Common Sense Under Pressure: The Naval Aviation Rescue Swimmer School Approach to Selection

By Calvin Dykhuizen, MTI Contributor

BUD/S, SFAS, Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer School (RSS), along with other programs, run efficient selection processes. Each candidate is evaluated for possessing a minimum threshold of skills which lend themselves useful in highly stressful situations. Currently, Coast Guard RSS sits between 50% and 75% attrition. Most other programs hover around 80% and Army Dive School comes in with the highest at 90%. These attrition rates lead us to assume that the necessary threshold of skill is high. Naval Aviation Rescue Swimmer School (ARSS) selects using a similar process to these programs; stress is artificially induced during training to simulate real life conditions. However, the attrition rate at ARSS is currently 45%, making it one of the lowest attrition rates among military selections. What is ARSS doing different?

ARSS is the first school of an approximate 2-year pipeline and is certainly the most physically stressful. Yet, in only six weeks, candidates must be taught all the equipment and procedures necessary to conduct a multiple person rescue; this includes learning all aviation harnesses and what to do with a parachute in the water. Also, they are taught lifesaving skills similar to a tactical combat casualty care (TCCC) course. For comparison, Coast Guard RSS is 10 weeks and does not include their medical training or learning G-suit and parachute harness disentanglements. The condensed time means that the cadre have different priorities when it comes to skill threshold. There are three specific skills to capture one’s attention: tenacity, humility, and physical fitness. From experience, we know these are necessary to perform at an elite level. A fourth skill, one that is often understood but rarely addressed, is common sense under pressure. Most pipelines are structured to select for high levels of the first three skills early in training, then, the school which follow selection phase allow candidates to learn the fourth skill at a gradual rate. 

Modern Navy rescue swimmers can trace their heritage back to 1966. At the time, the military needed a helicopter asset that was willing to fly nighttime combat missions through the austere jungles of Vietnam. The Navy said it could support and thus, Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) Three was created. Through the natural evolution of mission necessity, the rescue swimmer qualification became a collateral duty. Today, even though ARSS is a requirement, being a rescue swimmer is still prioritized as a collateral duty. The vast majority of our mission focus carries over from the Vietnam era and includes direct action, CASEVAC, and close air support. As an aircrewman, these missions are not physically demanding. Instead, they require keeping a cool head and maintaining situational awareness. As cadre, it is necessary we identify and select for a high threshold of common sense under pressure early in training.

Intuitively, we have an understanding of what it is. But how do we define common sense under pressure? Perhaps it is mental clarity or maybe it is keeping a cool head; a more complete definition is this: effectively applying a large knowledge base to the current problem while under stress. The program has organically evolved to select for this skill above the others. In fact, the other three skills are leveraged in such a way as to determine the ability of the candidate in this regard.

The school is six weeks long. In that time a candidate must learn a significant amount of information which is to be applied during the final evolution determining if he or she will graduate. At any point in training the cadre are able to quiz the candidate on any information necessary to pass the course. Examples of information include the safety precautions for a rescue device, principles of a multiple person rescue, or the medical procedures for a trauma victim. Reciting the information is cognitively demanding. When paired with physical exertion it is an effective tool to evaluate the stress management of the candidate. If simple tasks are failed, greater stress is applied. This simulates the compounding negative effect of failing to maintain situational awareness during a mission. Also, it allows the cadre to identify a low threshold of humility and tenacity early in training. Other programs rely on the physical exertion as the stressful aspect of the evolution, however, ARSS relies upon the cognitive demand. Along with the common DOR policy, each evolution contains pass/fail criteria. For example, candidates are expected to recite the information verbatim. A misplaced “the” is grounds to fail. A failure will cause the student to roll back or be removed from training. 

One should not assume physical fitness, tenacity, and humility are forgotten. They are the three strings which weave together to create the rope which we call common sense under pressure. For example, having greater levels of physical fitness strengthens the candidate’s ability to manage stress. High levels of humility allow the candidate to rely on and serve the team. Tenacity enables the candidate to continue through adversity. One skill’s strength accounts for another’s weakness. Yet sometimes that is not enough.

Near the end of the course candidates have proven their ability to be tenacious by passing a final physical assessment. Failure of the physical assessment results in a removal of training, but once complete, candidates move into the final phase of training. In this phase they are taught a basic structure of rules and how to use common sense during a multiple person rescue. Following the classroom lesson, candidates are given pool scenarios which will mimic real life. An otherwise high quality candidate may struggle during this portion of training.

One candidate, “Phelps”, seemed cut out to be a rescue swimmer. We had no disciplinary action against him, he was on the swim team in high school, and he handled himself well during PT. However, Phelps could not apply common sense principles to rescue his survivors. He regularly missed steps, disregarded safety protocol, and failed to give proper medical care to his survivors. The mistakes he made put his survivor’s lives at risk and caused the cadre to lose faith in his ability. Without surprise he failed his final. Failure of a final results in a disciplinary review board (DRB), allowing the cadre to convene and discuss the quality and potential of the candidate. During Phelps’s DRB the cadre recommended he be rolled back in training. We saw potential and felt that further instruction would resolve the discrepancies. The decision to retain him was based on the belief that common sense can be learned. Due to this decision, Phelps was able to pass the course with his new team.

One may argue that, because of a low attrition rate, the Navy rescue swimmer is not as elite as his Coast Guard brother or other special units. Though the programs are structured in a similar way, they cannot be compared. Each job has different requirements and those requirements drive skill priority during selection. One can correctly assume that, when compared to a Navy rescue swimmer, a Navy SEAL is screened for a higher threshold of tenacity. However, job performance, not attrition rate, is the determiner of who is elite. The cadre at ARSS are not concerned about the attrition rate. They are concerned about screening for a candidate who can maintain common sense under pressure because that is what an elite rescue swimmer does.

Calvin is a US Naval  Aircrewman with nearly a decade of service.