Survival of the fittest: Inaugural Northwest Skunkworks event tests Airmen’s wilderness survival, leadership skills

Blindfolded competitors navigate the minefield challenge using third-party vocal cues to stay on course. Senior Airman Eric Camacho, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, uses hand signals to guide his spotter teammates, who then give the verbal cues. (Photos by Abner Guzman.)

Blindfolded competitors navigate the minefield challenge using third-party vocal cues to stay on course. Senior Airman Eric Camacho, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, uses hand signals to guide his spotter teammates, who then give the verbal cues. (Photo by Abner Guzman.)

Teams attempt to unscramble a phrase during the translation frustration challenge May 1 as part of the Northwest Skunkworks event at the base’s South 40 training area.

Teams attempt to unscramble a phrase during the translation frustration challenge May 1 as part of the Northwest Skunkworks event at the base’s South 40 training area. (Photo by Abner Guzman.)

Staff Sgt. Timothy Padgett, 62nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, left, and Senior Airman Anthony Jenkins, 62nd Security Forces Squadron, build a makeshift litter in preparation for the competition’s final scenario while other team members gather tinder for an evening campfire.

Staff Sgt. Timothy Padgett, 62nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, left, and Senior Airman Anthony Jenkins, 62nd Security Forces Squadron, build a makeshift litter in preparation for the competition’s final scenario while other team members gather tinder for an evening campfire. (Photo by Abner Guzman.)

The orange team, led by Senior Airman Andrew Barry, 62nd Civil Engineer Squadron, participates in the tug-o-war portion of the competition.

The orange team, led by Senior Airman Andrew Barry, 62nd Civil Engineer Squadron, participates in the tug-o-war portion of the competition. (Photo by Abner Guzman.)

Tech. Sgt. Patrick Whelan, 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, left, and Airman 1st Class Nicholas Willoughby,62nd Communications Squadron, attempt to unscramble a phrase during the translation challenge.

Tech. Sgt. Patrick Whelan, 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, left, and Airman 1st Class Nicholas Willoughby,62nd Communications Squadron, attempt to unscramble a phrase during the translation challenge. (Photo by Abner Guzman.)

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- A day without the use of cell phones, text messaging and the Internet might qualify to some as day void of productivity and fruitful communication. 

But don't tell that to the group of 25 Airmen who participated in the inaugural Northwest Skunkworks 48-hour survival event April 30 to May 2 hosted by the 62nd Security Forces Squadron. 

The event pitted five teams of five Airmen against each other in a survival competition filled with mental and physical challenges in the base's South 40 training area. The challenges ranged from various navigation exercises and word puzzles to more intricate ones that stressed teamwork and communication. 

One favorite was the "minefield" exercise where teams had to work together to walk a blindfolded teammate through a makeshift minefield using only verbal commands and hand signals. 

"It was all about teamwork, concentration and trusting your teammates to tell you the right thing," said Master Sgt. David Deitt, 62nd Security Forces Squadron, who helped organize the event. "It was extremely fun to watch." 

Airman 1st Class Raymond Jones, 62nd Communications Squadron, who walked the minefield without one misstep, said that particular challenge was his favorite. 

"You have to really trust what you're teammates are telling you ... we had a phenomenal team," he said. 

On top of all the challenges, the teams had to make shelters and stay warm at night. They also were only allowed the bare minimum when it came to their meals ready to eat -- which meant no napkins, heater packs or spoons. 

"We had to eat them cold," said Airman 1st Class Andrew Barry, 62nd Civil Engineer Squadron. 

The warmth and shelter aspect of the competition took some teams by surprise, Sergeant Deitt said. 

"I learned how to wake up and put more wood on the fire," Airman Barry said. "The hardest part of it all was trying to get sleep." 

Despite the initial hurdles, Sergeant Deitt said teams eventually got the hang of building shelters and keeping the fires lit to stay warm. 

"It was a good challenge," Airman Jones said. "We had to find the means to make the
fires. All of the survival depended on physical collection of materials to put on the fire." 

When it came down to it, the teams that had leaders that kept a high morale among the team were the ones that excelled, Sergeant Deitt said. 

Those leadership aspects were not lost on each Airman. 

"It was neat because our whole team had never met before the competition and it was great how we pulled together the way that we did," Airman Jones said. 

But that doesn't mean it didn't take a mammoth effort for teams to finish the competition. 

"At the end, they were so tired most couldn't communicate," Sergeant Deitt said. 

Nevertheless, there are plans to host another competition in the fall, he said. "Overall, it was very successful," Sergeant Deitt said. "We're going to make some changes to speed up the flow and make it a little better."