By 2Lt. Elias Zani, 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 20, 2014
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- I think of myself as a relatively fit and adventurous person. I was raised near Cincinnati, Ohio, where I have raced every distance I could find up to a full marathon. I went to school at the University of Tennessee, hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, backpacking through the Smokies and rock climbing by the Obed River. I graduated from the University of Cincinnati where I continued running races. None of my outdoor endeavors, nor my current level of fitness, could have fully prepared me for Arctic Survival School here at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
Arctic Survival School, commonly known as "Cool School," is a five-day course designed to prepare students to survive in a frozen wilderness.
Taught by survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists from Detachment 1 of the 66th Training Squadron, the class is mandatory for flight crew members that will be flying over arctic terrain, but it is open to all military members.
The class is split into two days of classroom instruction and three days in the field.
The instruction given in the classroom was helpful, but the survival aspect became much more of a reality as we were thrown out into the cold. I was fortunate that the temperature only dropped around 15 below zero, because the class operates at 50 below and colder.
We hiked about a half mile into the wilderness on a Wednesday and all of us were having a good time at that point. The cold had not yet set in and we were fully hydrated with clean water. The beginning of the trip reminded me of hanging out with my buddies, backpacking through the "cold" of a Tennessee winter. We even received a can of pasta for lunch the first day. Things didn't seem too bad.
Wednesday we learned how to start a fire. All of us were required to do so and after knocking down a spruce tree, cutting it into pieces with a handsaw and using the "Alaska Split" where we quartered the wood by hitting it against another tree. We then split it further with a fixed blade and another piece of wood, there were 10 tiny fires. In total, it took about two hours before we all had a small flame going. The class was getting tougher.
I've never hunted and being from rural Ohio then transitioning to East Tennessee, that's uncommon, but we also learned how to set up snares for small game, like squirrels and rabbits.
We worked all day and it was exhausting. I quickly realized this course was not a fun backpacking trip, the cold breeze biting my nose assured me of that. In the cold, with snow thigh deep (sometimes deeper), everything is more difficult. That night we slept with a tarp over us and there was a root in my back due to poor planning on my group's end. It was miserable.
The class woke up at 6 a.m. to take down the tarps and get ready for the day. Untying knots was impossible without the dexterity of bare hands, but as you took off your gloves the cold took away any dexterity. Everything takes longer in the cold.
Our breakfast consisted of whatever we had saved from the MRE the night before. I had a single toaster pastry, not my typical protein-packed cottage cheese and fruit breakfast. That would keep me full all morning.
We began construction on our shelters, the thermalized A-frame. I was the slow one of the group. After digging through multiple feet of snow, I found bare earth. This would help keep my shelter at a minimum of 18 degrees throughout the night. We built the frame and ribbed it with pre-cut logs. I was thankful the logs were pre-cut, a luxury I would not have in a real-life situation, but hauling them to my shelter in multiple feet of snow was more of a workout than any of my eight mile runs have ever been. I was exhausted. After the tarp went over the logs, we covered all the shelters with eight inches of snow, for insulation.
We learned to start another fire using birch, our knives and a ferrocerium rod, also known as a metal match. Ideally we would do this in dry conditions, not with multiple feet of snow on the ground, but the class was not intended to be easy. As the snow fell we started our "dry" fires much quicker than the fires the day before. We were starting to get the hang of it.
We checked the snares that we had set the day before and found a partially frozen squirrel hanging from one - dinner.
As the squirrel cooked over an open fire, we learned how to shoot flares while wearing our oversized mittens. Over half of them misfired, which we were told is common in extreme cold conditions. Relying on these flares to signal for rescue in a real-world situation would be a feat.
Sleeping that night in the A-frame was better, but it was still miles away from my warm queen-size bed at home. We all slept poorly again.
Friday we woke up, excited that we would get to leave the field and go back to the warm classroom. I was dreaming about cheeseburgers all day.
After disassembling our shelter, we radioed for help as a helicopter from Fort Wainwright flew overhead. The red smoke from our flares wouldn't rise above the canopy, so we had to build a fire to elevate the signal. They found us!
A mile-long hike back to the road, including a dauntingly steep hill, marked the end of our journey. Class was soon over -- we had graduated.
Though the course was challenging and it was much more difficult than I anticipated, it was worth it. As a public affairs officer I will most likely never need this training, but it's an experience you cannot get anywhere else. It helps build a more well-rounded Airman and I highly recommend it.
Detachment 1 employs some of the most knowledgeable SERE specialists who will not let you fail. So even if you have never done something like this, get out there, explore Alaska and learn how to survive.
Classes start in November and last through March, if you are interested in going to Cool School, contact your Unit Training Manager.