To enter Air Force special operations, a PAST test is only the beginning

by Hugh Lessig
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.

For Senior Airman D'Vonte Washburn, the 49 pushups were the hardest.

Sure, he could have gutted out a few more, but he'd already finished 56 sit-ups, 11 pull-ups and a brisk 1.5 mile run on a wind-swept track at Langley Air Force Base Wednesday morning.

His day started at 7 a.m. with some quality time in an indoor pool, swimming underwater for 25 meters — twice — before completing a 500-meter surface swim.

This swimming/running/exercise routine is known as a PAST test. And yes, he passed it. But it's only the beginning for those seeking careers in Air Force special operations.

Jobs for these "battlefield airmen," as these special operators are often called, range from defusing improvised explosive devices to rescuing a downed pilot or stranded mountain climber. Special operations offers six career fields in all, and filling the ranks is a constant challenge because the standards are so high and the tests are so tough.

Langley AFB Para-Rescue Training. Swimming tests, both above water and underwater. Push-ups and sit-ups. 1.5 mile run on an outdoor track. This is part of a test for airmen who want to enter special operations.

Enter Washburn, a 22-year-old South Florida native whose day job at Langley is that of an aircraft maintenance scheduler. He's aiming for a career in special operations as a member of a combat control team. The Air Force deploys these teams in hazardous or remote areas to set up landing zones or air strips, and to direct air traffic.

It requires a combination of physical strength and technical skill. Washburn has a lot more pushups in his future, and his air traffic controller skills must equal the standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration. The pass/fail ratio for special operations jobs is brutal; 80 percent to 90 percent don't make it.

Having aced his PAST test, the next step is applying for the next phase of training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Washburn, who has an American flag tattooed above his heart, dismisses any concern about the long odds.

"I believe if you're confident and you know you're going to make it, you're going to make it," he said. "Anything medical-wise that would eliminate you, that's out of your control. Anything outside of your control, you can't worry about. If you know you're mentally and physically ready for it, I don't see the point of preaching the pass/fail rate."

Washburn isn't alone in his quest. His Wednesday test was overseen by Master Sgt. Travis Shaw, a trained special operations para-rescuer assigned to Air Combat Command headquarters at Langley, where he mentors candidates such as Washburn.

"I can relate to what these guys are going through," Shaw said. "I like giving back."

Shaw has been in para-rescue for eight years, a job that demands a knowledge of emergency medicine, rescue skills and a dose of battlefield courage. Helping Washburn and others cross-train hits home "because I was one of them as well," Shaw said.

For many candidates, water training is the most difficult part of the PAST test, so Shaw likes strong swimmers. Washburn was a swimmer in high school, and his wiry frame seemed to cut effortlessly through the water during the first stage of Wednesday's test.

"The pool is what gets most people to quit," Shaw said, as Washburn swam his laps. "He's making it look easy. He's going to kick butt on the timing."

The challenge is mental, as well as physical. Consider the underwater swim.

"It's physical endurance, but it's up here," said Shaw, pointing to his temple. "Every part of your body says, 'I need to come up. I need to breathe.' You have to get that mental fortitude to stay down and continue that task."


©2016 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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