Fort Benning-based training team brings Air Assault, Pathfinder to Virginia

 Active duty, U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from across the country run, climb, crawl and maneuver through Fort Pickett’s Air Assault Obstacle Course Aug. 11, 2015, as part of “Zero Day,” the first challenge presented to those hoping to earn the Air Assault Badge.  (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Active duty, U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from across the country run, climb, crawl and maneuver through Fort Pickett’s Air Assault Obstacle Course Aug. 11, 2015, as part of “Zero Day,” the first challenge presented to those hoping to earn the Air Assault Badge. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

FORT PICKETT, Va. – Hundreds of Soldiers and Airmen from across the nation converged on Fort Pickett’s Air Assault Field Aug. 11, 2015, for Zero Day of the U.S. Army’s Air Assault School, a physically and mentally demanding course designed to prepare course attendees for insertion, evacuation and pathfinder missions that call for the use of multi-purpose transportation and assault helicopters. Across post, nearly 40 Soldiers and a few Airmen inspected sling loads as part of the U.S. Army’s Pathfinder School, which produces specialists in navigating through foreign terrain as well as establishing safe landing zones for Airborne and Air Assault Soldiers or Army aircraft.

1st Sgt. Justin Lampert, first sergeant for Company B of the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center, who provided a mobile training team to conduct both the Air Assault and Pathfinder Schools, explained that Air Assault puts Soldiers through 10 days of training, while Pathfinder is 12 days.

“For Air Assault, they start of with Zero Day, which is a prerequisite to get into Air Assault,” Lampert said. “Once that’s completed they go into Phase I where they learn more about aircraft orientation.”

Active duty, U.S. Army Reserve and Army and Air National Guardsmen from across the country conduct Verbally Initiated Release System, or VIRS, drops Aug. 18, 2015, during the final days of the U.S. Army’s Pathfinder Course, taught by cadre assigned to the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center, at Fort Pickett, Va. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Active duty, U.S. Army Reserve and Army and Air National Guardsmen from across the country conduct Verbally Initiated Release System, or VIRS, drops Aug. 18, 2015, during the final days of the U.S. Army’s Pathfinder Course, taught by cadre assigned to the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center, at Fort Pickett, Va. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

After that, they progress to the sling load portion of the course, which Lampert described as the most “applicable” portion of the class, given current considerations in places like Afghanistan and Iraq where slingloading equipment is common practice. Following sling loads, students move on to the final portion of the course, rappelling operations, which culminates with a rappel from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at 60-80.

For the Air Assault students, the final test is a 12-mile ruck march.

“It’s been a tough experience. It’s a lot harder than our schools,” said Staff. Sgt. Anthony L. Hinen, a structural engineer with the Virginia National Guard’s Virginia beach-based 203rd RED HORSE. Hinen said the sling load portion of the course was the most beneficial to him personally and that, “I’ve been rappelling my whole life, but the sling load [portion] is something I learned a lot it and I really enjoyed our classes.”

Students come to Air Assault for a variety of reasons, sometimes because of a need within their unit, other times to test themselves as Soldiers or individuals, or to overcome fears. Graduates of the course earn the Air Assault Badge, one of a small number of badges authorized for wear by U.S. military members.

Hinen said his unit needed individuals with sling load capabilities so he and another member of his unit attended the course. Both graduated and were the only Air Force members in the course.

Staff Sgt. Walkter Barnes, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman from the Noncommissioned Officer’s Academy at Fort Indiantown Gap, Penn., said he’d been chasing the school for a while.

“This has been like eight years in the making,” Barnes said. He explained that he wasn’t expecting the physical training portion of the course, but that it’s necessary because the cadre “want who wants to be here to be here.”

For 2nd Lt. L. Sage Otto, who earned her commission in the Virginia National Guard just one day after graduating Air Assault, the course was her first introduction to a wider Army audience.

“Being part of that myriad group, it was empowering because I saw them struggling and achieving right alongside me,” she said of the mixed class that included both Soldiers and Airmen, and individuals from the active duty, National Guard and Reserve, at various ranks and with diverse military backgrounds.

She and her fellow officer candidates were given the option to attend Air Assault with just 24 hours to make the decision to attend, knowing that it would be just two days after the third and final phase of Officer Candidate School. She didn’t know much of anything about what the course would entail, but decided to attend.

“We thought we’d just be jumping out of a lot of helicopters, but that was definitely not the case and we found that out pretty quickly,” Otto said of herself and her fellow officer candidates.

She was one of just six females who graduated the course, out of a total 204 graduates. Nearly 275 started the course.

For Pathfinder, Lampert explained that the course follows a similar timeline to Air Assault, with the students starting with air traffic control medical evacuation procedures and then heading into air assault planning.

“They take a test on sling loads as well, but they have different standards than in the Air Assault Course,” Lampert explained. “Air Assault is basic sling loads, while Pathfinder does more field expedient methods.”

Following sling loads, students learn about helicopter landing zones, how to safely send jumpers or equipment out of an aircraft, take a drop zone test and then participate in a culminating six to 12 hour field training exercise that puts together all the topics of instruction covered during the course.

“Honestly, what I hope they take away from it is attention to detail,” Lampert said of both the Air Assault and Pathfinder Schools. “Some of the things that they’ll be taught here at the Air Assault Course they can relate to their every day life, from military to personal. Even the same things that I do now, are some of the some things that I learned in Air Assault School in 2006.”

Mobile training teams from the Warrior Training Center travel both across the country and internationally, conducting a variety of U.S. Army course in places as far away as South Korea.

Active duty and U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers, along with Army and Air National Guardsmen, rappel from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter Aug. 20, 2015, as part of the Air Assault Course, taught by a mobile training team from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center, at Fort Pickett, Va. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Active duty and U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers, along with Army and Air National Guardsmen, rappel from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter Aug. 20, 2015, as part of the Air Assault Course, taught by a mobile training team from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center, at Fort Pickett, Va. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

More on this story:

Photos: Air Assault students rappel from Black Hawk helicopters – Aug. 20, 2015

Photos: Pathfinder students conduct VIRS drops at Fort Pickett – Aug. 18, 2015

Photos: National Guard mobile training team brings Air Assault Course to Virginia – Aug. 11, 2015