SERE School and Water Survival Explained

To be successful as a pilot, you need to be confident. I’m not talking about the false confidence we see in the bluster of gangstas or hipsters or Twitter trolls who have little or no actual substance to justify their bravado. I’m talking about the quiet surety that comes from knowing no matter what happens, you’ll be able to deal with it effectively.

This type of confidence is necessary if you want to go 1-v-1 against another fighter pilot, if you are going to be responsible for landing a 600,000 pound aircraft carrying a hundred people into a short landing strip at night in bad weather, or if you’re carrying 150,000 pounds of fuel that you must transfer to several other aircraft or the entire mission fails.

This obviously means that you need to feel sure that your pilot skills are up to the task. However, what if things beyond your control make your aircraft unflyable? What if you have to eject or crash-land over enemy territory? What if it’s a harsh area with weather and environmental hazards where food and water are difficult to find? What if your enemies are known to treat prisoners very poorly? If you expect to be able to fly combat missions over those places, you need to be confident that you can deal with these situations.

Studying and attending lectures are good for some things, but the only way to truly know that you can handle these situations is to try them out. That’s why the military requires all pilots to attend both SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) and Water Survival courses.

These courses aren’t all fun and games. No, let’s get very honest: much of the experience sucks. However, once you’ve completed them, you will be able to operate all over the world with that quiet surety that you’ll be able to survive and get back home if you have a very bad day of flying. Although SERE School teaches some important, practical, real-world skills, I believe that developing this kind of confidence is a more important part of these programs.

Table of Contents

  1. What is SERE School Like?
  2. What is Water Survival School Like?
  3. SERE and Water Survival School Takeaways
  4. The Power of Heritage

What is SERE School Like?

What is SERE?

SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. SERE School was established at the end of World War II with the mission of training combat aviators and aircrew in the fundamentals of surviving and escaping if they find themselves in a situation in which they must evacuate a stricken aircraft over enemy territory.

Each service has at least one base designated for SERE. For the Air Force, it’s Fairchild AFB, WA. You’ll be in a class of mostly aircrew members gathered from all parts of the Air Force. Since you all finished college and went to pilot training around the same time, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll already know some of them. You’ll also start to learn one nice thing about military service is that you automatically get to have friends no matter where you go. Even though you’ll never have met most of the people in your class, the fact that you’re all in the Air Force and you’re all going through this training together will let you bond instantly. There’ll be an intrinsic level of trust. It’s nice.

Survival and Evasion Phases

You’ll get issued a bunch of what amounts to camping equipment and you’ll sit through some classroom lectures to cover some SERE basics. However, classroom instruction is a very minor part of this course. You’ll quickly find yourself “in the field”…some gorgeous mountains around Washington. You have to leave most or all of your personal belongings behind, along with any snacks or food you would have liked to bring.

You’ll spend the next few days in small groups with a SERE instructor teaching you how to build shelters, find food and water, signal for help, and navigate through unknown territory — all while trying to hide from your enemies. On one level, this part of training is, or at least can be, fun. When I was younger, I chose to go on camping trips much like this as a Boy Scout. (In fact, being a Scout gives you a leg up here. You won’t learn much new stuff in this part of the course, but it’ll reduce your stress and enable you to help your classmates who weren’t as lucky as you.) The wilderness in the area really is beautiful and you should try to enjoy hiking through it.

Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games. Your instructors only let you bring a limited amount of food with you…and I promise that it won’t be enough. You’ll supplement this with what you can find or catch, but even that won’t satisfy your hunger. You’ll spend a lot of time thinking and talking about food. It sucks, but don’t forget that it will eventually prove to be very good for you.

You’ll also be tired. Your instructors will wake you up early and keep you up until late at night. You do a lot of hiking, which is tiring enough, but is even worse when you’re both sleep-deprived and hungry. You’ll be a little bit miserable by the end of this phase in the training, and that’s what they’re going for. The chances of you actually having to endure something this difficult again are very slim. You’ll have gained that confidence in knowing you can do it, and you’ll be better able to thrive in sub-optimal environments like deployments to undesirable places and long duration flights.

Resistance and Escape Phases

Once you’ve completed the Survival and Evasion part of SERE training, you’ll move on to Resistance and Escape. You may have thought the first phase of training was tough, but now it’s time to really buckle up.

At some point, you will transition from what you were doing before to a situation where you are the prisoner of a simulated enemy force. I’d tell you how that transition happens, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I’ll just say that it’ll get your heartbeat up. Enjoy!

Your Resistance Training is designed to be miserable. You’ll experience levels of hunger, sleep deprivation, and discomfort that make the first phase of your training look like a cakewalk. Your captors will be mean. You’ll be interrogated, repeatedly, and it will be a demeaning experience. They will even rough you up a little.

I remember feeling very worried about all this. I’m a pilot – they can’t break me too much or it could jeopardize my career. There are limits, right?

The answer, thankfully, was “yes.” Nobody (not even me) is going to explain the specific limits of what they’re allowed to do to you. Rest assured though that the military is not going to do anything to risk the $1,000,000 investment they just made by sending you to pilot training.

What you get out of this phase of training will depend on your mental toughness and your ability to push past a little physical discomfort and focus on your higher mission. Some people never get to that second part. They’ve led soft lives and are so shocked and overwhelmed by the whole environment that it’s all they can do to keep it together. This training is useful for them because it stretches their limits. However, it’s unfortunate that they miss out on deeper learning opportunities.

During the academic lessons at the start of the course, they’ll have explained techniques for “resisting” your enemies in a captivity environment. The point of this training is to put you into a mindset where it feels like you’re employing these techniques against a true enemy. If you have enough grit to endure the uncomfortable parts of your environment, you can really take advantage of this as an opportunity to experiment and learn. I know it’s not easy, but try to get there.

Conclusion of SERE Training

When you complete SERE training, you feel that you’ve accomplished something significant. You’ll have formed surprisingly strong friendships with your classmates given the short amount of time you spent together. You’ll have some new things in common and will have earned some street cred with everyone else in the military. I don’t think anyone really enjoys SERE training, per se. However, I promise you’ll end up feeling glad that you went through it. The confidence that it gives you will make you a better pilot in years to come.

And now that we’ve covered SERE, let’s shift and discuss something far more fun: Water Survival.

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What is Water Survival School Like?

Unlike SERE, this course is not designed to be physically and mentally taxing. It has a surprising amount of lectures, but it’s fundamentally a hands-on course. I did this training at NAS Pensacola on Florida’s Emerald Coast, though it moved to Fairchild AFB, WA a few years ago.

Although you spend plenty of time in the water, you’ll be back in your military hotel room every night. If you know someone with a car or can get to an Uber at the gate, you’re free to go grab dinner or drinks in town after work. The classroom lectures are typical Air Force: informative, important for later in life, and probably kind of boring.

The water stuff is more fun. You’ll practice boarding and getting out of a life raft. You’ll practice swimming out from under a parachute. You’ll be dragged through the water by your parachute harness. (A possibility if you have to eject over the water in windy conditions. You do this to practice rolling yourself upright while being dragged so that you can breathe.) Eventually, you’ll release your lines and relax while bobbing in the pool for a while.

Depending on what aircraft you fly, you may go to the “dunk trainer.” This is a simulated aircraft cabin with a bunch of seats situated over a swimming pool. You and several of your new best friends will strap into your seats, put on regular flight helmets, and start worrying. Without warning, the device will plunge down into the pool and roll upside down, simulating a violent water crash-landing. Your next task is to unstrap, get out of your seat, exit the “aircraft,” and swim to the surface without drowning. Easy peasy, right? This isn’t the most fun part of this training, but it’s very valuable. Don’t worry, there are professional military divers in the pool to help you get out if anything goes wrong. Try not to screw up though because you have to repeat the event until you get it right.

USAF Water Survival dunker trainer at Fairchild AFB, WA

(If you’re interested in a great story about the effectiveness of this training, check out Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. As a famous musician, he finagled himself an invite to accomplish this training with the Navy. Years later, he had an accident while flying a Grumman Widgeon. He found himself upside down and alone in the Chesapeake Bay. He credits the Navy’s training with saving his life that day. It turns out, Mr. Buffett is an avid pilot and as good a writer as he is a musician. His book is fantastic.)

I got to practice a parachute water landing using a parasail in Pensacola Bay. Unfortunately, with the move to Fairchild, this training is all accomplished in an indoor swimming pool now. If you get orders to train in January, you’ll be glad you’re in a pool…even Pensacola is cold in the winter. You’ll still get valuable training by splashing down into the pool, detaching from a simulated parachute, inflating your life raft, and climbing in to relax for a few minutes. It’s fun training and shows you that there’s really nothing to worry about if you ever have to bail out over the water.

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SERE and Water Survival School Takeaways

While SERE is as much about building confidence as it is about learning and practicing useful skills, Water Survival for me was about being shown that there’s no reason to fear ejecting over the water. I was impressed at how easy it was to take my classroom-based knowledge and apply it successfully the first time in the water.

Both SERE and Water Survival are outstanding training. They’ll teach you the skills you’d need to survive after a military mission gone bad, or in a lot of situations you could encounter in everyday life. They’ll help you build mental toughness and push the limits of your tolerance for discomfort. While that process isn’t entirely enjoyable, I promise it isn’t anything you can’t handle and that you’ll be glad you did it.

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The Power of Heritage

The practical skills you learn in SERE School and Water Survival do a lot to increase your confidence. However, these courses have an even more powerful confidence-increasing effect: they teach you about military heritage in a way that nothing else can.

During the academic portion of SERE School, we study the men and women who served as prisoners of war (POWs) in past conflicts. The atrocities they endured border on unbelievable, and yet some men spent nearly a decade in captivity in Vietnam. Some of them lost their lives.

Despite the inhuman depravity of those environments, these men and women found strength in their fellow service members, their love of their country, and their faith in God. The stories of what they went through are shocking, but the stories of how they thrived and made it through are awe-inspiring.

Our country struggles a lot with the idea of heritage. Perhaps your ancestors survived the Holocaust, fought the British to win America’s freedom, endured slavery, or built an empire on North America centuries before any Europeans visited. What does that make you? How closely related must one of us be to lay claim to this heritage? These aren’t easy questions and I think it’s healthy for us as a nation to work toward answering them, even if we never fully succeed.

If all SERE School did was teach about the heritage of our POWs in an academic environment, it might leave us in the same conundrum…wondering what that heritage means for us. Thankfully, it goes way beyond that point.

During this training, you actually experience many aspects of the environment that our POWs endured in the past. How do I know it’s accurate? Those POWs helped design the program! The cadre who run the show aren’t going to take things as far as our enemies did in a time or war, but trust me, they’re very effective at helping you feel exactly what it would be like to go through these situations.

While it builds confidence to endure this discomfort and roughing-up, this experience is far more powerful. SERE School helps us understand on a deep, visceral level what the men and women from our past went through. We don’t claim to have been through the same things as them–not by a long shot–but we can understand them in a way that classroom lessons could never teach.

The point is that having been through this program, each of us gains a personal understanding of what our military heritage means. This perspective makes the success of our past heroes real and inspiring. It gives us the confidence to know that others have been through worse than we could have ever imagined. If they could do it, then hopefully I could as well. If nothing else, mental images of these heroes would give me great strength if I ever did find myself in their shoes.

This perspective on heritage also gives us a completely new sense of pride in our military service overall. We recognize our uniforms as something special. Far more than a fashion accessory for a punk rocker or a runway model, our uniforms represent a super-human ability to survive and even thrive through the absolute worst that our enemies have to offer.

I hope that reading this gives you an inkling of that confidence and pride. What you may feel right now doesn’t even hold a candle to the inner strength and heritage you’ll gain when you attend SERE School. This is something that most Americans will never comprehend, no matter how many history books they read. It’s a special part of being the quiet professionals who dedicate our lives to serving our country.

In a way, I don’t envy you having to go through that training again. It’s unpleasant in many ways. However, I am excited for you to experience the visceral revelation about the meaning of our heritage that you can only earn by making it through SERE School. Good luck. Be strong. We’re looking forward to serving with you when you’re done.

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Photo Credits:

SERE School students are from the 352nd Special Operations Group training in England. Obtained from: https://www.gosere.af.mil/Photos/igphoto/2001720943/

Dunker Trainer photo taken by Airman 1st Class Jesenia Landaverde at Fairchild AFB, WA. Obtained from: https://www.fairchild.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2001920273/

POW RTB picture is from an exhibit at the Library of Congress. Obtained from: https://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/15755/exhibit-tells-the-stories-of-pows-in-vietnam-with-personal-artifacts/

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