Warrior Training Center brings Air Assault, Pathfinder to Virginia

Soldiers from across the country hoping to earn the Air Assault Badge run, climb, crawl and maneuver through the Fort Pickett Air Assault Obstacle Course Aug. 21, 2014, as part of “Zero Day.” The 10-day course was managed by a mobile training team from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center and required Soldiers to maneuver over and through nine different obstacles after completing a two-mile run in less than 18 minutes. “Zero Day” started with 244 Soldiers from the U.S. Army Reserve and the active Army, as well as National Guard Soldiers from 25 different states, including nearly 100 from the Virginia National Guard. At the end of “Zero Day,” 175 Soldiers were slated to start Phase I of the course Aug. 22. The course trains Soldiers on U.S. Army rotary wing aircraft operations including combat air assault operations, rigging and sling load operations, as well as rappelling from a helicopter. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Soldiers from across the country hoping to earn the Air Assault Badge run, climb, crawl and maneuver through the Fort Pickett Air Assault Obstacle Course Aug. 21, 2014, as part of “Zero Day.” The 10-day course was managed by a mobile training team from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center and required Soldiers to maneuver over and through nine different obstacles after completing a two-mile run in less than 18 minutes. “Zero Day” started with 244 Soldiers from the U.S. Army Reserve and the active Army, as well as National Guard Soldiers from 25 different states, including nearly 100 from the Virginia National Guard. At the end of “Zero Day,” 175 Soldiers were slated to start Phase I of the course Aug. 22. The course trains Soldiers on U.S. Army rotary wing aircraft operations including combat air assault operations, rigging and sling load operations, as well as rappelling from a helicopter. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

FORT PICKETT, Va. –Mobile training teams from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center came to Fort Pickett in August to teach two badge-producing courses; the Air Assault Course, which graduated with 158 Soldiers from approximately 25 states, and the concurrently-conducted Pathfinder Course, starting with 47 Soldiers and graduating 34.

The goal of the Air Assault Course is to teach Soldiers air assault operations, sling-load operations and rappelling, and aims to graduate Soldiers able to make maximum use of helicopter assets in training and in combat in order to support their unit operations.

The three-phase, 10-day course requires Soldiers to prove themselves physically before the course even officially begins. Soldiers hoping to earn the coveted Air Assault Badge first had to get through “Zero Day,” which required Soldiers to complete a two-mile run in less than 18 minutes before tackling a nine-event obstacle course forcing Soldiers up ropes, over 40-foot towers and under barbed wire. The Air Assault “Zero Day,” which took place on Aug. 21, 2014, reduced the class size from 244 to 175.

After successful completion of “Zero Day,” it was on to Phase 1, Air Mobile Operations, for the remaining Soldiers. Phase 1 acted as an orientation to rotary wing aircraft for the Soldiers, teaching them how to operate safely in and around the aircraft, as well as how to successfully use Pathfinder hand and arm signals to communicate effectively during aircraft operations.

Phase 2 of Air Assault focused on sling load operations, and, next to “Zero Day,” is one of the hardest parts of the course. According to Sgt. 1st Class Wesley D. Colinger, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge for the Air Assault Course, the Phase 2 hands-on test usually reduces the class size by an additional 10 percent, and dropped the Virginia course from 175 Soldiers to 159.

The third and final phase of the course, focuses on rappelling. Soldiers learned how to inspect their equipment and how to perform a military-style hookup, and spent nearly two solid days rappelling from the tower at Fort Pickett. Finally, Soldiers rappel from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from 70-90 feet above the ground.

The final requirement for the Air Assault students before earning the Air Assault Badge, was successfully completing a 12-mile road march in under 3 hours.

“You definitely earn your badge,” said Pfc. Keith McAllister, a Michigan National Guardsman assigned to Battery B, 1st Battalion, 119th Field Artillery. “It’s not easy. We’ve had 35% attrition up to this point.“

The Air Assault Course wrapped Aug. 31, 2014, with 158 graduates.

National Guard Soldiers from across the country conduct a field training exercise during the final days of the U.S. Army’s Pathfinder Course, taught by cadre assigned to the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center Aug. 29, 2014, at Fort Pickett, Va. The mission of a Pathfinder is to provide technical assistance and advise the ground unit commander on combat assault operations, sling load operations, air movement, airborne operations, and aerial re-supply by fixed and rotary wing aircraft. The two week course started with 47 Pathfinder hopefuls, and graduated with 34. Virginia National Guard aviators from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment supported the training exercise with two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

National Guard Soldiers from across the country conduct a field training exercise during the final days of the U.S. Army’s Pathfinder Course, taught by cadre assigned to the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center Aug. 29, 2014, at Fort Pickett, Va. The mission of a Pathfinder is to provide technical assistance and advise the ground unit commander on combat assault operations, sling load operations, air movement, airborne operations, and aerial re-supply by fixed and rotary wing aircraft. The two week course started with 47 Pathfinder hopefuls, and graduated with 34. Virginia National Guard aviators from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment supported the training exercise with two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

“It’s been a great class and they’ve been highly motivated,” Colinger said. “They’ve done really well on all the testing, have given a lot of respect to the instructors and have enjoyed being in the class overall.”

Happening concurrently with the Air Assault Course was the Pathfinder Course, which brought together National Guard Soldiers from approximately 10 states. The Pathfinder Course trains Soldiers to provide navigational aid and advisory services to military aircraft, while also teaching them how to plan and organize air assault and airdrop operations. During the two-week course, students learn about 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 a two-week, three-phase course. The first phase focuses on sling load operations, and teaches students how to inspect and rig sling loads. The second phase focuses on helicopter landing zones, or HLZs, and air assault planning.

“That’s where you figure out how to actually run an air assault operation, how to get from Point A to Point B, how long it’s going to take you to get there, how many people you can fit in the aircraft,” explained Staff Sgt. Joshua Saxon, the drop zone phase chief for the Pathfinder Course.

The final phase of Pathfinder is drop zones, where Soldiers learn about how to set up drop zones as well as all the safety requirements that go with them.

“Safety is a big issue,” explained Saxon. “Drop zones are a high-risk event, and it’s on you, the pathfinder, to know the safety requirements.”

Saxon also explained that the Pathfinder course is among the most academically challenging courses the U.S. Army has to offer, as just one percent of Soldiers have earned the Pathfinder Torch.

“Being a pathfinder enables you to better direct, utilize and benefit from the air assets supporting you,” said Sgt. Michael Wilcox, assigned to the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. “I think the course also improves and builds a person mentality. Of all the courses I’ve attended, this was the most mentally challenging.”

The final event for the pathfinders was a field training exercise that required the pathfinder students to put their knowledge on drop zones, sling loads and HLZs to the test. The pathfinders graduated Aug. 31, 2014.

Mobile training teams from the Warrior Training Center travel both across the country and internationally, conducting a variety of U.S. Army courses in places as far away as South Korea. With the completion of the Fort Pickett-hosted Air Assault Course, the cadre had trained and qualified more than 2,000 air assault Soldiers.

Army National Guard Soldiers from 25 different states, along with Soldiers from active duty and the U.S. Army Reserve, practice rappelling techniques Aug. 28, 2014, as part of the Air Assault Course taught at Fort Pickett, Va., by a mobile training team from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center. Soldiers rappelled from the tower for two days, practicing different rappelling techniques, falling drills and wearing different gear, gain confidence with each rappel. The course trains Soldiers on U.S. Army rotary wing aircraft operations including combat air assault operations, rigging and sling load operations, as well as rappelling from a helicopter. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Army National Guard Soldiers from 25 different states, along with Soldiers from active duty and the U.S. Army Reserve, practice rappelling techniques Aug. 28, 2014, as part of the Air Assault Course taught at Fort Pickett, Va., by a mobile training team from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center. Soldiers rappelled from the tower for two days, practicing different rappelling techniques, falling drills and wearing different gear, gain confidence with each rappel. The course trains Soldiers on U.S. Army rotary wing aircraft operations including combat air assault operations, rigging and sling load operations, as well as rappelling from a helicopter. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Photos: National Guard mobile team brings air assault to Virginia – Aug. 21, 2014

Photos: Air Assault Soldiers sharpen rappelling skills – Aug. 28, 2014

Photos: Fort Pickett hosts Pathfinder Course – Aug. 29, 2014