US Army Pathfinder School

The US Army Pathfinder School is responsible for training Soldiers and providing them with the ability to provide Commanders technical expertise in the planning and executing of air movement, air assault, airborne, and air re-supply operations for rotary and fixed wing aircraft.

Pathfinders also prepare air mission briefs and air movement annexes, provide technical advice, inspect and supervise the execution of sling load operations, select, mark, and control helicopter pick-up zones, drop zones for airborne personnel and equipment, provide air traffic control and navigational assistance to aircraft, conduct Drop Zone Survey operations, certify in the use of Ground Marker Release System (GMRS), Computed Air Release Point (CARP), and Verbally Initiated Release System (VIRS) for rotary and fixed-wing aircraft airdrop operations.

The Pathfinder Course is fifteen days in duration consisting of an in-processing day, thirteen days of instruction, and a graduation day.  To complete my series of articles (i.e. Airborne & Air Assault) I figured I would share my experience from Pathfinder School. Pathfinder is basically broken into 5 Phases:

  • Air Traffic Control/Air MEDEVAC
  • Sling Loads
  • Helicopter Landing and Pickup Zones
  • Drop Zones
  • FTX

Here is what you’ll learn…

ATC/MEDEVAC: The first phase of instruction starts with ATC, or Air Traffic Control.  Here you will learn all about the techniques used by Pathfinders to facilitate the safe and expeditious flow of aircraft.  Everything from controlling traffic patterns, what pertinent information to provide pilots, how to setup a GTA CC (Ground to Air Control Center), etc. You will also revisit all aspects of aerial MEDEVAC including the 9-Line MEDEVAC Request, the standard litter and ambulatory configurations for each helicopter, special equipment, etc.  ATC/MEDEVAC isn’t too hard, it’s just the first day or so…something of a “warm-up” though for what’s to come!

SLING LOADS/SLING LOAD INSPECTION: During the Sling Load Phase, you will learn the responsibilities involved in sling load operations, the capabilities of the equipment used, sling load nomenclature and the associated hand and arm signals.  The Sling Load written portion is all about memorization of the information you are given.  For me, math relationships worked the best.

For example, for the Polyester Round Sling, I memorized each capacity based on the pendant configuration.  To determine the rated capacity for a choke or lifting provision it simply multiplied by a factor (i.e. CHOKED= x 0.8; BASKET= x 2).

Trust me, there is a lot of gear specs to remember!  The hands-on sling load inspection deals with quickly and accurately inspecting four different sling loads (i.e. A-22 Cargo Bag, a high-mobility trailer, HMMWV and  a fuel blivet/cargo net combination).  There is plenty of practice time, which I highly suggest you use!  The key to success here is to perform a thorough inspection and inspect the load the same way every time!  Get it in your mind to always grab and inspect each item correctly, in the same sequence, so that come test time the deficiencies will almost jump out at you.

HELICOPTER LANDING AND PICKUP ZONES:  During “HLZs” you will learn how to plan, organize and operate a Helicopter Landing Zone.  Additionally, you will learn all about coordinating with ground unit Commanders and the various duties and responsibilities of the different elements involved in the operation of a HLZ.  During this phase, make sure you have a good grasp on how to measure out each landing zone set up and know those distances by heart.  There is a lot of information to memorize (but the worst is yet to come)!  As with everything at Pathfinder School, ATTENTION TO DETAIL is key.  You always had to pay attention to your units of measurement (i.e. degrees magnetic, feet, meters, yards, etc.).  In Pathfinder School, a right answer without the proper unit of measurement, is a wrong answer!

DROP ZONES:  Drop Zone phase is all about learning the planning and execution of day and night Airborne operations, including drop zones selection factors, airdrop airspeeds, airdrop altitudes, types and methods of airdrops and obstacles.  I will say this…DROP ZONE PHASE IS NOT AS HARD AS MANY WILL SAY!  While it is the last; it is dubbed the hardest of the phases.  There are a lot of formulas and it will feel like they literally gave you an encyclopedia to memorize.  I would suggest anyone going to Pathfinder School pick up FM 3-21.38 Pathfinder Operations and look over this material before you go to the course.  For me, the only way to remember everything was to write them down, over and over and over again!  Pathfinder is literally one of the most academically challenging schools in the Army and you should be spending a good 70-80% of your free time studying…especially during HLZ and Drop Zone Phase.

Drop Zones was my favorite part of the course (being Airborne) as you get to understand, plan and actually operate an Airborne drop.  It was neat to see how it all comes together.  Before, I was just a jumper…now I am trained and qualified to actually set up a DZ and execute Airborne Operations.

FTX: The FTX is the culmination event for everything Pathfinder.  You will actually receive an OPORD (really a CON-OP) and utilize the skills you mastered in the course to plan and execute the mission.  It is pretty hard to fail the course at this point…you just have to be a team player and be able to utilize what you learned with some common sense.  For me, the FTX was pretty fun.

Final Thoughts 

That about sums up Pathfinder School.  Anyone interested in the school should really do a gut check and make sure you are up for the mental challenge that it is.  Lots of math and memorization!  But, at the end it is all worth it to add the “Flaming Torch” amongst the rest of my ASI badges!

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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6 thoughts on “US Army Pathfinder School”

  1. My unit is the dismounted reconnaissance troop for the brigade RSTA (reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition) squadron, so we have a large number of Pathfinder slots. A lot of Army schools are to a great extent about perseverance and heart, but for Pathfinder we are particular to ensure we send academically-capable Soldiers. That guy who can carry an M240B for an entire 12-mile foot march without flinching but pretty much goes wherever his team leader points and does what his team leader tells him and not much else is not the one to send to Pathfinder School.

    1. Agreed. Pathfinder is very academically challenging and requires a good amount of personal discipline to actually sit down and study and prepare for each exam and block of instruction. We lost about 50% of the class and it is because they were squared away guys, but lacked the smarts.

    2. Candace Ginestar

      1SG, I am very closely linked to our DRT (I am in the RSTA squadron here). Wish we had the same pathfinder slots you seem to, they always seem to get farmed out to other units….even the sniper school slots (that’s a whole other kitten caboodle).

  2. Does anyone have a line on Pathfinder Course slots available to ANG Aviation Officers in TY2014? I am willing to go in a no-pay orders status…just need the slot. (And any other schools you know of: Air Assault, Sapper, etc.) Thanks

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