FORT PICKETT, Va. — As the sun rose on Fort Pickett’s Air Assault Obstacle Course Aug. 13, 2019, several hundred Soldiers were steaming in the morning’s muggy heat from their first physical challenge of the day, a two-mile run. That was just the beginning. From there, 238 Soldiers, plus a few Airmen and Sailors, tackled the obstacle course, challenging their strength, endurance and mental toughness as they climbed up, over, around and through nine obstacles. Those who were successful, earned a seat in Air Assault School; those who weren’t, went home.
“Air assault is a method of insertion,” explained Sgt. 1st Class Robert Summers, noncommissioned officer in charge of the course. Over 10 days, he and his staff, all from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center, led their students through a rigorous, three-phase, badge-producing course. The course teaches Soldiers air assault and sling-load operations, as well as rappelling techniques, and graduates Soldiers capable of maximizing the use of helicopter assets both in training and in combat.
“I was nervous every day,” said Spc. Joel Cruz, assigned to the Virginia National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division. “They prepare you really well, there’s really good at implementing education, but also anxiety.”
In the first phase of the course, students focused on the basics.
“We teach you what an air assault operation is. We teach you the different types of aircraft, the different capabilities of an aircraft and how to be safe when working in and around an aircraft,” Summers said. From there, it’s on to the sling-load phase, where students learn basic sling-load operations, how to rig and inspect a sling load, and then they move on to the final phase, the rappelling phase. “In Phase III, we teach them basic rappelling operations, like how to tie a hip rappel seat, how to hook yourself up,” Summer said. They start on the wall side of the rappel tower, gaining confidence in themselves and in their equipment, and then they move to the open side and, finally, they rappel from a helicopter. The final challenge is a 12-mile ruck march that must be completed in three hours or less.
“That’s usually the biggest challenge, physically, is the obstacle course, the four-mile run and then the 12-mile road march,” Summers said. “If you’re going to come to Air Assault School, you need to train and prepare your body for the physical requirements.”
While the Air Assault students were sweating it out on the Air Assault field, Soldiers enrolled in Pathfinder School were facing a different set of obstacles, these more mental in nature.
“Pathfinders insert ahead of the Soldiers in combat operations and establish drop zones or pick-up zones for helicopter operations,” explained 1st Sgt. Robert Ehrrich, Bravo Company first sergeant at the Warrior Training Center, which oversees both Air Assault and Pathfinder Schools. He explained that Pathfinder is a two-week, three-phase course. It trains Soldiers to provide navigational aid and advisory services to military aircraft and how to plan and organize air assault and airdrop operations. Topics covered include aircraft orientation, aero-medical evacuation, close combat assault, ground-to-air communication, sling load operations, helicopter landing and pick-up zone operations, drop zone operations and how to work with fixed and rotary wing aircraft assets.
“Pathfinder is very academically tough because of the calculations when it comes to developing the drop zones and the pick-up zones,” Ehrrich said. He explained that a lot depends on the type of aircraft they’re working with, the size of the rotors, what sort of load they may be dropping. “It’s academically touch because of the rules and memorization of the product. You have to be able to not only reference the material, but know the material and know they why behind it.”
At the Air Assault graduation, 148 Soldiers received their Air Assault Badges. Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas Conaway, the Army National Guard G3 Sergeant Major, spoke at the graduation ceremony.
“I congratulate each of you in your successful completion of Air Assault School,” Conaway said. “I wish to express my gratitude for having the intestinal fortitude to do what so many others fear.”
Traditionally, the youngest Soldier in assigned as the Wing Bearer of the class, carrying a pair of wings through the duration of the course. Spc. Angel Cortes, assigned to the Wisconsin National Guard, served in this role for the Fort Pickett class and was officially awarded his wings at the graduation ceremony. Cruz was named the distinguished honor graduate, earning the highest grade point average in the class, a 98.5%, and a first-time go on all tests. Spc. Nathan Roole, assigned to the Pennsylvania National Guard was the 12-mile foot march champion, completing it in 2:04.
If you’re going to Air Assault School, Cruz said, “definitely get your cardio up – you’re going to need it.” He said success in the class is about having the right mindset. “It’s all about not quitting.”
Typically, the WTC brings Air Assault and Pathfinder to Fort Pickett for two consecutive summers, takes one year off and then returns for two more summer courses. Mobile training teams from the WTC travel booth across the country and internationally to conduct a variety of U.S. Army courses and have trained thousands of Soldiers along the way.