Arctic Survival

F4s near Mt McKinley

F4s near Mt McKinley

The cold air rushing down from Canada today, its about -3F as I write this, reminds me of when I attended Arctic Survival School in Alaska.

From 1974-1978, I flew air intercept missions in the F4 Phantom II out of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. This entailed flying over some of the most dangerous and unforgiving terrain on earth. To the south, off the main runway, lay the Cook Inlet and Turnagin Arm; to the North the Chugach Mountains which bordered the city.

Anchorage from the air showing the Chugach Mountains and Turnagin Arm.

Anchorage from the air showing the Chugach Mountains and Turnagin Arm.

Most of our training areas were over the interior where temperatures could drop to -55F in the winter. These areas were marked with high craggy peaks, glaciated valleys, and large areas of barren tundra. Additionally, as we were charged with intercepting Soviet bombers over the Bering Sea, we had to be prepared for ditching in the icy waters.G16


As a consequence all new Fighter Jocks had to attend Arctic Survival held near Eielson Air Force Base, outside of Fairbanks. This was usually done in December and each year about a dozen new guys were sent there to freeze. In December 1974, I was one of those new guys. For the previous year before I arrived in Alaska, I had flown combat missions in Thailand, where the lowest temperature in the winter was about 55F, which the Thai people thought was “freezing.” Think about this, Alaska in the winter -55F  versus Thailand +55F; a 100 degree difference.

Now I had grown up in the snow belt of New York, near Oswego where winter storms could drop as much as 102 inches – as it did in the Great Blizzard of 1966, 50 years ago. So I was a pretty hardy type, who I thought, was used to cold and snow.

But still -55F can given anyone pause.

So it was not without some trepidation that I flew to Eielson that long ago December day in 1974.  Now most Air Force Survival Schools consist of a classroom and a field period.  For basic survival the school took about two weeks, several classes, a mock POW camp, debriefing and then classes followed by a grueling three day survival trek.  For Arctic, the school was 5 days, a day and one half classes, insertion into the wilds, two nights out, and then a debriefing.  Survival schools were never fun, they were tough, extremely tiring, and demanding.  But they were about the most valuable thing I ever did in the Air Force, apart from learning to fly.G11

So we went to the wilds, the first day we learned to gather and build a fire in the wild (even though I didn’t smoke, I always flew with a Zippo lighter – the aircrews friend), then how to build a shelter-basically a snow cave constructed from fir branches and covered with snow, and survive the night at about -35F (it was a warm night).  And then, as the Air Force believed that repetition was a good teacher, do it all over again.  During the second day we learned to make signs “SOS” tramped in the snow and how to use flares – different colored flares were in our survival vests, and then spend another night.   Then we “Graduated”; it was my forth and last Survival school of my Air Force career.  I will say this Uncle Sam does prepare you well (shortly after I was married we camped at the Grand Canyon and spent the night in a shelter constructed from a parachute).

Then back home to fly again providing “Top Cover for America.”

And as they always ask at the Superbowl:  “What are you going to do now?”

I could eagerly reply “Go to a Mexican Restaurant and eat the hottest food possible.”


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in 43 TFS, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, Alaskan glaciers, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Norvell Family History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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