FTX: TACPs pushed to their limits

3/25/2011
by Staff Sgt. William Banton
1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — Editor’s note: This article is part of a series detailing the trials and tribulations of the students of Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 on their journey to become fully qualified Battlefield Airmen.

Thirty-six hours into the field training exercise week, the Tactical Air Control Party candidates of Falcon Flight 86 were running off less than one hour of sleep.

During the past eight weeks, Falcon Flight 86 endured rigorous physical training and meticulous academic schooling, including small unit tactics and combatives, to prepare them for the five-day FTX, designed to push the candidates to their limits.

“I’m a little anxious [about the FTX],” said 2nd Lt. Jesse Swanson, TACP candidate, before the week began. “I hate the building up phase, because everyone is talking about it and I’m just ready to get into it.”

During the FTX, the TACP students are expected to perform land navigation, react to simulated improvised explosive devices, perform defensive and offensive actions, all while sleep deprived.

“The FTX is the culmination of everything they have been taught up until this point,” said Tech. Sgt. Thomas Jenn, Falcon flight instructor supervisor. “They are going to have to have to listen and they are going to have to execute, because this is what we do.”

For most of the candidates, nerves run high during the FTX. They have made it halfway through their 17-week course to become a member of the less than 1,200 elite TACPs. With their TACP futures on the line, the pressure is on.

By 6 p.m. of day two, the candidates had already started to prepare for their night land navigation evaluation. After two days of practical training and day evaluations, the candidates were expected to travel to specific coordinates through the rural terrain of Eglin Air Force Base Range by themselves.

Before the instructors released the students into the untamed Northwest Florida woodlands, the empty vastness of the night had taken over the range. For many of the Airmen this was their first time in the wilderness at night, magnifying the difficulty of their task even more.

Each candidate was allowed two instructor assists during the course of any evaluation before failing that task. Missing items or mistakes in route planning also counted as instructor’s assists.

“They put you under a lot of pressure and you are expected to perform under that pressure,” Lieutenant Swanson said.

Within the first 20 minutes of the evaluation, multiple candidates had already failed. According to the TACP instructors, many of their mistakes were likely made due to their lack of sleep.

“If you don’t execute here you fail, you get in trouble, you get washed back,” Sergeant Jenn said. “If you fail in the real world, you die or one of your team member dies and the mission fails.”

As the FTX came to a close, the strain of the week’s events showed on the remaining candidates’ faces. These candidates have endured more than 120 hours of practical training, survived severe thunderstorms, lived in ditches, protected convoys, raided enemy camps, navigated the wilderness, and survived injuries – all for the opportunity to earn the right wear the prestigious black beret of the TACP.

But there’s still another 312 hours of training to go.