Montana Airmen conduct SERE refresher training

  • Published
  • By Airman Hannah Hardy
  • 341 Missile Wing Public Affairs

Rotor blades cut through the hot summer air and the distinct “whomp, whomp, whomp” of a UH-1 Huey filled the ears of five Airmen, grass stinging their faces as the helicopter took off and the sound that once enveloped the overgrown meadow grew increasingly distant.

The surrounding forest was seemingly shrouded by a blanket of silence, and the warm sun beat down on the faces of those left in complete isolation nearly seventy miles from where they first began their journey at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., June 7, 2023.

The silence was soon broken by Tech. Sgt. Michael Bilodeau, 582nd Operations Support Squadron Detachment 4 flight chief of group tactics, as he ushered the men out of the sun's glare and into the dense cover provided by The Lewis and Clark National Forest. They were then tasked with one objective: survive. 

Fortunately these Airmen were not experiencing a life-or-death situation, rather, they were simply preparing for the worst. Their goal was to sharpen the skills one hopes to never use, but that if given no choice, they could perform them with confidence and precision to ensure their survival and the survival of those beside them. 

The training group included pilots and aircrew members, both of which are careers deemed as having a high risk of isolation in the field. This type of risk requires specialized training -– in this case, a non-combat survival training refresher.

The Airmen were tested on numerous tasks to verify proficiency like using personal protection  and navigation techniques in the field, and operating a handheld global positioning system, and signaling and recovery devices.

Their main challenge was facing the unforgiving Montana landscape, which boasts drastic changes in elevation, severe weather and a sheer amount of space, with over thirty-million acres of public land and wildlife. 

Montana poses many dangers to those at a high risk of isolation; it is a force to be reckoned with during summer months, and it becomes more hazardous as temperatures drop to life-threatening levels during the long winter.

“I believe the most important lesson that they take away is the reminder that the Air Force has invested a lot of time and money ensuring that if something happens to them, they can survive almost anything,” said Bilodeau. “They already possess most of the tools required to do so, my job is just to remind them of that information.”

Bilodeau said he hopes to expand upon the current training plan to include the lifesaving skills Airmen need during the winter months in addition to incorporating an overnight stay.

“Cold weather and arctic training are amongst the most valuable permissive survival skills for the pilots and flight engineers stationed at Malmstrom,” said Bilodeau. “An overnight stay benefits the students because it forces them to be intrinsically motivated to complete the tasks to survive the night. How well they endure the environment will directly correlate with how much time and energy they put into correctly applying the skills they learned during the day, giving them the time they need to practice and learn the skills that require more repetitions to truly grasp.”

Hours later into the training, a warm aroma of campfire coated the air as embers crackled and flames danced while Bilodeau demonstrated the final task of the day: constructing a fire. The bright amber glow brought light to the dark forest floor while storm clouds loomed overhead and thunder echoed throughout the mountain pass.

Drops of rain fell sporadically, steadily growing until a complete downpour was upon the Airmen. The pilots and aircrew kept their eyes glued to the sky, fully aware that any sign of nearby lightning could hinder their extraction and turn a training exercise into a real-world scenario.

Radios chirped in the distance as the group of Airmen quickly packed up their things, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Finally, a familiar sound was heard as it echoed in the distance; the now-comforting “whomp, whomp, whomp” of the UH-1 Huey made its way over the ridge to bring the Airmen home.