Snow for a Shelter and Ice for a Bed
Survival training for US airmen in the Arctic is not just a job; it's an ordeal
ICE STATION RUBY, GREENLAND — `In the Arctic one's job is accomplished against a backdrop of continual struggle - continual struggle for existence. A great deal depends on the individual. If he gives less than his best he is finished, and his failure may be fatal to the men of his outfit as well
as to himself.'
- Peter Freuchen, Danish Arctic explorer
THERE is only so much to do when an aircraft goes down in the Arctic: build a shelter, activate distress signals, secure food and water. Then the waiting starts. Stop moving and the cold seeps into boots, gnaws through gauntlets, and nestles in between layers of clothing. Beards and eyelashes crust with frost. Blinking becomes difficult.
To pass time as much as to warm stinging toes, faceless ``survivors,'' hidden beneath layers of bland grayish-green bulk, shuffle around the ``racetrack,'' a circle in the snow, their clumsy boots crunching the snow with a sound like ice cracking in a spring thaw.
This is ``Cool School,'' Arctic survival training for the 109th Air National Guard unit from Scotia, N.Y. It's not just a job; it's an ordeal. For 50 hours, the students endure continuous exposure to minus 35 degrees F off the coast of northeastern Greenland, learning how to use the resources from their aircraft and the environment to sustain themselves in an emergency.
Taught by four active-duty airmen from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, Cool School is an adaptation of the Arctic survival training course they teach 20 weeks each year in the woods outside Fairbanks, Alaska. The course includes a full day of classroom briefings on the environment, clothing, shelter, signaling, and cold injuries, followed by a minimum of two days in survival conditions.
The 109th airlift group flies missions for the armed forces and National Science Foundation to both the North and South Poles and is one of only two United States military units capable of landing cargo aircraft on skis. All flight crew members are required to complete the training at some point in their guard service; 23 braved the cold at this year's session last month.
``We prepare for war, but hope we won't have to go,'' Lt. Col. Manuel Pereira says, hunched over in a half-dug snow cave that, when finished, would be his shelter for the night. ``This is the same. We train to survive in these conditions, but hope we won't have to do the real thing.''
A crowded parachute snowhouse quickly fills with a strange, orange-tinted fog from too much breathing as its builders gather inside to taste the first fruits of their survival efforts: 0 degrees F. Warmth is relative.
Two hours earlier, a C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft had dropped the survival group at this ice station, a sparse naval-science outpost at the base of a towering iceberg in the mouth of Independence Fiord.
On the first day in survival mode, the students' tasks included building two community shelters and stoves to heat water and food. The group divided into two teams.
The parachute snowhouse is a circular wall of snow blocks five feet high with a snow column in the middle to support two parachutes that form a double-layered canopy over the top. The other shelter is a circular wall around a 20-man life raft and its canopy, with a parachute over the top.
Assembling his team inside the snowhouse, instructor Staff Sgt. Joseph Holmes reviews some of the survival basics. ``So, what have we done?'' he asks. ``What we've done is we've taken the resources you might have on your aircraft, such as these parachutes or the life raft in the other shelter, and the resources of the environment, the well-packed snow, to build a shelter.''
The Air Force defines survival as maintaining normal body temperature. ``You may not be comfortable,'' another instructor, Airman Gerald Fisher, tells his group as they jostle one another to fit into the life raft, ``but you will survive.''
The students are taught to use resources from their aircraft and from the environment to sustain themselves.
``Survival is a thinking man's game,'' Sergeant Holmes says. ``The biggest problem I see in students is a lack of confidence in themselves and their equipment. They don't take care of their needs.''
Those needs are basic: personal protection, sustenance, resistance, and escape. But in the Arctic, even the basic is difficult.
Take drinking water, for example. Despite providing an abundant water source, the Arctic is an extremely dry environment. Turning snow or ice into drinking water is no simple challenge.
Cool School offers two solutions. First, every student wears a three-pint water pouch around his neck, tucked between layers of clothing. The student fills the pouch with snow and uses body warmth to melt it. This presents two problems: An uncomfortable lump of snow continually bounces one clothing layer off the chest, and pouches that tend to freeze and crack. Leakage in subzero temperatures is not desirable.
The second method of making drinking water is to melt snow or ice over stoves. This may require the survivor to improvise a stove from materials found on the aircraft. An empty can filled with sand from the aircraft's wheel chocks and saturated with aircraft fuel makes a stove that will burn for a few hours. A wire splint from a first-aid kit can be used to form a grill to support a second can filled with ice over the flame.
Another basic need made difficult is clothing. The key words here are ``loose'' and ``layered.'' Layers must be regulated carefully to reflect levels of activity. Overdressing while building a snow cave causes sweat. The warmth may feel great at that moment, but the moisture quickly freezes.
Cool School teaches the values and functions of natural and synthetic fibers. A parka hood lined on the outside rim with fleece will keep warm air inside. Draw strings around the waist prevent warm air from bellowing up through the neck. Oversized vapor-barrier boots insulate well, but lock in sweat, and socks must be changed frequently.
``Clothing is everything,'' says student Capt. Tom Esposito, sitting near a can of burning diesel in the parachute snowhouse. He is covered head to toe in soot.
Then there is shelter. When an aircraft goes down, survivors must assess the environment they have landed in. If caught in a storm, immediate-action shelters are necessary. These may include the aircraft fuselage, large rocks or trees, icebergs, ice-pressure ridges (which serve as wind breaks), or even ponchos. But these are only temporary, and better insulated structures must eventually be made. Eight inches of hard-packed snow provides better insulation than a metal fuselage.
On the second day in the field, Cool School students built two-man shelters. Since a frozen ocean provides no trees, there were three options: fighter trenches, which are ditches dug the length of the body and covered with a pitched roof made from snow blocks; snow caves; and igloos. All three shelters utilize snow insulation and the radiant temperature of the ocean below.
In addition to addressing the basics - staying alive and relatively warm - students are taught to employ whatever means available for escaping their situation. These include various forms of signaling.
Most aircraft stock satellite beacons, which patch distress signals into an international emergency system. But the survivor must also know how to use visible signals, including snow signs and signal mirrors. A large V or X made of properly angled snow blocks will cast a shadow visible to passing aircraft.
Is the training worth the frost? Capt. David Koltermann thinks so. As a pilot with the 109th, he spends as much as six weeks a year on missions to either pole.
``Cool School is a requirement, but people tend to put it on the back burner,'' he says. ``I knew the Arctic was kind of cold, and that it was survivable. But I was not prepared for being cold all the time.''
Captain Koltermann says flight crews receive annual life-support training, which quickly reviews the arctic-survival gear standard on every aircraft they fly: saws, food, sleeping bags, first-aid kits, and so on. But the training does not give crews experience with equipment in survival conditions, an experience that boosts confidence.
In the early hours after the second night in snow shelters, Capt. Karen Love could no longer stand the pain in her feet. So she emerged from her fighter trench and hobbled over to the maintenance tent, where a stove provided warmth in case of emergency. Others were already there. All of them had slept in trenches and had war stories. The trenches were too shallow, they complained, and their breath snowed back on them. Some had tried to warm the shelters with heating blocks, but the fumes forced them to evacuate. Most described feeling claustrophobic.
``I didn't sleep all night,'' Captain Love said. ``I kept rubbing my feet together all night but couldn't get them warm.''
Their faces rusty red from the cold and sooty from the improvised stoves, they looked like soldiers at the end of a battle, weary but conscious that the end was near. As they thawed out, conversation gradually moved from horror stories of their nights in the ``crypts'' to jokes.
One of the male students found a popular magazine on the tool shelf and opened to a page featuring an attractive woman sunbathing. The others gathered around.
``Look that this,'' one of them said.
``Yeah, I'd give anything to be sitting on that beach,'' said another.
``Sure is a nice beach,'' added a third.
Once warmed, the students slowly disappeared under layer after layer of dried clothing, carefully covering everything but their eyes. Then, one by one, each slipped back outside, back to the ``racetrack'' to ward off the cold and wait for the instructors to rise.