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Pushing the limits: Air Force school training survivors

February 28, 2002
Members on the Combat Survival Course

Members on the Combat Survival Course learn how to find and make their own water. The course is run over a three-week period and teaches participants the basics of survival in the ocean, desert and jungle.

Photograph by CPL Jason Weeding

'Never crash land in Australia because everything can kill you.'

That was the message British troops took with them as they finished three weeks of some of the hardest military training imaginable.

They battled rough seas in Tiger Shark Alley, built shelter on Rattlesnake Island and had enemy constantly on their tails in the jungle, during the RAAF Combat Survival Training School (CSTS) Course, near Townsville.

The course is designed to match some of the worst conditions military personnel could face. It covers survival on seacoast, arid and jungle regions, and was initially established to train Australian personnel, but has now won the respect of other nations' Air Forces.

'The CSTS course provides an ideal opportunity to learn survival in extremely challenging environments. The survival training we learn from these experienced Australian instructors is something that we couldn't get anywhere else,' British Chinook helicopter pilot, Flight Lieutenant Dave Grindal said.

It's survival of the fittest for these students and prior preparation and conditioning is essential. While the CSTS course is one of the most physically and mentally tough courses in the world, safety is a priority. The students spend two days in the classroom before the seacoast phase learning the basics of survival.

The first phase of the course was Rattlesnake Island - a two-hour boat trip off the coast of Townsville. For the students the name alone was grim enough, but they were soon informed that the waters they were in, are a well known Tiger Shark breeding area.

Rattlesnake Island may be a destination of peace and tranquillity, but after six hours on the water, with sea sickness and dehydration taking their toll - to the students, it was simply dry land, water and food.

On arrival on the island, students were briefed on the priorities of survival. Protection (first aid, clothing, shelter and fire), location (immediate use of rescue devices to assist search and rescue agencies), water, and food.

A parachute was assembled into a makeshift tent, then it was time to work on the location aids. A signal fire is one the best options due to the generated light (flame night) and dense smoke (a ratio of 3:1 greenery added during daylight).

According to Chief Instructor, Flight Lieutenant Brett Harrison, the skills learnt on the course prepare aircrew for the unplanned eventuality of flight. 'If the flight doesn't go to plan and they are forced down, either in a friendly or an enemy environment, we teach them how to survive in often hard and trying conditions.'

With the first two priorities of survival covered, the search began for water and food. Students distilled water off a Eucalypt tree. Not quite a cup of tea, but good enough for the Brits.

The first taste of bush tucker for many on the course was a green tree ant. The ant itself was quite edible, but don't rely on it for relieving your hunger - it takes about two million ants to make a substantial meal! If an entire ants nest is removed and boiled in water, it also becomes a great antiseptic mouthwash or sipped slowly to relieve coughs and colds.

The survival students had success catching fish and finding sea snails, however the biggest win of the day was a goanna, caught in a makeshift trap. Once the find was reported to the instructors, an exchange of food and water was made for the release of the goanna - a welcome substitute after more the 24 hours without a substantial meal.

When the term 'survivor' is used in mainstream media, most people automatically visualise scenes from reality television programs like Survivor or Shipwrecked, full of camera crews, and TV hosts. But the Combat Survival Training School is far from mainstream. It pushes participants to their physical and mental limit.

The CSTS's mission is to train cadets in employing principles and techniques that enhance survival and evasion in any hostile environment. Lives could one day depend on it.

Story by Tara Daley