One of the things often said about Serving in the Air Force is that the Training is a cake walk. While that is true for most of the Branch, there is a level of Training for those careers in Combat and Combat Support that is comparable to the Army or even the Marines.
During my time as an F-16 C/D Crew Chief, I had to participate in Chemical Warfare and Rapid Response Training. Not only did I have to know how to use the chemical gas protection gear on myself, I had to differentiate the type of Gas used. Sometimes it was designated by Color, others by a scent. Of course if you could smell it you were already a “casualty”. In most cases, we had 3 minutes to get our Protection Gear on and the Fighter Jets off the ground. It seems simple enough upon first hearing, but the actual practice is quite complicated.
Chemical Warfare has been a staple of every War since 1915. By 1989, my Training included Gases which produced horrific casualties. Blood Agents, Nerve Agents, and Mustard Gas. By the time I arrived on the Flight Line, during my very first War Week, our Military Scientists had already neutralized the known Blister Agents. In Basic Training and Technical School, we trained on all the Chemical Gases, although we spent all our time with eyes glued to books and the donning of Chemical Warfare Gear. It was on the Flight Line that I learned how to operate in the suit, like running without stumbling. Crew Chiefs rely on all of their senses when dodging Fighter Aircraft on the Ground. The learning curve for Chem Gear is steep on the Flight Line.
The Combat Helmet is a requirement at all times during Training. This is really fun when, as a Crew Chief, you must maintain Communication with the Pilot while awaiting Ground Launch to End of Runway. Keeping a metal helmet and a Comms Unit operational with the Mask and breather attached to your face like an Alien is nearly impossible. Between the Limited visibility and the bulky suit, a girl is literally relying on luck that she doesn’t slip down the intake of a running F-16 Falcon. Chemical Warfare training with dangerous Weapons of War is as real as it gets without actually getting shot at by an unknown Enemy.
My most memorable War Week Training was in 1989 when we had War every 6 weeks. The idea being our Aircraft Maintenance Unit remained Combat Ready for the entire week of Training. Our unit, and the Flight Line, would be required to sustain simulated Perimeter Breaches and Structural Damage under hostile attack AND keep 24 Fighter Jets Mission Ready for immediate air support to “boots on the ground”. The USAF Security Forces, who would eventually morph into the USAF Global Force Protection by 2015. Also known as The Ravens, these units would fly in to protect the Flight Line for the duration of Training. Sometimes War Week lasted a month. For our War, there were at least 2 Ravens assigned to every Fighter Jet in the Squadron. That meant the plane, the pilot, and the Ground Crew.
The Training was structured so that we experienced all the combinations of proposed attack scenarios: Levels 1 through 4. It was Level 4 that was the hardest Training Scenario. The Hostile Attacks always breached the Operating Base and we had to not only wear Chem Gear, but we had to do it while launching Jets and running around a busy chaotic Flight Line with limited visibility.
The level 4 Training was very Real. Sometimes paint balls were used, always in Red. We knew they were paint balls because the “gunfire” had a distinctly different sound than the M-16, even in semi automatic mode. The “flash-bang” grenades were treated with various color smoke, to help us identify the chemical used, but the sounds were always as “real life” as possible. This was meant to have us Trained to support Fighter Jets assigned to Close Air Support in a Chemical Warfare Environment.
“It’s just fireworks. Just fireworks without the pretty colors. Yea, fireworks but on the ground” was what I told myself during War Week.
In the never-ending cycle of War Training, only twice I failed to make it into the Bunker on time, and twice I was swept up by a Raven in Training. While Most people would be excited to get up close and personal with a Special Forces Airman, the reality was, if you saw them you were already a casualty. However, Those rare interactions taught me well on the Flight Line. Soon, I was getting through the War Weeks without skipping a beat.
The first time I ran into a Raven was a Level 2 Alarm. We were only 2 days into our first week of training when the Security Forces began infiltrating our Flight Line. Our unit had already been hit once with simulated sabotage and I was determined to keep my jet from getting hit. I began watching the other squadron units, and identified the small window the Ravens used to “tag” a jet. If I was going to lose my jet for the training, then the Black Bird would have a clipped wing. By dragging my feet during the Level 2 alarms, I was able to watch down the Flight Line where other units were under simulated attack. I kept an eye out for the same patterns on my own little piece of tarmac. Sometimes just being under the jet prevented a tag. By dragging my feet, my own Security Force Team would be watching me, inching closer and closer, to drag me into the bunker. At the same time our Unit Perimeter would be breached. Instantly, the Hostile Forces were Tagged Out, my Jet was clean and my butt was hauled into a Maintenance Van and off the Flight Line. Our Unit was soon moving on to Level 3 Alarms, and our SF Unit was gaining Points. Tags and Points were the goals of War Week. It would be many years later before I appreciated the irony of comparing a human life to a $24m fighter jet in simulated war.
Inevitably, the “enemy” would recognize me as female. Most of the Security Forces in the Region knew this particular Base had female crew chiefs on the Recon Jets, but other Branches and SF Units came in from across the country or even Europe to play War Week. It was those Security Forces who were surprised by our presence, unaware we were Crewing Jets with a Combat Support Mission. The Marines and the Army Units who were assigned to infiltrate our base or secure our jets were always derailed when the Chemical Mask came off.
“Jesus! You’re a female!”
It was a Raven assigned to my Jet that showed me how to clip my mask to my belt so I could Suit Up while still under the F-16 center line.
“No matter what position you are in, you can always reach the mask”
He was right. I never fumbled with my mask again.
It was a Raven who trained me to “disappear” on the Flight Line.
“if you get stuck out here, jump in side the jet and stay down”
As soon as the Simulated Bombs went off, I would climb inside the F-16 Intake, pull the engine cover in behind me and wait out the fight. While I was alone in the dark, my Chemical Mask on, my gloves and boots securely wrapped per the Training, I would hear the M-16 gunfire, boots running by the outside of the jet and loud explosions. I never knew if they were firing real or “flash-bang” grenades. It really didn’t matter, all I cared about was the All Clear siren so I could get out of the intake and check into the Bunker.
The terrifying reality was that if my mask wasn’t on by the time the Alarm ended, I would already be dead from the Chemical Agent. I used to lay there, waiting out the Attack, imaging how long it would take them to find a dead body in the intake. Would they start the engines without an inspection because the engine cover was on? What if there are multiple dead bodies in an intake…. The maudlin possibilities of The Real Thing would run through my head until the All Clear Alarm sounded. I wondered if there would be an All Clear Alarm when The Real Thing Happened.
My War Week Training in late Summer 1989 brought everything the Ravens had taught me into stark focus. We got the alarm for a Level 4 attack with perimeter Breach and an embedded Suicide Bomber somewhere on the Flight Line. We all assumed correctly that the Hostile was under one of the Jets.
I actually made it into the Bunker on the Incoming Alarm, because my Mask was clipped properly to my belt. I got suited up and back into the make shift bunker before the Level 4 Alarm finished. After several hours trapped under a 2-1/2ft high camouflage awning with 3 other Crew Chiefs, we got the All Clear. The Alarm Sounded, and the four of us ran to the 300 yards to the Flight Line. We began inspecting our Jets for damage and then prepare for Launch. Just my luck, I found a “bleeding soldier” wearing flight line fatigues and Air Force Insignia with a Red Beret draped over the front wheel well of my jet. I made the assumption that we were being graded on Field CPR, so I was ticking off the steps for stabilizing the Airman and calling for Back Up.
As I approached from the left, my Jet and I were physically surrounded by men with M-16s and Side Arms drawn on us. I began to groan internally because I was now “Out” and headed to “The Graveyard” where I would be assigned some unbelievably horrific duty far beneath my status as an F-16 Crew Chief. Security Forces rushed the Soldier. As I moved forward, I recognized one of the SF Airmen from previous War Training. Our eyes locked for a nano-second, when he snapped to some one standing literally over my head “Get her out of here”.
“Her?” I heard from above and behind me.
The SF pointed at me.
Suddenly an enormous hand came down and grabbed my entire shoulder. One moment I was looking at a wounded Soldier in the Wheel Well of my Jet, then I was in the air, and the next moment I was standing in front of the biggest Security Forces Airmen I have ever seen in my life. He let go of my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said “RUN!”
I didn’t hesitate I turned and began running back to the Flight Line Bunker. As I was running, I heard a man say
“I didn’t know we were sending women this time”
The simulated Combat Training with Chemical Warfare was every bit as stressful and rigorous as The Real Thing. At a time when Women were only attached to Special Operations Groups, to “test” our integration into all Male Combat Support Roles, I was one of the first Women actively working & training in the Environment. War Week Training taught me I was always safe on the Flight Line, even if I deployed to “the Sand Box”. There would always be a Raven protecting me, protecting my Falcon.