By December, we had not yet been assigned to crews, but we had pretty much covered all the flight training, the positive control training, the SAC-specific procedures, and who knows what other things we were supposed to know as a navigator on a SAC KC-135 crew. Then the squadron chief navigator told Walker and me that we would be doing the local survival course in about a week. It would be a few days of fun and frolic in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In winter. In deep snow. In a para-teepee – that we had to build ourselves. Okay.
Walker and I bought some provisions – enough to last for three or four days, as best I recall. We had on all of our winter flight gear, including winter flying boots, winter flight jacket and gloves, thermal underwear, and some kind of headgear to keep our ears from freezing. We met with two survival instructors, loaded ourselves and our kits into a blue USAF pickup truck and off we went, in moderately falling snow, to the survival training site in ponderosa pine forests, in the vicinity of Nemo, South Dakota. Oh. And by the way, on this particular trip into the Black Hills, there was a tag along: an airman from the base Public Affairs office was going to record our training. He was armed with a camera.
At the survival camp site there was a small cabin. That housed the survival instructors and served as a classroom whenever that need arose. We did not stop at the cabin. Instead, we were taken to the opposite end of the clearing in the mighty ponderosa pines and told to unload our kits. Survival Lesson One: build a shelter as soon as possible. The instructors helpfully gave us a couple of axes and explained that we were going out into a stand of "dog hair pine" to cut some poles for the para-teepee we were going to build. It was easy to cut enough teepee poles; dog hair pine is just overcrowded and stunted ponderosa pine. We cut and dragged, maybe, a dozen poles to our camp site, and the instructors gave us few quick lessons in para-teepee construction. As I recall, we had at least two standard size parachute canopies with us, including all the shroud lines.
In fairly short order, we had erected a proper para-teepee. Next we had to take our trusty axes back out into the forest and cut some pine and spruce bows to serve as mattresses. Survival Lesson Two: you don't want to sleep directly on top of snow. With two of nature's finest mattresses constructed, we stowed our gear inside the para-teepee. Our gear, by the way, included two down-filled sleeping bags from survival kits. Each, of course, had two holes in it where the screw that had kept it compressed inside its fiberglass shell had passed when it was manufactured.
Then we went off to do a lot of other things I don't remember anymore but can be generally described as woods lore and living off the land. I do recall that, in spite of the cold, there was one source of running water available to us, and it didn't even need water purification tablets – at least not that I recall.
At the end of the first day, the instructors and the tag along airman retired to their cabin, heated by a nice warm stove, while Walker and I retired to our para-teepee and worked out how to get a small fire going so we could cook some of our provisions. It actually worked out pretty well. In spite of the near-zero temperature outside, the small fire warmed up the para-teepee pretty well.
Bed time was a learning experience. Those down sleeping bags had been cold soaking all day at the ambient temperature. The instructors told us it was best to strip down to our underwear, crawl inside the sleeping bag, and endure the bone-chilling cold until our body heat warmed up the sleeping bag. There was one half-hearted attempt at doing what the instructors had advocated, then we both crawled into the sleeping bags with enough clothing to prevent contact with the cold interiors of those icy sleeping bags. We passed the night in reasonable comfort, but that bag never did really warm up down near my feet.
For the next day or so we learned about land navigation, including how to use the compass from the survival kits, using the 7.5 minute quadrangle charts, map reading on the ground (considerably different than when you are looking down on the terrain from an aircraft), and general tips on cross-country hiking. The next day, which would be our last day of survival training, we would be plotting a course to a specific pickup point and hiking to that point. The airman with the camera would be going along to record the event.
Walker and I duly plotted our course and got the approval of the instructors for what we wanted to do. They did suggest another route, but ours looked better than theirs. In hindsight, since they knew the lay of the land, maybe we should have listened to them. In any case, off we went to our pickup point. We were in a small valley and paralleled a ridge that was between us and our pickup point. Our plan had been to find a specific gap in the ridgeline, climb through the relatively narrow and steep gap, and descend the other side to our destination. Maps don't depict actual conditions on the ground.
The actual conditions were that we were in a pretty dense ponderosa pine forest and there were patches of dog hair pine scattered all over that ridgeline. Although our ETA to our gap in the ridgeline turned out to be pretty good, we walked right past it because it was hidden in dog hair pine. On down the ridgeline we plodded until it became clear that we had missed the gap. We stopped to orient ourselves. Off in the direction opposite of where we needed to go I saw a prominent hill; it was depicted on the map and the terrain lines even matched what I was seeing. Walker wasn't so sure. I took a compass bearing on the hill and plotted it. Even though it was a single LOP it pretty well matched up with where I thought we should be. Walker disagreed. I turned around toward the direction we needed to go and scanned the terrain: there was a gap in the ridgeline right about where the terrain lines on the map indicated a gap. A heated discussion ensued between Walker and me as to where we were, where we should go next, and generally every detail of terrain we were standing on. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the airman looking back and forth between Walker and me. Finally, Walker declared that he was going his way and I could go wherever it was I wanted to go. Okay.
For some reason, the airman decided to follow me. In any case we started up through the gap in front of us. It was full of dog hair pine and the going was slow. As we ascended for longer than I expected that we would, I kept hearing crashing and thrashing off to our right. As we finally got to the top of the gap, Walker appeared through the dog hair pine.
Although the descent was not as difficult as the ascent through the gap it was still a challenge. Finally we got down to the road we knew was there. Since we had overshot our turn point, we knew to turn right to get to our pickup point. The pickup point was, maybe, a quarter to a half mile away from us.
The instructors had started to get concerned and were honking the truck horn. We had missed our ETA by quite a bit because of our extra excursion down the other side of the ridgeline. After a critique on how we did, we bundled up for our last night in the freezing pine forests. Next day we got back to Ellsworth and proceeded to try to wash all the grime and soot that had accumulated on us from the past several days.
It was good to be back in something a bit more civilized than where we had just been.