What Is Air Force Pararescue Training?

Definition & Examples of Air Force PJ Training

Soldiers surrounding wounded comrade waiting for rescue helicopter
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Air Force Pararescueman training is one of the most intense special ops training programs in the military. It includes training from multiple military branches and covers a wide range of special ops and rescue skills.

Pararescue officers must be prepared to risk their lives to rescue fellow injured soldiers in a wide variety of combat situations. Learn more about what their training entails—and why many find it so difficult.

What Is Air Force Pararescue Training?

The Air Force Pararescueman (PJ) is the Air Force's ground special operations combat medic specifically trained to rescue fallen military members in all branches of the service. While many other special operations units note their successes by how many enemy soldiers they kill or capture, the Air Force PJ is trained primarily to save lives.

In order to live up to their motto, "That Others May Live," pararescue soldiers must undergo intensive training. Because the PJ must be prepared to rescue injured soldiers in a wide variety of situations, the training must cover many different skills and scenarios.

How Air Force Pararescue Training Works

All PJ training begins with basic training followed by a nine-week pararescue indoctrination course at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where PJs and combat control technicians start their special ops training pipeline. This course is designed to recruit, select, and train future PJs through intense physical conditioning. This culminates in an extended training day.

The Extended Training Day

Before the training course is complete, the students will know exactly what it means to be pushed to physical and mental limits without the benefit of a full night’s sleep. The extended training day, also known as "hell night," is a highly intense workout of near-constant moving or discomfort for a solid day and night.

For 20 hours, the instructors push the team of PJ students to their limits both mentally and physically, preparing them for the remaining several months of the pararescue training pipeline. A student and his class (PJ training is only open to males) will spend the day in and out of the pool performing seemingly endless pushups, flutter kicks, fast swims, treading, and other water-related skills.

The physical demands placed on the students, accompanied by a lack of sleep, produce a stressful environment. The extended training day is designed to introduce students to the rigors of operations and promote team building. It approximates what a day would be like for pararescue specialists, especially those in combat situations.

The intensity of PJ training, especially "hell night," is designed to get as close as possible to the chaos of the battlefield.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation, although not the primary goal of this training, is a significant factor in the process. Working under harsh conditions with minimal sleep is a way of life for pararescuemen. Experiencing the effects of sleep deprivation within a controlled environment, under the constant watch of instructors, is an essential part of pararescue training.

The training, already difficult and demanding, becomes tougher when the element of sleep deprivation is introduced. The lack of sleep makes individual tasks more difficult to accomplish for anyone, regardless of their profession. For these airmen, the goal of this training is to hone their skills so that performing under extreme conditions becomes less challenging.

Water Confidence Drills

One of the most difficult parts of the extended training day is the water training. Recruits must undergo water confidence drills in a dark pool, a grueling ruck march, a leadership reaction course with navigation and problem solving, and a 1,750-meter swim in a cold water reservoir.

At the reservoir, students make their way into the cold water with wetsuits in hand. Instructors make the trainees submerse their wetsuits before wearing them. Once they're in, the students aren't allowed to use their arms; this drill is all flutter-kicking with large scuba fins, which can wreak havoc on unprepared ankles, feet, and legs.  

Once "hell night" is over, the pararescue trainees have an idea what it's really going to be like if they make it to the end of their training. Not everyone will pass the intense pararescue course—it traditionally has one of the highest washout rates of U.S. military technical training programs.

What Happens After Your Initial Training?

After completing basic training and your indoctrination, you'll spend 20 months in additional training at Lackland Air Force Base and several other bases around the U.S. That may seem like a long time, but it's a very thorough training program for one of the Air Force's most important roles.

The courses you'll take include:

Only when you make it through all of this will you officially be qualified as a pararescue officer.

Key Takeaways

  • Air Force Pararescueman training is one of the most intensive special ops training programs in the military.
  • Pararescue officers must be cross-trained in several different branches of the military in order to be well-prepared for an array of rescue operations.
  • One of the most grueling parts of pararescue training is the extended training day, also known as "hell night."
  • Along with basic training, the program takes nearly two years to complete.

Article Sources

  1. Air Force Special Tactics. "Special Tactics Pararescue." Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.

  2. The RAND Corporation. "Reducing Attrition in Selected Air Force Training Pipelines," Page 3. Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.

  3. U.S. Military. "Pararescue." Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.