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How Air Assault soldiers are trained in a course known as the Army's "10 toughest days"

Graham Flanagan   

How Air Assault soldiers are trained in a course known as the Army's "10 toughest days"
  • Air Assault School is known as the Army's "10 toughest days."
  • The three phases of training are combat assault, sling-load operations, and rappelling.
  • All students must first survive the physically challenging "day zero."

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This is Army Air Assault School, where students train to insert themselves and equipment into combat using helicopters.

Students: Air Assault!

Joseph McGee: As we start looking towards the future fight, large nation states like in North Korea, where you need to be able to go behind enemy lines, deliver formations of Air Assault soldiers who could seize objectives, destroy enemy formations, that's the concept.

Students: Air Assault! Air Assault!

Narrator: All Air Assault-qualified soldiers have to graduate from a program known as the Army's "10 toughest days."

Michael Dufault: Who's gonna get it?! Who's gonna get it?!

Student: Air Assault!

Dufault: It's physically demanding, and also it's very mentally demanding. A lot of attention to detail. Some of the hardest things they've done in their lives in these 10 short days.

Katarina White: I definitely think it lives up to the 10 toughest days. There was definitely nights where I was very nervous, and good reason to be nervous. [laughs]

Narrator: Insider spent four days inside Air Assault School ...

Students: Air Assault! Air Assault!

Narrator: Where we observed students at various stages of training.

Student: Air Assault!

Ben Torgersen: The first phase is an academic phase, where the students learn the basics of aircraft capabilities and Air Assault's planning. The second phase, the sling-load phase, which is how you move equipment around the battlefield under a helicopter. And the final phase is the rappelling phase.

Narrator: Training happens here, at The Sabalauski Air Assault School inside the Fort Campbell Army installation that straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border. It's home to the 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed the Screaming Eagles.

Instructor: 1-1-0. Burke first name Aaron.

Narrator: But before day one of Air Assault School begins, all students have to survive what's known as "day zero."

Instructor: Roster three. Staff Sgt. Reves.

Narrator: The test is designed to weed out students who aren't ready for the challenges ahead.

Instructor: 1-1-4.

Narrator: It begins before sunrise when students form up to receive their roster numbers.

Instructor: 2-2-2. Holly.

Narrator: The first test is an early-morning inspection of their gear.

Instructor: Earplugs, highlighter, black-ink pen, 1-gallon-size Ziploc-style bag.

Narrator: Students are given a list of items they're expected to have in their rucksacks.

Instructor: Good, good, good.

Narrator: If one single item is missing during the inspection, they're automatically dropped. 17 students in this group were dropped because they were missing items in their packing list.

Scyler Chromy: A lot of the things that get people dropped is not paying attention to detail, and that's pretty much what Air Assault School is about. Because it comes to the littlest thing can get someone hurt or injured, and we just want to make sure that they take it seriously.

Narrator: After the inspection, a 2-mile run with an 18-minute time limit. Followed by a quick smoke session, which gets the students warmed up before the main event: the obstacle course.

Torgersen: That's the first moment where we filter out who is prepared to be here and who wants to be here.

Narrator: The course contains nine different obstacles to test students' strength, agility, and confidence. Seven of them are considered minor, and students are allowed to fail one without being dropped.

Instructor: All right, this is a major.

Narrator: The last two are major obstacles, and students must pass both. Otherwise, they have failed day zero.

Student: Air Assault!

Narrator: First, the aptly named Tough One ...

Instructor: Go ahead on the right.

Narrator: A multipart obstacle that starts with a 3-meter rope climb, and then tests balance along with upper- and lower-body strength at a height of over 30 feet.

Victoria Kidder: If you're afraid of heights, it can be very frightening. And if you don't know how to climb a rope, you're just going to be out of luck.

Instructor: All right, Air Assault, what's your roster number? All right, take this over to the white truck right there.

Kidder: You're kind of gassed once you get to that point, so it's all technique.

Narrator: The second major obstacle is the 35-foot-tall Confidence Climb.

Javon Bailey: I have a fear of heights, so the Confidence Climb was definitely one that was mentally challenging for me.

Student: Air Assault!

Bailey: Kept on pushing. You got to push through.

Student: Air Assault!

Narrator: For students who successfully conquer the obstacle course, day zero is complete. Of the 292 students who started day zero, 42 failed to complete it. By this time, these students have worked up an appetite, and they'll need their strength before the Army's 10 toughest days officially begin.

Students: Air Assault! Air Assault! Air Assault! Air Assault! Air Assault! Air Assault!

Graham Flanagan: Why does everybody say Air Assault so much?

Torgersen: [laughs] So, that goes back to the culture. We're building the culture, both in the division and throughout the Air Assault community.

Student: Air Assault!

Student: Roger that!

Torgersen: Anytime they're being addressed by an instructor, they'll usually say "Air Assault" instead of, you know, "roger" or "yes."

Dufault: Great job, dude.

Student: Air Assault.

Torgersen: We will refer to students as Air Assaults.

Dufault: Let's go, Air Assault!

Student: Air Assault.

Torgersen: And really just when you're having a good time and you're motivated, you pass another soldier, you might say "Air Assault" to that soldier.

Both: Air Assault.

Flanagan: Do you ever find yourself just saying "Air Assault" when you're off?

Torgersen: All the time. Yeah, my wife's probably sick of it.


Narrator: Every year, about 5,000 students graduate from Air Assault School. About 18% are female, and the students come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Dufault: We absolutely have a large scope of soldiers that come here. Not only Army; we have Air Force, Marines, Navy that come to the schoolhouse.

Narrator: Students range from privates who just completed basic training to experienced officers who want to learn new skills.

Robert McCurdy: So, I'm 40 years old. I wanted to come out to the Air Assault course to see if I can do it, No. 1, and then to improve my skill set as a helicopter pilot.

Kidder: I'm a veterinarian, and so this isn't something we get to do every day. I signed up for Air Assault School to get a little bit of a challenge, to kind of diversify myself, as far as what I do in the Army.

Instructor: There's only one way off that bird, and it's down, alright? You'll be fine.

Narrator: On day one, students begin the first phase of training, known as combat assault, much of which happens in the classroom.

Instructor: In your Air Assault handbook, starting on page eighty. Get there.

Torgersen: Phase one is giving them a foundation in basic Air Assault operations.

Instructor: You will have the basic knowledge on how to select, mark, and control a helicopter landing zone.

Torgersen: So it's a fair amount of memorization, a little bit of math, and then just understanding the process that goes into Air Assault planning.

Instructor: Move aircraft right! Move aircraft right! Execute!

Narrator: Phase one moves outside the classroom when students practice hand and arm signals used to guide helicopters in a landing zone.

Instructor: Black shirt says, release sling load! Release sling load! Execute!

Narrator: The instructors use a game called "black shirt says" ...

Instructor: Black shirt says!

Narrator: Similar to Simon says, to test the students on their knowledge of the signals and their attention to detail during the commands.

Instructor: Recover! If you moved, you're out! I did not say, "Black shirt says recover."

[crowd sighs]

Brian Corbin: The hand and arm signals' purpose is simply to guide the aircraft to place that aircraft over the load, so that that hooker team can then hook up, move out of the way, and then the aircraft can then pick up and take the sling-load set wherever it needs to go.

Student: Hey, you might want to get down here in a minute, 'cause the bird's going to get really low.

Narrator: Phase two of training is focused on sling-load operations, where students learn how to prepare a heavy payload and hook it to a helicopter, which descends to as low as eight feet off the ground during the operation.

Dufault: That's kind of our, if you want to call it our bread and butter here are at the 101st, where we can go deep behind enemy lines and resupply soldiers, whether that be beans or bullets or, you know, aircraft or artillery pieces. We take pride in that.

Narrator: Students learn the rigorous process of preparing and inspecting six different loads.

Corbin: Here in phase two, they'll learn how to rig whatever equipment that they're going to send, inspect that, and they'll sign off on an inspection form, which the pilots need for their sling-load operations.

Instructor: Now you're going to check your hood latch.

Kidder: Sling-load operations was challenging. That's definitely the most mentally demanding, hands-on part of the course.

Instructor: So, when you lift this up, you lift it up as such.

Kidder: We learn it rapidly, and we're tested on it rapidly, but luckily the instructors here give us so much time to practice.

Instructor: So, we have one deficiency already, right?

Corbin: We have a wide range up to about 24 deficiencies that we could use on a given load.

Instructor: The arrow, go towards the aircraft. So, would this be a deficiency?

Corbin: We'll show them clean loads so they understand how the whole process looks. Then we give them dirty loads. Dirty loads have all the deficiencies.

Instructor: Then you ensure that your chains aren't twisted. All right? And they're wrapped one time and one time only. But what do we have right here?

Students: Deficiency!

Instructor: Deficiency, OK? 'Cause it's wrapped more than once.

Corbin: So, then they can work through and say, "Oh, OK, I see how this is different," or, "This looks weird," "This is the wrong type of whatever." That way they have full confidence come test day that they'll pass the hands-on portion.

Instructor: Everybody good?

Students: Air Assault!

Instructor: Any questions?

Instructor: All right, good luck. Don't suck. Begin.

Narrator: Students have to pass a 50-question written test with a minimum score of 70%.

Instructor: You have two minutes to identify three out of four deficiencies on the Humvee. Remember you only have five responses. Narrator: They inspect the rigging of six different payloads and have to identify three different deficiencies on each.

Student: Deficiency.

Instructor: First response.

Narrator: The students are timed during each inspection.

Instructor: Stop!

Narrator: If they fail to identify the deficiencies, they're classified as a no-go.

Instructor: Now, you're a no-go on the Humvee.

Narrator: And are given a second chance to get it right. If they fail twice, students have to start their training all over and repeat day zero.

Corbin: There are a lot of students that get dropped because there are so many finite details. But when they fail, they'll get a retest and a retrain so that they have a second chance in order to get through it again.

Narrator: Students who pass the inspection then perform a sling-load operation with a live aircraft. This group's objective: to attach the A22 cargo bag to a hook on the bottom of a CH-47 helicopter.

Kidder: That was super fun, because we've learned all about all of the equipment that we can sling-load from these aircraft. That was rewarding to be able to actually hook up a load and watch them take off.

Narrator: While part of phase two is spent under a helicopter, in phase three, students spend time on one, but not for long. The last phase is focused on rappelling. Students first master their safety equipment.

Eric Williams: They all are taught how to tie a hip rappel seat, or a Swiss rappel seat. They're tested on it, and they have to do it in 90 seconds.

Narrator: Within phase three are three separate stages. Rappelling from a 14-foot ramp, a 34-foot tower, and, finally, 60 feet down from a live aircraft.

Instructor: Fall, fall, fall.

Williams: We go to the ramp.

Instructor: Good lock, unlock, and lower yourself.

Williams: They do a falling procedure, just to get them comfortable with going down. It's really more of making them know that their equipment will hold them.

Narrator: After that, students move to the 34-foot tower, where they practice rappelling on the open and wall sides.

Instructor: Step forward. Kneel down, hook up. Get ready. You're going to step down to the top of the letters. Do you understand?

Student: Yes.

Instructor: Go. Torgersen: You do the wall, where you're just learning the basics, because there's still a surface there that you're bouncing off of.

Instructor: There you go. Keep going, keep going.

Kidder: It's very scary. You look out and you see how far down you actually are. I feel like the tower is actually more frightening than the helicopter. It's trust in your equipment, trust in your rappel master. It's kind of out of our hands at that point, and so that can be a little bit frightening.

Torgersen: Then you do the open-side rappel, because that'll simulate what it's like out of an aircraft, where you're just using your brake hand and nothing else to control your descent to the ground.

William Howard: The idea behind it is, once you're at 34 foot, you can't really tell how high you are. So then when they get 60 foot in an aircraft, they can't really tell much of a difference.

Narrator: Then it's time for the final part of phase three, rappelling out of a live aircraft. A steady rain didn't hinder students from boarding the CH-47. Once airborne, it hovers in place at an altitude of 60 feet.

Williams: In a CH-47, we can fit 30 students in at a time. They're all hooked to a monkey tail, or a daisy chain, if you will. It hooks them into the aircraft, so if the aircraft were to go down, we have a secondary safety device inside the aircraft that they're hooked to, so nobody falls out of the bird. The rappel master that's hooking them up will call them forward, make sure that that student is hooked up correctly. Once that rappel master makes eye contact with that student, then they stand up and he'll push them to the edge of the aircraft, and then he'll send them.

Narrator: Two soldiers on the ground known as belay personnel control the ropes from the bottom.

Williams: Just in case somebody becomes a fallen rappeller or can't control their descent, they would be able to pull the rope, stop them, and they'd be able to control their descent for them all the way down to the ground safely.

Narrator: Their job is even more difficult due to sustained gusts coming from the rotor wash.

Torgersen: It's a lot of work for the belay men. They get a good workout over the three hours they're under the aircraft.

White: I was actually the first one in my group to jump. And as I was getting closer to the edge, I will admit it did feel a little surreal, and I did get a little nervous. But just being confident, knowing that you are going to land on the ground within the next, like, 20 seconds, it was really fun. Super exciting.

Students: Air Assault!

Instructor: Turn your red lens on.

Students: Air Assault!

Narrator: Before dawn on graduation day, students face the culminating event of Air Assault School: a 12-mile ruck march that each student must complete in less than three hours while wearing about 40 pounds of combat gear.

Student: 3, 2, 1.

White: The 12-mile ruck is more of a mental game, I would say, just being able to push yourself through all 12 miles.

Dufault: Let's go, Air Assault!

Student: Rakkasan!

White: It's hard, but it's nice to have your other teammates around you kind of encouraging you as you're doing it.

Dufault: Hey, great job, guys.

Student: 6-2-0!

Student: Air Assault!

Dufault: Great job! Sometimes that's all it takes, one guy or gal to really put themself out there and let them know that you care.

Dufault: Great work, man. Good job.

Dufault: That you genuinely do care and that you're proud of them, right? And that really sparks that motivation and you get that soldier to go that last mile, that last six feet in some cases.

Dufault: Motivated?

Student: Another 10 more! Let's go!

Dufault: Another 10? We can make that happen.

Student: No, no, no. I'm playing! I'm playing!

Dufault: OK. Everybody wants to be a gangster until it's time to do gangster shit, right?

Instructor: All right, undo your ruck and dump it out.

Students: Air Assault!

Narrator: After the ruck march, students have to pass one final inspection of their rucksacks.

Instructor: ACH with chinstrap, jacket -- extreme, wet weather -- and patrol cap.

Narrator: Just one more opportunity to get dropped before graduation.

Instructor: Earplugs, highlighter!

Narrator: Upon inspection, this student told an instructor he didn't have his earplugs.

Instructor: I'm gonna walk back here and I'm gonna go back around, and then you need to look in your gear and you need to find them by the time i get back. Otherwise, you're gonna be a drop.

Student: Air Assault. Narrator: Once the instructor returned, the student had managed to find them.

Instructor: You found your earplugs in your gear?

Student: Air Assault, sergeant.

Narrator: No students were dropped during the final inspection.

Instructor: All right, congratulations. You're Air Assault qualified.

[crowd cheering]

Narrator: Of the 231 students that started with this class on day zero, 191 finished the course. Friends and family gather to see the newest class of Air Assault-qualified soldiers graduate on the final day of training.

Instructor: You now have the crucial skills to maximize the effective use of helicopter assets in both training and combat missions. Wear your Air Assault wings with pride. Your peers without them will be envious of your accomplishments.

Dufault: It's almost a transformation of sorts, right? You have a soldier that's timid at times and not sure if they really want to be here. You fast-forward 10 days, and you have a soldier that's chest is a little bit further out, standing a little bit taller, and they're absolutely proud to earn that Air Assault badge.

Soldiers: First to fight for the right, and to build the nation's might, and the Army goes rolling along. Proud of all we have done, fighting till the battle's won, and the Army goes rolling along.

Narrator: Meanwhile, a new class of students is just beginning day one of Air Assault training to find out if they have what it takes to survive the Army's 10 toughest days.

Students: And the army goes rolling along.

Instructor: Parade, rest.

Students: Air Assault!


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