Spanning a period of nearly two years and with a dropout rate of between 80 and 90 percent, the training regimen for Air Force Pararescue specialists—dubbed “The Pipeline”—was born out of the realization that successful Personnel Recovery efforts must start with rescuers who are not only capable of locating downed Airmen or other U.S. military personnel in critical need of assistance, but also have the physical capabilities and operational know-how to extract both themselves and those they’ve been sent to save.

Although aircrew recovery missions had been performed throughout World War II, most notably in the Pacific theater in general and the China-Buma-India theater in particular, the pivotal event that led to the development of the almost superhuman training program for Pararescue specialists (AFSC 1T2X1) took place just three months after the United States Air Force was established in September, 1947. On December 23, 1947, a B-29 named the "Clobbered Turkey" slammed into a mountainside on the Seward Peninsula; after the wreckage was located four days later, the Air Force authorized a three-man rescue team—a Flight Surgeon and two paratroopers—to undertake a rescue mission by parachute.

But the effort was practically doomed from the outset. The Flight Surgeon had no parachutist experience; none of the team were equipped with critical survival gear (not even appropriate clothing); and the jump was made at night with winds blowing up to 40 knots. All three would-be rescuers died without ever finding the downed plane, while the six B-29 aircrew members who had stayed at the crash site all survived. Spurred on by a tragedy that was clearly preventable, the Air Force began developing specialized training for Air Rescue teams, leading to the establishment in 1949 of the Air Rescue Specialist Course at Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama.

The first hurdle for Airmen seeking to become Pararescue specialists is the Pararescue Selection Course, which includes the Rescue Operator Physical Fitness Test (a new version of the Physical Ability and Stamina Test) and psychological evaluations. Those who make the cut then take the nine-week Pararescue Indoctrination course—the first of eight courses they must successfully complete to qualify for IT231 (Apprentice) status. Two of these involve parachuting skills (Basic Parachutists, Military Free-Fall Parachutist), and another two are devoted to diving (U.S. Navy Underwater Egress Training and Special Operations Combat Diver Qualification). Other courses include Special Operations Combat Medic, Combat Survival Training (part of the SERE program), and Pararescue and Recovery Apprentice.

By the time an Airman has completed all of these, the odds are that only two out of every ten fellow Airmen with whom he began the training process will still be there. But those who make it even to the Apprentice level can rest assured that the men and women they are serving alongside are more than capable of performing the tasks that are necessary to fulfill the Pararescue motto found on this badge: “That Others May Live.”

In addition to Pesonnel Recovery, Pararescue specialists also work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the recovery of its personnel and materiel. These operations are handled by two units, the 37th and 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadrons.
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