visual learners and it is important to provide both.

Three Airmen from the 944th Aeromedical Staging Squadron from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, also participated in the training to prepare for an upcoming deployment.

Lt. Col. David Hume, a 944th ASTS pilot, said they really appreciated the 161st allowing them to participate. He said since they will soon be flying operational, the experience was especially meaningful.

“If something goes wrong, as the aircrew, we need to know exactly how to respond,” he said. “I’ve never vectored in a [helicopter], so that was great. It was also great being able to go over all the equipment in the survival bag.”

Martinez said everyone involved performed great and had a good time doing it. 

“I know every time we come out here they learn something new, something different and take away a little more,” she said. “It’s very important training and I’m glad we can provide it to the aircrew.”