Story By Senior Airman Lauren Penney
Camaraderie, hard work and efficiency are words that accurately describe the 284th Air Support Operations Squadron. The morning of June 3, they began their annual Viking Challenge, a series of tasks Airmen accomplish to evaluate their skills as tactical air control party personnel and joint terminal attack controllers at Smoky Hill Weapons Range.
“The Viking Challenge is held every year to test the readiness of our unit, and also give the operators a chance to compete against each other in the application of some basic combat skills,” said Tech. Sgt. Dean Johnston, joint terminal attack controller, 284th ASOS.
While TACPs must be in top physical condition for their mission, they also need a strong mind.
“More emphasis is placed on the individual’s mental toughness and ability to persevere through the most difficult of situations and environments,” said Johnston. “All TACP Airmen must be leaders and possess confidence and competitiveness. Only a select few make it through the long, rigorous selection and training process to earn their black beret. Those that refuse to quit are the ones who succeed.”
The Viking Challenge is one of the ways to assess such qualities and emphasize the necessity of being prepared at all times. The competitors do not know which categories of events will be tested from year to year.
The events are all timed and include an Army physical training assessment, a ruck march, range calculation, weapons assembly in the dark with night vision goggles, a shooting event, close air support test and basic troubleshooting of equipment.
“Since we deploy with the Army we want all of our members to be able to pass that Army PT standard,” said Tech. Sgt. Jeff Austin, production recruiter, 284th ASOS. “This is also used to help determine who will receive the chance to attend special Army schools such as Airborne, Air Assault and Pathfinder.”
The ruck march is an unknown distance and time every year. For this year’s challenge, Airmen traversed eight miles over a variety of terrain with a full combat load of approximately 65 pounds. Senior Airman Justin Ramos was the fastest with a time of one hour and 43 minutes.
“Being able to carry heavy equipment over a long distance is a big part of being successful as a TACP,” Austin said.
Some events, though less physical, can be just as challenging. One such event is weapons assembly. Quickly putting together a weapon takes some skill. Adding a few unneeded parts to confuse the competitor in a dark room with night vision goggles to assemble various weapons within a certain time frame creates another challenge in itself.
For the shooting event, ASOS members were tested on their marksmanship and the ability to perform under stress using M-4 rifle and M-9 pistol weapons.
The close air support test is used over different aspects of a TACP’s job pertaining to CAS tactics, techniques and procedures.
The challenge also includes having competitors determine their location using only a map, compass, and protractor in five minutes after being dropped off by a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
In other events, competitors tested their ability to recognize and properly identify various surface-to-air and anti-aircraft artillery weapons systems, deriving accurate targeting data with and without advanced equipment in range calculation and finding five points of varying distances between them without a GPS.
In addition to the regular assessments, there is another test.
“Each year a secret bonus event is included,” Johnston said. “This year, the competitors were judged on their ability to accurately engage a target with a tomahawk [hatchet], from a distance of 10 meters.”
The competition is one of the squadron’s most highly-anticipated events of the year. Most of the TACPs participate and all squadron personnel are encouraged to be at the challenge.
“We are always working on core skills as a unit,” Johnston said. “However, preparation for the Viking Challenge is up to the individual competitor and his teammate. Many events are scored as a two-man team.”
The winning team receives their own personalized plaque, and their names are added to another plaque on the ASOS wall.
Winners also have the extra perk of bragging rights…until the next challenge.
“Winners have no problem letting people know they won,” Austin said. “I think a lot of the members enjoy testing themselves.”