It's possible Chautauqua County could become the new home base for a precision jump master course for the Air Force.
Sean McLane, commander of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron of the Kentucky Air National Guard, was recently in Chautauqua County with eight men who were taking the course. McLane said five of the men were members of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron while the other three were active duty - one out of Japan and two stationed in Florida.
"What we're doing is what's called a precision jump master course," McLane said. "The point of the precision jump master course is to be able to put a pararescue jumper on a survivor's location anywhere in the world - land or water - where there isn't normally a jump zone."
OBSERVER Photo by Liz Skoczylas
Members of the 173rd International Guard for the United States Air Force practice precision jumps at the Chautauqua County Airport in Jamestown.
The course is just one part of a training that takes two years to complete in order to become a part of the Special Tactics Unit.
"Our training pipeline for our career field is two years long," McLane said. "And the washout rate is 75 percent. It is the longest and most difficult pipeline in the Department of Defense. The reason it is so difficult is because the missions are so difficult."
McLane defined Special Tactics as the air-ground interface for Special Operations Command, the Air Force component of Special Operations.
There are three jobs within the Special Tactics Unit.
The first is with the Special Operations Weather Team. The weather team is charged with the job of determining how the weather will affect the operational environment.
"The first missions for the war in Afghanistan were actually weather teams going in to see what passes the helicopters could fly down to get into the target area," McLane said. "A lot of people don't realize that."
The second job is Combat Control. The Combat Control is air traffic controllers in a combat environment.
"So, you are going to run landing zones, or drop zones, to bring in conventional forces or special forces," McLane said. "They are going to do the main attack, but they've got to get there somehow. We have to be there before them to assess the situation."
The final job is a pararescueman, who is responsible for battlefield recovery and battlefield trauma care.
"We minimize the risk by training very hard and selecting very hard," McLane said. "We say that we're not going to accept any undue risk, but how do you define undue risk? What you can do is put people under stress and see how they react to it. If a guy won't panic under any circumstances, you know you can trust him. If you can trust him, everything else can be built upon. ... We can't teach heart. So we have to test to see if you have the heart."
McLane's brother-in-law, Sgt. John Desnerck, works for the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office. According to McLane, Desnerck knew he was looking for an area that had both a large body of water and an airport.
"He did all the coordination," McLane said. "He started making all the phone calls to different agencies, like the Coast Guard, Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office."
One of the qualifications for a training zone was having a body of water large enough so the men would be unable to use landmarks off of which to cheat.
"The next time they do this might be the real world, out in the middle of the Atlantic," McLane said. "So, we want to make it challenging."
Another qualification was having fresh water. McLane explained salt water is corrosive to the material the parachutes are made out of. If the paratroopers jumped into salt water, they would need to immediately take preventive measures, which could take up to eight hours. With fresh water, time is cut dramatically because the parachutes can be hung up to dry.
The training zone also required being near an airport and having a dock for equipment. McLane said the Erie Yacht Club allowed its dock to be used.
"Thanks to the assistance of the Dunkirk Airport and the Jamestown Airport, what normally would take us a couple hours to get the guys back to shore and then get them to an airport, on a plane and then fly them to the airport that they're based off of, it usually takes two or three hours," McLane said. "We were getting that done, in some cases, in 20 minutes."
Having a shorter amount of time traveling means more down time for the men in training, giving them a chance to sleep, McLane said.
"The overwhelming consensus, every single guy is like, 'Hey, the support in that community is outstanding,'" McLane said. "The convenience of the logistics is superior to anything we've ever seen. The convenience of the drop zone is perfect. I think we'll be back. We run this course every year or two, depending on how many people need the training. ... We will be back. It's just a question of when."
A PASSING GRADE
Every single pararescueman who was in Chautauqua County for training passed with flying colors.
"We were actually not scheduled to leave (for three more days)," McLane said. "But, because the logistics went so well, we were able to get done two days early."
The men returned to Kentucky prepared to become team leaders. They will return to their units and resume their normal pararescue duties. At the same time, they are prepared to execute their new skill set.
"In my unit, 100 percent of the guys have deployed to Afghanistan on a combat rotation at least once," McLane said. "In the last 10 years, I've got guys that have been there six or seven times. What's unique about the guard is, for a guy that's been there six times, he volunteered four of those times. I've never had anybody forced to go more than twice. So, they're truly volunteers."
In order to pass the training, the men have to land within 50 feet of their target, according to McLane. They start the training with larger targets and then work their way down to smaller. The entire Precision Jump Master Course takes three weeks to complete, including an academic aspect, jump master inspection and a two-week land phase.
The training includes flying over a target and using either streamers or flares to determine wind or water direction. The plane then comes back around for the jump and rescue, McLane said.
"In Special Tactics, we don't have the big training ranges that the Army has at Fort Bragg for the Special Forces. They do mission after mission after mission to see how the guys react, see if the guys will quit. Everyone's looking for someone who will not quit," McLane said. "When faced with failure, can you bounce back? When faced with overwhelming fear, can you concentrate on the task at hand? That's the guy we're looking for."
The motto of the Special Tactics Unit is "First there ... That others may live." According to McLane, the reason the paratroopers go through the training they do and risk their own lives is to ensure that they are able to save the lives of others.