Airmen work to make TACP grade

U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 assembles and trouble shoots radios during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 assembles and trouble shoots radios during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 assembles and trouble shoots radios during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 assembles and trouble shoots radios during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 assembles and trouble shoots radios during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 assembles and trouble shoots radios during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alan Cisneros, a member of Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86, assembles and trouble shoots a radio during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP tactical training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alan Cisneros, a member of Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86, assembles and trouble shoots a radio during a progress check at the TACP school house, Hurlburt Field, Fla., Jan. 26, 2011. The TACP tactical training school involves rigorous academic and physical training standards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caitlin O’Neil-McKeown/RELEASED)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- Editor's note: This article is part of a series detailing the trials and tribulations of the students of Tactical Air Control Party class Falcon 86 on their journey to become fully qualified Battlefield Airmen.

In the complex world of Tactical Air Control Party, nothing is simple, and at the end of training week 5, TACP candidates from Falcon Flight 86 have yet to take a break from an 84-day test.

"It is all teaching pretty much 24/7," said Tech. Sgt. Thomas Jenn, Falcon flight instructor supervisor. "They are learning attention to detail as well as coping with physical and mental stress."

Candidates driven to become part of the Air Force's elite TACP work every hour of their training to earn the prestigious black beret.

"It is all based on lesson plans. We don't do anything off the top of our head. It is always a learning environment for them. It never stops even when we go to the [physical training] pits and PT for hours," said Staff Sgt. William Sheppard, Falcon flight instructor.

Every minuscule detail presents an opportunity for a lesson for the instructors of the 342nd Training Squadron Detachment 3.

"We start with attention to detail to doing things the right way, to guys sounding off as a team to topping off their canteen," Sergeant Jenn said.

Again, nothing is simple in this world and for good reason. Candidates must fill their canteens completely full of water, and the instructors will shake the container listening for the slightest sloshing sound.

"If they hear anything, they will throw it as far as they can," said Airmen 1st Class Adam Davis, Falcon 86 class member.

Instructors insist there is method to their madness and engraining preparation today in tomorrow's TACPs will save lives.

"It is preparation," Sergeant Sheppard said. "We always say this: today it is a canteen, tomorrow it is batteries for your radio."

Students agree with the strict and rigorous standards presented by instructors on every level.

"It is 'just' water. But if you think about it, down the road it could be 'just' your wrong frequency, 'just' a wrong coordinate, and you drop a bomb on one of your buddies. If you are accountable on the small things, you will be accountable on the big things down the road," said 2nd Lt. Jesse Swanson, a Falcon 86 class member from Chicago, Ill. "The instructors and our commander are not going to sacrifice quality for quantity."

The course work is broken into three blocks. The first block is portable communications and tactical communications.

"It is great baseline knowledge," Lieutenant Swanson said. "If you get it down cold in the classroom, you can rely on yourself to get it done when it is more stressful."

The flight learns how to troubleshoot the radios, said Airman Davis, a Crestview, Fla., native.

"We will leave the class, and [the instructors] will have messed the radios up, and we have to sit there and figure out what is wrong," he said. "It is all real material for what we are going to be doing every day."

The second block of instruction presents the highest failure rate, Sergeant Jenn said. The block is called ground environment training and includes working in the field, setting up patrol bases, small unit tactics, combatives, vehicle and foot navigation.

"Foot navigation is probably one of the scariest for these guys, they have to go out in the woods at night by themselves and walk for miles," Sergeant Jenn said. "We give them a start point and a finish point."

The lack of sleep and calories, exposure to the elements in the Florida terrain and darkness mimic the stresses of battle to test the candidates on many levels.

"We don't get to do our job when life is good," Sergeant Jenn said. "We stress them as much as we can in this controlled environment to prepare them for things like that they will see."

The third block includes aircraft, weapons and target identification. It is normally around this time that instructors see a marked change in the candidates.

"You can say something until you are blue in the face, and usually it kicks in," Sergeant Jenn said. "When it does, you are literally looking at two different people."

The curriculum aims to produce individuals with the capability to mold into a team in life or death scenarios.

"Working as a team is probably the biggest thing that we teach," Sergeant Sheppard said. "You can ask any of the guys in our flight, and they will tell you the Webster's definition of teamwork because that is how engrained it is."

According to the flight members, the standardization of treatment is something the entire flight appreciates.

"Everyone starts at the same level no matter if you are a lieutenant or A1C (Airman 1st Class). You get treated pretty much the same way. No one gets a break," Lieutenant Swanson said.

Throughout the mental and physical training marathon the candidates endure, many feel a sense of pride for what they are attempting to become.

"There is no other place I would rather be than right here," Airmen Davis said. "There are bad days, but nothing can last forever. All the pain is worth it; you are chasing the black beret."