Training center turns airmen into air commandos

USAF photo: Greg Allen Staff Sgt. Richards Corbett, left, 19th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., answers questions posed to him by Master Sgt. Sue Parker, Detachment 1, Air Force Operations Training Center, shortly before a flight over Melrose Air Force Range.

By Greg Allen: 27th Special Operation Public Affairs

Housed in a nondescript, beige building here resides a new organization that will be responsible for mission-qualification training on a myriad of Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft.

The Air Force Special Operations Training Center officially stood up Oct. 6 at Hurlburt Field, Fla., to streamline training capabilities by employing dedicated training personnel. This will allow operational flying communities to focus more on the global war on terror.

“It is really pretty simple, we’re in the business of turning airmen into air commandos,” said Lt. Col. Tim Sartz, the AFSOTC Detachment 1 commander.

The consolidation provides AFSOC the ability to enhance training by taking inexperienced individuals and training them to be fully mission-qualified operators, similar to the Army’s JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the Silver Strand Training Center at Coronado Naval Base, Coronado, Calif.

“Give us an airman and we will give you back an air commando,” Col. Sartz replied when asked to define a the primary mission of the new center here.

The mantra, “Turning airmen into air commandos,” rests at the bottom of a PowerPoint presentation on Col. Sartz’s computer screen. He effortlessly scrolls through the numerous slides that outline the plan to transform the now mostly-empty new schoolhouse into a thriving community of instructors and students. The plan puts together the pieces of the puzzle to create center at Cannon, Hurlburt and several other locations that will train AFSOC’s combat aviation and special tactics airmen.

“This plan,” said the colonel tapping the computer screen, “helps organize the formal training program by reducing the responsibility of training new personnel in the operational squadrons.

What will happen will happen quickly, at least by military terms. What is now pretty much an empty building, mostly devoid of students and instructors, will soon burst at the seams as new airmen and instructors arrive. The school will soon move is expanding to the building where the Thrift Shop was located, and then once again to a 22,000 square-foot building later next year.

By the end of the current fiscal year the population of the training center will increase to approximately 170, and by the end of the 2010 fiscal year, will grow to more than 200 instructors and soon-to-be air commandos. The center will also increase the types of aircraft in which it trains from two to more than six as more types of aircraft move to Cannon.

“We train airmen to be our premier fighters,” said Master Sgt. Sue Parker, the center’s operation superintendent and sensor operator. She explained that the school will train the entire gamut of airmen, ranging from students right out of technical school, to NCOs who have spent careers outside the AFSOC arena.

The 16-year Air Force veteran said that in the past, airmen would go directly go from their initial technical schooling into operational units. There they would have to learn skills unique to their special operations missions and be certified as mission-qualified aircrew, something that is time consuming for units directly involved in the global war on terror.

“Our sole focus will be on training and getting airmen ready for their units,” said Sgt. Parker. “Units will have to do very little to get them ready to fly.”

Understanding individual actions impact the outcome of a mission is critical, Col. Sartz said. “Air commandos must be able to function as a team and know what their team members are doing, while at the same time being self sufficient.” Working as a team is a major goal at the training center. “It takes 13 individuals working together on a gunship, seven on the Whiskey, and three with the Predator, and even that doesn’t include all the teamwork maintenance brings in making a successful mission.”

One recent training exercise demonstrated the concept. Sgt. Parker got up from her desk after setting up paperwork for a new student. She walked into a class where a mission briefing for a flight over Melrose Air Force Range was under way. She didn’t say much as she inspected their paperwork. Half an hour later she was on the flightline where the same students conducted pre-flight procedures on an AC-130H Spectre Gunship. There, she was more vocal as she ensured everyone was doing what they had to do and that it was being done correctly.

The training focus can be intense, Sgt. Parker said because, “their very first mission at their new unit could very well be providing cover for those fighting on the ground.”