What Is Air Force Pararescue Training Hell Night?

What to Expect on an Extended Training Day

An Airman cleans himself off Sept. 6, 2011, during the Air Force Pararescue Indoctrination Course, known as “Hell Week,” at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. During Hell Week, Airmen simulate a real-world mission involving air, ground and water survival. Airmen must complete 62 weeks of training in addition to basic military training to become an Air Force pararescueman.
Official U.S. Air Force/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

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.  When all other special operations units focus their primary skills and note their successes by how many enemy soldiers they kill or capture, the Air Force PJ is the consummate professional special operations combat medic trained to primarily save the lives of our military and allied forces.

The Air Force PJ training (Candidates Course) in Lackland Air Force Base is a 10-week pararescue indoctrination course where PJ's and Combat Control Technician start their special ops training pipeline. 

Before the INDOC 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 at Hell Night, is a highly intense workout of near constant moving or discomfort for a solid day and night.

What To Expect

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 will spend the day in and out of the pool performing countless pushups, flutterkicks, fast swims (both underwater and surface swimming), treading, and other 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 is "just another day" for the active Pararescuemen when spending most of the day and night conducting rescue missions in some of the most hostile environments and combat zones in the world so that "Others May Live."

Dealing With Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation, although not an aim, is a factor in the process. However, working under harsh conditions with minimal sleep is a way of life for pararescuemen. Being pushed and experiencing the effects of sleep deprivation during 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.

Tasks To Accomplish

Some of the tasks they face include water confidence drills in a dark pool, a gruelling 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. They watch the students cringe as they pull on the cold wetsuit. Then it’s the exhausting swim and what seems like a million flutter kicks.  The PJ INDOC students utilize the combat side stroke but they do not use their arms.  It is all flutterkicking with large SCUBA fins which can wreak havoc on unprepared ankles, feet, and legs.


Once back at the school, weary-eyed trainees prepare for a medical terminology class.

Next, the entire class quickly fades into what appears to be a ballet of yawns and bobbing heads. Students keep an eye on each other to ensure no one nods off. They know one sleeping trainee means more flutter kicks for the entire team.

Finally, the room is called to attention. The sergeant walks in with a handful of gray T-shirts and a bag of ascots. The T-shirts say "Pararescue Trainee," and the ascots are pararescue scarves. Both are symbols of accomplishment. They show everyone that the trainees have made it halfway through the pararescue indoctrination course and have what it takes to finish it.

Then, the sergeant asks an instructor to bring forward another bag containing a long, 3-inch thick rope, a sacred symbol of all pararescuemen, past and present.

The instructors secure the event and the student can finally get some sleep.

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