- Students at the Sabalauski Air Assault School must pass “day zero” before beginning their training.
- Roughly half of the students who enroll in Air Assault School end up graduating.
- Insider followed two students to see if they had what it takes to survive day zero.
Instructor: Good job.
Narrator: This … is day zero, a physically and mentally grueling test. It’s the first challenge that students at the Sabalauski Air Assault School must overcome.
Student: Air Assault!
Narrator: Before beginning what’s known as the Army’s 10 toughest days.
Ben Torgersen: Day zero is kind of the gut-check day. That’s the first moment where we filter out who is prepared to be here and who wants to be here.
Narrator: Students at the Air Assault School, located inside the Fort Campbell Army installation, train to insert themselves and equipment into combat using helicopters.
Torgersen: An Air Assault graduate is prepared to fight and win on any future battlefield.
Narrator: But if students don’t pass day zero, their time at Air Assault School is over before it officially begins.
Instructor: Roster four, Staff Sgt. Cobb, Second Brigade. Six zero, Sgt. Quintos.
Narrator: The day starts before sunrise when students form up to receive their roster numbers.
Instructor: Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!
Narrator: About 9,500 students enroll in Air Assault School every year, but only a little more than half end up graduating from the course. Insider followed two students to find out if they have what it takes to survive day zero and move on to day one of Air Assault School.
Megan Miller: My name is Megan Anderson Miller. I’m a military police officer. It’s a requirement for us here at Fort Campbell to have Air Assault wings before we can take command of a platoon. But not only that, I’m motivated, and I like the physical endurance.
R.J. McCurdy: I’m CW4 R.J. McCurdy. I’m the brigade master gunner for the aviation brigade here. So, I’m 40, and I’m venturing to say, looking at the ranks of everyone around here, I’m probably the oldest one here. I wanted to come out to the Air Assault course to improve my skill set as a helicopter pilot.
Instructor: All right, Air Assault, next items. One 1-quart canteen with stencil tape affixed.
Narrator: The students’ first test is an early-morning inspection of their gear. Instructor: Headlamp with fresh batteries installed.
Narrator: They’re given a list of 37 items they’re expected to have in their rucksacks.
Instructor: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Good.
Narrator: If one single item is missing, they’re automatically dropped.
Torgersen: It relates directly to what soldiers do in combat. If you’re assigned a certain item of equipment that you need to carry and you don’t have it, that’s an operational failure for the entire unit.
Narrator: 17 students from this group were missing at least one item from their packing list and were dropped. The next test is a 2-mile run with an 18-minute time limit.
Instructor: 17 minutes! You got one minute! Hurry up! 59, 18 minutes!
Narrator: Eight students from this group failed to cross the finish line on time. Those who passed moved on without them. But they don’t have much time to rest before their next event: the obstacle course, with nine events designed to test students’ strength, agility, and confidence.
Aaron Mesick: When it comes to this obstacle, the only thing that can touch these beams is your hands.
Narrator: Instructors demonstrate how to negotiate each obstacle. Instructor: You cannot use any of the vertical beams to assist you.
Narrator: And show students what they can and cannot do on the course.
Instructor: Air Assault, we know it’s warm. Stay loose, stay hydrated, be smart, be aware. Everyone’s a safety. Look out for each other.
Narrator: Two of these obstacles are major obstacles, and students must pass both in order to complete day zero. First up is the aptly named Tough One.
Instructor: Air Assault on the left, go ahead.
Narrator: It starts with a 3-meter rope climb and then tests balance along with upper- and lower-body strength at a height of over 30 feet. Students wait in line with their backs to the obstacle, so they don’t get a chance to observe other students’ attempts.
Scyler Chromy: I don’t think a lot of people can climb the rope, so I would say that one would be their toughest one.
McCurdy: So, over the past two months, if there was a rope, I’d go find it and I’d practice on it. I felt good going up it, but it was also a little bit of dumb luck that it was my very first thing, where I had all my strength on my side.
Miller: I would promote others to work on their upper-body strength to kind of be able to do that one to its fullest.
Narrator: The second major obstacle is the 35-foot-tall Confidence Climb. Students must climb up 10 wooden beams. As they ascend, the distance between each beam subtly increases before they climb over and begin their descent down the other side.
Chromy: Use that black beam, and then try to get that leg to swing over the top. They have those vertical beams on the side to hang on to, and it makes it very easy to actually just climb onto the next one, but a lot of people, you could even see taller people, that think you could just reach up, grab it, and pull themselves to the next one, but they’re scared of the height, and they let it get to them mentally. There you go.
Narrator: At this point in the day, the heat index had risen to 105 degrees, and it started to affect some of the students.
Student: He’s teetering that line.
Narrator: A medic gave this student a packet of powdered electrolytes to mix with the water inside his canteen to increase hydration.
Miller: Air Assault! I like heights, I like being up high, so just being able to look beyond. I just kind of suppress the fear, I guess. I don’t really fear it, though. I enjoy it. Air Assault!
McCurdy: My height definitely helped. Like I said, I’m 6-foot-3. Up that high, it was challenging. Which is funny, ’cause I’m scared of heights, being a pilot. But once you got over that top rung, on the way down it felt good. Air Assault!
Narrator: Obstacles like the Confidence Climb and Tough One prepare students for what comes later in Air Assault training.
Mesick: It builds their confidence at a high elevation, so when it comes to phase three, it’s easier for them to rappel off of the tower as well as, when we get aircraft, they’re a lot less scared and they’re more confident in their ability to hold on to something if they need to or climb down something if they need to.
Student: Air Assault!
Narrator: With the two major obstacles out of the way, seven minor obstacles are all that stand between these students and the end of day zero. But if they fail two of these obstacles, they’re out. Upper-body strength is key when it comes to navigating the Incline Wall, which can be challenging for some students, but Miller conquered it with ease, as did McCurdy. In the Low Crawl, students keep a low profile to avoid touching the barbed wire above them.
Miller: Air Assault!
Narrator: Flexibility is put to the test with the High Step Over, where they swing their legs over 10 horizontal beams of varying heights off the ground.
Miller: Air Assault!
Narrator: On the Six Vault, students can only use their hands to vault themselves over the wooden beams. But for some students, it’s not so easy.
Miller: I feel like I have really good upper-body strength, and it kind of compensates for other things. Only thing that is a challenge for me, the Belly Over. That’s the only thing.
Narrator: The Low Belly Over requires students to jump onto a horizontal beam, use their stomachs to catch themselves, and swing their legs forward onto the other side.
Chromy: For people who are vertically challenged, I would say the Low Belly Over is one of the biggest ones for them. You’re looking at it, and it’s already at their eye level, and you’ve got to jump high enough to where it reaches under your ribcage to be able to flip over.
Narrator: Miller was struggling.
Miller: I think it’s just not pushing myself hard enough. Like, I think I could push myself harder. I’ve seen people smaller than me go over it.
Narrator: Students who fail their first attempt at an obstacle are given one more chance to complete it.
Chromy: All right, Air Assault, you just can’t miss another minor, all right?
Narrator: This was Miller’s first failed obstacle, which means she’ll have no room for error on the rest of the course. McCurdy was also having trouble with a minor obstacle. On the Swing, Stop, Jump, students must swing from a rope onto a wooden beam, using their core and upper-body strength to establish balance.
McCurdy: [grunts] Certainly would have helped to have a little bit more upper-body strength to get up that rope a little bit more. I would say at that point on the obstacle course that I was not necessarily burned out, but I was feeling it. Especially with that older age. I actually passed it multiple times in my practice sessions, and I couldn’t get up on that rung.
Narrator: This was McCurdy’s first failure, which meant that both he and Miller could not afford to fail the final obstacle, known as the Weaver.
McCurdy: After the rope swing, my spirit was hurt because I knew I was going to be climbing up Mt. Everest looking up at that Weaver.
Narrator: As its name implies, students navigate the Weaver by dipping over and under a series of ascending and descending wooden beams. It’s pretty physically exhausting, and it’ll leave some bruises if done properly.
Narrator: But Miller handled it with ease.
Miller: I don’t know what it is. I just tell myself, “OK, just like when I was a kid, let’s go play on the playground.” And I get it done. It just happens. Air Assault!
Narrator: McCurdy, on the other hand…
McCurdy: Leading into this obstacle course, the only one that I didn’t want to do was the Weaver. Something that everyone has told me about, that it does take a lot of strength, a lot of technique, and you’re going to get bruised. I was unsure as to whether or not I could do it, but I kept pushing, pushing, pushing. Air Assault! It was a really good feeling getting off that damn thing.
Narrator: By completing the Weaver, both McCurdy and Miller conquered the obstacle course and could finally catch their breath.
McCurdy: Overall, I thought it was a fun course. It was very challenging. I’m happy that I don’t have to do it again, though.
Miller: It feels good. It feels like a refresher. It’s good to see everybody smiling and kind of build that comradery between all of us.
Narrator: 250 of the 292 students who arrived at the Sabalauski Air Assault School survived day zero. They’re given the rest of the day to refuel and rest, because they’ll need their strength before the Army’s 10 toughest days officially begin.