Sgt. Thomas Allison with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), lost his life when the MH47 Chinook he was aboard crashed into the night sea over the Philippines in 2002 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. At Fort Campbell’s Allison Aquatic Survival Training Facility, which honors his name, special operations aviators and other personnel are trained to survive similar incidents through realistic scenarios.
“His family returns to the facility every year to watch the training and they love coming here,” said Chris Smith, site manager, Survival Systems USA. “They are so thankful for the training that we provide to the unit.”
The 160th SOAR, known as the “Night Stalkers,” has been involved in constant combat operations since 9/11 and is highly trained to accomplish missions in all environments, anywhere in the world, day or night, with unparalleled precision. Soldiers rely on the water survival training center at Fort Campbell for mission essential training. But after eight years of corrosion issues, the facility was in need of major repairs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Louisville District stepped up to assist.
USACE Project Engineer Steve Skaggs says he’s honored to play a role in improving the facility and the reason is simple: “It saves lives. This project saves lives,” said Skaggs. “We’ve had some of the pilots tell us it is the most realistic training they have ever encountered.”
The approximately $2.4 million project currently underway is making improvements to the 10,320-square-foot facility and the 125,000-gallon pool where Soldiers experience real scenarios such as escaping from a submersed aircraft, or being recovered from the water by a rescue hoist—all in complete darkness with hurricane force winds, 4-foot waves, lightning flashes, and even simulated machine gunfire blasting from the sound system.
“That’s the point of all of this is to make it all as realistic as possible,” said Smith who has been the site manager of the facility since day one.
The facility uses two simulators—the Modular Egress Training Simulator (METS™), known as the METS Model 40, which can be configured like a Blackhawk (MH60) or a Chinook (MH47) and an additional simulator replicates a Little Bird (MH6/AH6). The simulators are lifted in and out of the 16-foot deep pool by a Jib crane so that trainees can be submersed to practice a variety of scenarios they could encounter in combat situations.
“The simulators are totally reconfigurable so we can train as passengers or air crew,” said Smith. “However they fly, that’s how we train them.”
To make the scenarios as realistic as possible, the facility uses a variety of effects including a wave ball generator moored into the corner of the pool, which creates a sea-like state producing three to four foot waves.
“A lot of people don’t like that wave ball,” said Smith. “It’s pretty realistic.”
When training is in full force there are several environmental effects that can be applied to enhance the realism of the exercise. There are two large wind generators that produce Category 1 hurricane force winds of up to 82 mph, two downwash fans to simulate the down force of the helicopter rotors, two strobe lights to produce lightning flashes, a search light for use during hoist training, and a sound system that produces simulated sounds such as machine gun fire, helicopter noise, or an onboard warning alarm.
“When you’re in the water and all the environmentals are on, you forget you’re in a training situation because you’re too busy getting your butt kicked,” said William Feeney, Facility Manager, U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command.
The environmental effects provide a level of realism for training that is second to none.
“There’s not another training facility like this in all of DoD that can incorporate environmental effects like the wind, waves, rain and downwash like we can,” he said. “We have the environmental effects you aren’t going to get anywhere else.”
A safe space for practice
Trainees aren’t thrown right into intense exercises like having to escape from a submersed helicopter during a simulated hurricane or machine gun fire, though—the progression is at a safe pace.
“We start them out very slow then as the day progresses we ramp up the environmentals and progress them up to a more complex environmental sea-state, and then add in the nighttime training and all the environmental effects,” said Smith.
The training days begin with the Shallow Water Egress Trainer, known as SWET, where trainees can first get their feet wet with the sensation of being inverted and submerged in the shallow end of the pool.
“Putting them in the SWET is step one before we put them in the simulators,” said Feeney. “The way we do things is safer, more efficient and more beneficial to the students.”
It’s a safe space for practice with a ratio of one instructor to every two students, one-on-one debriefings after every attempt, and a one-touch emergency panic button that can instantly shut off all the special environmental effects if needed.
“They can screw up here because the instructors have everything under control,” said Feeney. “Our number one priority is that we reassure them by being in there with them.”
With SOAR, practice makes perfect. It’s no secret that not everyone loves the water, or this type of training, but the instructors take the time to make sure the students get it right even if that means dragging them back in the water to try and try again.
“One of the great luxuries we have is we can train to a standard and not to a time constraint. We have the latitude to work with that student until they get the fundamentals,” said Feeney. “It’s very rewarding for us when we hear that a new trainee was terrified, but provides us feedback that after this course, and using this facility, that they can say ‘I feel better about myself as a Soldier and I feel better about being able to complete my mission.’”
Corps steps in for repairs
Ensuring those Soldiers have access to training to complete their missions is a priority for USACE. The Corps’ work, scheduled to be complete late in summer 2017, includes overhauling the facility – originally constructed in 2008— to bring the systems and building components up to appropriate standards.
Corrosion issues have been a continuing problem at the facility since training began due to the dehumidification system being inadequately under-sized for the amount of moisture in the training facility. USACE is overseeing installation of a new, larger HVAC and dehumidification system with an outdoor system that is correctly sized for the training environment and will help prevent any future corrosion issues.
“This has quadrupled the size of the air handling unit and provides more capacity to dry the air in the room and control the temperatures,” said Smith.
USACE is also overseeing repairs to the pool liner and pool deck, corroding interior materials and finishes such as lockers in the locker room, an overhead door, electrical system components and installing a new, safer chlorination system.
“Their training is essential and we want to provide the best product we can in support of the 160th,” said James Cruz, USACE Louisville District project manager, “It is critical that we deliver this project on time.”
“The facility’s simulators are being refurbished to align with our construction so we must maintain our schedule to minimize any impacts to them,” said Cruz. The two simulators, which are being refurbished in Nova Scotia, will return to the facility this summer for testing and installation allowing the facility to resume training by September 2017.