DAY THREE: Landing without the land
Capt. Alex Castro doesn't like being in water.
In three days of survival training, he avoided capture by sheriff's deputies from Sutter and Placer counties hunting him in the Tahoe National Forest, all the while wearing a 35-pound pressure suit with no ventilation.
Those things didn't bother him.
But he was bothered by floating in a pressure suit in the middle of a swimming pool, being dragged by hoists through water to simulate a wet parachute landing. He was apprehensive but determined to succeed.
"The key is not to let anyone know," he said. "So I'm going in there like I am King Kong."
It was third day of survival training for Castro and Majors Blane Kilpper and Howie Robinson - Beale Air Force Base's newest pilots to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. They will soon be flying the U-2, the U.S. Air Force's highest-flying jet aircraft.
The training is designed to give pilots experience dealing with adverse conditions, so they will have some idea of what to expect and how to survive if forced to eject from their aircraft.
The pilots trained in a special pool at Lemoore Naval Air Station, southwest of Fresno. For several hours, they were dragged through the water, hoisted through blasting water jets to simulate a helicopter rescue and submurged underneath a parachute from which they had to escape.
During the pool training, the pilots wore special pressure suits that resemble those worn by astronauts in space. The suits are designed to protect pilots if they have to eject or if their plane depressurizes at high altitudes.
"To do it in the water adds a sense of realism," Robinson said.
The pilots land in the water with survival gear, a one-man life raft and a parachute. Like landing anywhere else in an emergency situation, the pilots must take stock of themselves and their surroundings and try to survive.
"When they hit the water, they still have these straps connected to them," explained Master Sgt. Jeff Anders, a 9th Operations Group Life Support superintendent, referring to parachute harnesses and tethers holding survival gear and the raft.
Depending on where the pilots land, the water temperature could be very cold, especially in the ocean.
"You want to get out of the water as fast as you can," said Kevin Wagner, a civilian Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape specialist at Beale.
Castro, Kilpper and Robinson joined four current U-2 pilots in the pool, all of whom were getting re-certified in water survival training.
The pilots first had to become accustomed to wearing the suits in water. Once in the water, the three new pilots closed the face shields on their helmets and played in the water by disappearing under the surface.
Some re-emerged with water inside the helmet. They lifted the face shield, cocked their heads to one side and let the water drain out.
Once they became comfortable, the pilots' training took on a more challenging tone.
The pilots swam to one end of the pool.
One at a time, they floated in the water while three specialists jumped into the pool, pulling a parachute over each pilot's head. The pilots had to make their way from beneath their parachutes without getting tangled in parachute lines. Each completed the exercise in less than a minute with little difficulty.
The next exercise, more challenging, was called "The Drag." Pilots climbed atop a platform six feet above the water, connected to a conveyor system, and were dragged forward through the water to simulate a watery parachute landing.
Before the exercise started, Wagner explained what to do:
"You're trying to get yourself stabilized," he said. Pilots had to spread their legs side-to-side in an upside-down "V" pattern, hold the parachute harness and lean back. Their legs spread wide, the pilots' violent spinning would subside, allowing them to release the parachute clips so they could stop in the water. They had to repeat the drill a second time. This time, they were dragged backwards.
Kilpper stepped off the edge and sank below the water surface. As soon as he re-emerged, Wagner set the harness to drag him through the water. A little more than halfway across the pool, about 10 yards or so, Kilpper stabilized himself and released the clips.
"I thought it was going to be scary, but it isn't," he later said.
The others also completed the training.
Next, the pilots moved to another side of the L-shaped pool and practiced helicopter rescues.
As the pilots treaded water, the specialists turned on a water spraying system that blasted the pilots from pipes eight feet overhead and along the side of the pool, designed to simulate winds generated by a helicopter.
"It'll blow you out and away," Anders said. "You have to swim to it."
Specialists in the water connected a hoist to the pilots. On the platform above, Wagner operated the hoist, lifting the pilots out of the water, offering to help them onto the platform then, jokingly laughing as he lowered them back through the blasting water.
"He keeps things intense," Anders said of Wagner. "He keeps things exciting."
The last, and perhaps most difficult, exercise required the pilots to pull themselves out of the water onto a one-man life raft, unassisted, and flop over on their backs without puncturing their rafts.
The practice demanded physical exertion and careful patience to be sure nothing on the suit cut the raft. Once inside, on their stomachs, the pilots maneuvered onto their backs as the specialists gave them advice on what they could do to make to make it easier next time.
The pilots pulled flaps from the side of the raft and folded them over their bodies like a blanket.
Finally, with the last drill completed, the soggy pilots slogged out of the water and pulled themselves out of the pressure suits.
The suits made things much harder, they said, especially getting on the raft.
"It's just added weight you have to pull up on that thing," said Robinson. "You have to be slow and think about it."
Kilpper gave a similar assessment.
"It's awkward," he said. "It's hard. It's not easy to jump up on that thing."
It was a worthwhile exercise and gave the pilots a glimpse into how water complicates everything, he said.
"The benefit here is confidence," Robinson said.
Appeal-Democrat reporter Daniel Witter can be reached at 749-4712. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.