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NEWS | May 13, 2024

CAP pilots credit survival to SERE training

By Susan Moriarty Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs

Two experienced Civil Air Patrol pilots recently put their survival training to the test, thanks in part to a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape expert assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, when their 1961 Piper Comanche aircraft lost power and hit the frigid waters in Narragansett Bay off the coast of Rhode Island on March 30th.

Civil Air Patrol is the auxiliary of the Air Force and has a three-fold, non-combat mission: emergency services, cadet programs and aerospace education.

Civil Air Patrol 1st Lt. Alysia Larson, West Bay Composite Squadron Emergency Services officer and Professional Development officer, and her husband, Capt. Paul Larson, West Bay Composite Squadron Character Development officer, were about a half-mile from Quonset State Airport, R.I., when the aircraft’s engine lost power short of the runway and the Larsons found themselves 2,600 feet from shore having to swim in the choppy water. 

Fortunately, before impact Paul Larson knew to unlatch and open the plane’s exit and placed their Mayday signal. The Larsons were uninjured and experienced swimmers, which contributed in their favor. Despite the dire circumstances, they were able to egress the aircraft, which completely sank in only 5 minutes, and maintain their mental and physical stamina in the water for another 15 minutes until rescued.

Alysia Larson attributes their positive outcome in part to the training she received at CAP’s Hawk Mountain Ranger School aircrew survival course in Pennsylvania in July 2022. In particular, she recalls that information provided during the course by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sam Neitzer, 305th Operations Support Squadron SERE Tactics noncommissioned officer in charge, and U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Austin Ferguson, Healthcare Operations Squadron Ambulance Services supervisor, was what came to the forefront of her mind during the incident. 

“The amount of information they gave was phenomenal and the hands-on training that we did was challenging,” Alysia Larson stated. “What’s important is the survival skills they conveyed - which is what came to the forefront of my mind during the incident. Some of that was just learning to have a mentality of survival.”

The Hawk Mountain Ranger School is a specialized training center hosting various courses as well as a National Cadet Special Activity for CAP.

In one of her interviews after the incident, Alysia Larson recalled how she had the mentality of ‘I’m not going to die today.’

“That is significant,” Alysia Larson said. “Without even realizing it, that instruction – those principles – came to the forefront of my mind.” 

Through the Basic Survival, Advanced Survival and Special Advanced Survival courses at the school, CAP members learn skills to help them in the event of an emergency, from land to sea. The focus of the training is on the mindset, skillset and equipment required to turn catastrophic events into success stories.

Neitzer was part of the initial support provided to Hawk Mountain in summer 2022, and has remained dedicated to teaching CAP pilots to be as prepared as possible should they find themselves stranded or isolated in potentially harsh environments.

“Lt. Larson attended the first iteration I was able to support at Hawk Mountain,” Neitzer said. “We worked with her group to gain basic understanding on survival mindset, equipment to affect survival and baseline knowledge. From there, we went to Hawk Mountain to conduct hands-on training in the environment and survive using the gear and knowledge each member had. Her group was small in size and high in motivation, which helped them get a chance to get additional instruction and repetition on the drills.”

Alysia Larson recalls how Neitzer and Ferguson set such a great example during their training through their experience and passion for what they were teaching. 

“The two of them set such a fine example of servant leadership – they came out to Pennsylvania in July and it was hot,” Alysia Larson said. “They made learning so much fun – it was partly because of their sheer enthusiasm. I’m very grateful for their example and willingness to share their knowledge.” 

CAP-USAF plans to continue to coordinate with the 305th OSS to advocate for and request SERE support for the survival training at Hawk Mountain.