Homestead or Don’t Drown

In August 1972, immediately after basic survival my wife Bonnie and I were married.  We then went on our honeymoon.    She went to Arizona – my assignment and been changed to Luke AFB, outside Phoenix, and I…

Well I went to Florida for Water Survival training. Compared to Fairchild, this training was a vacation.

The course was conducted at Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida and took 5 days. 

The curriculum was designed to provide me with the skills necessary to survive a crash landing in the water:

Escape from underneath a parachute in the water– AKA don’t drown

Drag through the water on a harness–AKA don’t drown

Parachute into the ocean–AKA don’t drown

Climb into a bobbing raft on the sea–AKA don’t drown

Wait in a raft to be rescued for several hours–AKA don’t get too sunburned (or drown).

At this point, it may be clear that I went into this with some apprehension. I was never a strong swimmer, the crawl was not my best stroke. I mainly did the dog paddle combined with floating on my back. Not really a combination for a long swim at sea.   To say I could swim really was stretching it.  Floating on my back was my major skill.  

I didn’t go into the Navy– being at sea on a ship was not my dream job.  Yes sir, no taking off on runways that went up and down.  No landings that sometimes allowed you to use the skills you learned in water survival.   That’s why I was in the Air Force, which brings me back to learning those skills. 

The first phase included classes discussing signaling, life support gear, and how exposure at sea could affect an aircrew member. The concept was to make this information so familiar that if we ejected we were prepared. It was the same training philosophy used to train the NASA astronauts and it is still used today. The motto of the school was “Forewarned is Forearmed.”

The second phase was the actual practice sessions.

Escaping from beneath the parachute was done in a pool. Once in the water, the chute dropped over us as if we had landed there. It was a challenge to find the lines and use them to move to the edge of the chute and emerge. I had heard stories of men panicking under the chute, but it seemed to go well.

One down–many to go (and not drown).

Next we moved to the “Drag” phase of training. At this point the apprehension level rose a bit. Picture this: being on a large boat, standing on a “plank” for lack of a better word, in full parachute harness, and then being dropped 25 feet into the Bay of Biscayne.

Water Survival photo from NASA
Homestead AFB in the 1970s

I stood there and the NCO looked at me. He was really enjoying dunk the captain. He said something to me which I couldn’t hear and I said “ what?”

Bang, down I went.

The trick was to keep my head up, not swallow most of the bay water, find, and finally release the harness while being dragged along behind a boat.

Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

That done we got to be airborne on a parachute and land in the bay. And this was fun. Hooked to the chute, we got a running start, and sailed up to about 200 feet above the bay.

My good friend Al, an F-4 back seater from Thailand, later shared his experiences with me:

“We had our F-4 seat package strapped on, which included the one-man raft. We were expected to hit the water, release the chute, and escape from underneath it. Then deploy the raft, climb into it, and await the pickup from the instructors in the boat while bobbing in Biscayne Bay. All went well, and in no time I was enjoying the sun from my little yellow raft. Suddenly from the north came a speedboat with the driver and passengers enjoying the surf. They spotted me and turned with a big splash a few feet away and slowed down, long enough to say, “Here, have one of these!” and heaved a cold can of beer in a tight spiral which I caught with my left hand! My joy at my luck was quickly tempered by my guilt, thinking that a court-martial or worse would happen if I was seen glugging down a beer during an official training exercise. So I remorsefully put the can into my flight suit leg pocket to be used at a later time.” Al had all the luck; I had no boats handing out beers.

For me it was floating, floating, and floating–like Gilligan waiting to be rescued. All I could think of was “a three hour tour, a three hour tour, a three hour tour…”   

And  my bride waiting in Arizona.  

What we did for Uncle Sam.

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 Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 PhantomII, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Survival training and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Homestead or Don’t Drown

  1. Tom Gaj (Lt Col, USAF, retired) says:

    I remember setting up to climb into my raft when I felt something bump my leg. One of the things they told us in class was a barracuda or shark would bump you before they bit you. They told me I did a somersault into the raft yelling “FMITH!” or something like that. When I stopped hyperventilating I looked down to see what was going to eat me. Biscayne Bay was so clear you could see straight down to the bottom. It was my seat pack.

  2. Patricia A Ruble says:

    I have really enjoyed your posts. Thanks John!

  3. Juan campos says:

    I did the whole warse survival bit…plus jumping out of a helicopter into the bay. While in the 20 man raft we were subjected to heavy seas due to an impending hurricane headed for Florida. Fun, fun, fun plus lots of barfing. Overall, it was fun!!🇺🇸✈

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