The other US Army qualification school in the business of training soldiers to exit an aircraft at a less than ideal altitude. US Army Air Assault school is actually less about training soldiers to jump out of helicopters and more about teaching the basic grunt level aspects of air assault operations.
Overall, it's a pretty good time. Some fairly intensive PT in the morning followed by classwork and practical learning exercises during the day. You have your nights and weekends to yourself. For a number of reasons, you are treated much less like an idiot than at Airborne school. Primary among these reasons is a basic military truism: the more soldiers you have performing any given task at any given time, the more idiots there will be performing that task.
Airborne operations are centered around the concept of strategic mobility; getting the maximum number of men into the general area of operations in the shortest amount of time. This is accomplished via the Airborne mass exit, where jumpers empty an aircraft by exiting it at 1-second intervals. With proper prior planning, several thousand paratroopers can hit the AO and be ready to commence ground operations reasonably quickly. However, due to the nature of military mass airborne operations, individual troopers are subject to the mercy of the wind. This results in drop zones only having a precision of several hundreds of meters at best, depending on the altitude and size of the jump. On the other hand, Air Assault insertions are by their very nature more precise and small unit oriented. An air assault landing zone is as small as any patch of ground a chopper can land, or failing that, anything the pilot can hover above. Besides, a UH-60 Black Hawk is not an aircraft from which one mass exits. The essential difference between Airborne and Air Assault operations is the tradeoff between strategic and tactical mobility.
The small unit orientation is reflected in the way the skills are taught. Learning is more hands on throughout the course and instructors are fairly accessible. Unlike jump school, Air Assault school does not feel like it is stuck in a 1940's training mindset. This is because Air Assault and Airmobile operations are a more recent form of warfare. Well, there's that and everyone and his little brother wants Airborne jump wings. Air Assault is less well known, slots are harder to come by and the physical prerequisites are set at a higher standard. Unlike jump school, the primary goal of the majority of attendees is not the acquisition of bragging rights, but to gain qualification to serve in an Airmobile unit. No retiring supply sergeants or nurses who can't lift their own body weight at Air Assault. In general, AAS is a much more positive experience than Airborne because many less goofballs show up.
AAS begins with an obstacle course followed by a moderately paced formation run. Noncompletion of either results in a no-go and you get sent home. The course itself is conducted in three phases: the Combat Assault Phase, the Slingload Operations Phase, and the Rappelling Phase. There is a written and/or practical exam after each phase. If you fail, you get to retake the exam, recycle with the next class or get sent home, depending on the magnitude.
Combat Assault Phase teaches you how to conduct Pathfinder operations, aerial medevacs, and combat assault operations. Sounds cool and high speed, doesn't it? Well, don't let the phase name fool you, it's mostly just learning how to communicate with the chopper crew under various conditions and how to conduct yourself in and around helicopters without getting yourself killed. They also try to teach you how to egress/ingress a helicopter under combat conditions without getting yourself killed. For some reason, it's really important to the Army that if you end up dead, it's because the enemy did it to you instead of you doing it to yourself.
During the Slingload Phase, you learn how to rig and sling HMMWVs, howitzers, cargo, and other sundry articles of war under various types of helicopters. This is the true meat of the course. Although it may be the least glamorous, slingload operations is one of the most important aspect of Air Assault ops, large and small. It may not be the part that makes it onto the TV recruiting commercials, but when things get hairy, you're gonna be real happy customer to find out that arty airmobiled some howitzers into the AO and is giving you fire support.
What you learn in the Rappelling Phase makes for great TV spots but in reality is only a small part of Air Assault ops. Though I gotta admit, it definitly looks real cool to watch a squad of men descending from a hovering Black Hawk, doesn't it? This phase is why most of us signed up for the course and there's a lot of learning to be done and also a lot of fun to be had. I knew most of the rope and harness stuff going in, but I had a real problem when we tried the face out Aussie style rappel. I never had any problems doing that particular method of abseiling on rocks or on a tower but from a chopper... Woosh! Upside down and stuck about half the time. I wasn't in the minority with this problem and have to wonder why they even bother teaching this technique. Otherwise, a rippin' good time. BTW, You will not learn how to fast rope. Fast rope operations are taught at Fast Rope/SPIES (Special Purpose Insertion/Extraction Systems) two-day courses for which the Air Assault qualification is a prerequisite.
The graduation exercise is what turns the course from a good time to a real pain in the ass. You must complete a 12 mile march in 3 hours while under a full "combat load." Your equipment is checked for weight and completion at the finish line. This is done in order to ensure that you have not ditched any gear along the way to save weight. If anything is missing, you are failed on the spot and sent home without your wings.
Some of the guys in my class took off at a run and finished under two hours. I barely finished within the time limit. This is because I am stupid. Here's how this particular chain of idiocy broke down. I forgot to loosen the top lacings of my boots and ended up with a cramp in my right calf a few miles into my run. Instead of making the smart splay by lowering the lacings, slowing down and resuming at a faster pace once the cramp worked itself out, I compounded my error by continuing at a fast limp. As anyone who has run or marched long distances with a limp will tell you, this is a good way to hurt your other leg. Limping places an unnatural amount of stress on your good knee because it has to act as a shock absorber each time you take a step with your bad leg and stamp down on your good leg. Do this for any significant distance under a full loadout in combat boots and you're asking for trouble. Within another couple of miles, my already bum left knee was killing me.
Around this time, I began consuming ibuprofin and tylenol like candy. My marching buddy and I slowed down and eventually stopped and braced my knee with a compression bandage and were passed up by a couple ragged looking individuals. This is when we began to realize that our time must be slipping pretty badly. Shit. For his own good, I insisted my buddy go on without me because there was a developing distinct possibility that I would not be able to finish due to injury. Being the noble, but misguided dumbass that he was, he refused. I finished dressing my injury and continued with my two legged hobble. More and more ragged individuals were passing us. Double shit!! This was bad. You can always tell how well you're doing by how bad the people around you are doing. If the people around you are in good shape and cruising, that means you're doing ok. If the individuals around you are huffing and puffing in a bad way, that's usually a sign that you're with the stragglers. At this point, we were with the stragglers and they were getting worse looking by the minute. Triple shit!!!
Then I got lucky. One of the medics taking the course pulled up beside us, assessed my situation, fixed my half-assed bracing job, and gave me a big orange pill. A few minutes later, I started feeling a lot better. A few minutes after that, I started getting lightheaded. I told my new medic buddy that I had already popped a dozen advils, tylenols and some unidentified pain relief pills left over from my roommate's shoulder surgery and maybe this was why I was getting goofy. Of course, this revelation freaked him right the hell out. Our ensuing conversation went something like this:
Medic: "What did you take?"
Me:"I dunno man, it was like a little white pill. You're the medic, you tell me."
Medic: "You didn't think to tell me this before I administered meds?"
Me:"You didn't ask. Besides, you were about to give me the Good Stuff, I wasn't going to stop you."
Medic:"You're a cadet from Johns Hopkins? Shouldn't you know better than this?"
Me:"Nah. I mean, I guess I should, but I'm one of the dumb ones. Hey man, it's not like I'm in medical school or anything, thats a very common misconception about Hopkins...blah blah blah..."
Me:"Uh oh, the world's starting to tilt... Never mind, that was just my head. For a moment there, I thought I was in trouble."
Me:"Hey, speaking of tilt, you guys ever go to the arcade on post? I'm like the master of Tekken, I know all the ten hit combos blah blah blah..."
For all intents and purposes, I was stoned. Eventually, the combination of pills made me totally loopy and gave me a bad case of the spins. All I remember about the rest of the march is the medic and my buddy taking turns guiding me by holding onto the frame of my ALICE pack. Left to my own devices, I would wander off at an angle not entirely of my own choosing. They more or less dragged me behind them for the last leg of the course. The last couple hundred meters was interesting because they had to guide me without making it look too obvious. I probably resembled a short green pinball being bounced between two dark green posts.
I don't remember much after finishing other than taking off the bandage and watching my knee balloon up to the size of a volleyball. Don't remember much about the graduation ceremony, other than trying really hard to not make my swaying while standing really obvious. A stiff breeze could have knocked me over. It's a wonder I didn't lose my wings both literally and figuratively. I spent the next several hours puking my guts out and having emptied them, dry heaving. Once my painkiller cocktail wore off, I developed an excruciating headache for which nothing could be done - for some unfathomable reason, no one was letting me anywhere near any form of painkiller, including beer. I got plastered and passed out on the flight home, though. Heh.
I never did find out what that big orange pill was. It was the shit.