EOD tech excels at air assault school
By Tech. Sgt. Javier Cruz, 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 18, 2016
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- A Tyndall Air Force Base explosive ordnance disposal technician joined the ranks of those few who can call themselves “Air Assault Qualified” Distinguished Graduates.
Staff Sgt. Brian Wirt, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD team lead, attended the U.S. Army’s Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to compete for the chance to obtain the Air Assault qualification badge.
The 101st Airborne Division, also known as the “Screaming Eagles,” hosts the 10-day course that challenges service members to excel in three areas: combat assault operations, sling loading (helicopter cargo transportation) and rappelling techniques.
The course culminates with a timed 12-mile ruck march, traditionally carrying no less than 35 lbs.
On Day Zero, within the first preliminary events, more than 60 of 200 candidates were dropped from the course.
“This course bolsters us as combat enablers while building inter-service relationships between a variety of communities, like special forces, REDHORSE, EOD and sister service agencies,” Wirt said. “It also qualifies us to perform additional roles such as coordinating sling load operations within a joint environment.”
Wirt is a native of Battle Creek, Michigan, and joined the United States Navy before the Air Force. After a short enlistment, Wirt decided to cross over to the Air Force and pursue a career in EOD.
“During my break from service I met a physical trainer who was a retired U.S. Army Ranger,” Wirt said. “He helped put me in the right place mentally. He taught me to challenge myself and not settle for the standard but to strive for excellence.”
The air assault school is designed to be mentally and physically demanding, pushing the limits of candidates while under extreme stress and real danger. Attention to detail and careful planning are key to successfully completing the course.
“We did a lot of prep work to get into the school and to make sure our team had everything it needed, from equipment to fitness training and mentorship from previous air assault students,” he said. “This was the only opportunity we would have to come to air assault. If we got injured or dropped out, it would be highly unlikely to be able to come back again. We were highly motivated to complete the course.”
Heat casualties would further reduce the number of candidates. Medical staff monitored these individuals, and if it was determined a candidate could not complete the course safely, they would not be allowed to continue.
“After seeing the heat casualties and cuts, you always have that thought in the back of your mind that it could be you next,” Wirt said.
Learning to rappel safely and competently while under the physical and mental stressors of the course can be a daunting task for candidates.
“I don’t do well with heights. The rappels really helped my confidence in that area. You start out at 15 feet to teach you to trust the equipment and the process,” said Wirt.
The final rappel is open sided from a hovering UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, approximately 70-90 feet above the ground.
“The open sided rappel really tested people’s commitment and determination.”
During sling load operations, candidates must successfully enter the landing zone to attach a cargo tether to the underbelly of a hovering UH-60 Blackhawk. Smaller helicopters are able to produce rotor wash speeds in excess of 40 mph dependent on aircraft weight, rotor disk area size and air density.
“It’s like being hit with a huge thick wave but much faster with heavy chop,” said Wirt.
Graduation day culminates with a 12-mile timed ruck march.
“When you’re in the lead you carry the school guidon. About the second mile mark I took over the guidon and just kept challenging myself to run through the cramps, exhaustion and little sleep,” Wirt said. “My mindset was that I wanted to train in the worst possible scenario so when I’m in real combat or in a forward environment, I know I can succeed. Seeking challenge is what drove me.”
Wirt won the 12-mile ruck competition, and through accumulation of event points, the title of Distinguished Graduate.
“After it was all said and done, a solider from the 5th Special Forces Group complimented the EOD guys on our teamwork,” Wirt said. “Coming from a professional group like that, showing us respect as Air Force EOD really meant a lot.”
The competition may be over for Wirt, but it’s just beginning for other Tyndall EOD techs.
“The guys I work with inspire me,” Wirt said. “Reputation is a huge deal in EOD, being able to work in a team and have those guys know you won’t give up is really important.”
Positive leadership in joint environments is essential to mission success.
"Every organization needs individuals that are empowered to lead their Airmen and peers. Those individuals establish a benchmark of success within that team,” said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Brown, 325th CES EOD superintendent. “Wirt is one of those EOD leaders. He sets a standard excellence within and inspires others to achieve the same successes. Air Assault is a tough school, and he has shown that he embodies excellence in all we do, not just to his teammates but also to our Army brethren."