At rodeo, 'We're all aviators'

In the woods outside McChord Air Force Base, a four-man team critiqued its response to a mock sniper attack. High overhead, cargo jets airdropped pallets onto a target.

And on a grassy field packed with tents and dubbed Rainier Ranch, airmen from Turkey and the United States struck up an impromptu push-up contest. Members of the Israeli air force presented a McChord reservist with gifts Wednesday, six days after he had 18 of them to his Mercer Island home for a Sabbath dinner. A South Korean soldier bummed a cigarette from a Malaysian colleague.

It’s all part of the Air Mobility Rodeo, a biennial competition, training session and party at McChord this week that drew more than 2,500 airmen from around the world. The Rodeo, which holds more than 50 events such as aerial refueling, fitness competitions and medical evacuation drills, concludes today.

The competitions get serious; the margin of victory can be as little as a few seconds or a few feet, and teams practice for weeks before.

But have no doubt: Amid the serious business is some serious partying.

Forty-six tents, each decorated with flags and memorabilia from its team’s home, encircle a large field. Smoke from barbecue pits wafts through the air near dinnertime, and live bands play on a huge stage. A sand volleyball pit usually attracts a few teams.

The party usually kicks in during late afternoon and runs into the night. Airmen kill time by riding a tethered artificial bull, playing horseshoes or wrestling each other in giant, inflatable sumo outfits (a contribution from the Americans stationed at Yokota Air Base in Japan).

Senior Airman Mike Chapman, a state trooper from Clark County who serves with McChord’s 446th Security Forces Squadron, played Texas hold ’em poker with members of the Israeli air force.

“It was pretty cool,” Chapman said. “Different languages, same rules. That’s the kind of stuff that really helps you bond.”

Alcohol also helps; most tents sold beer or mixed drinks. The crew from Hickam Air Force Base sold mai-tais. The Spanish air force advertised “the best sangria in a 4,000-mile radius.” Americans serving at Mildenhall in Britain sold hundreds of Irish car bombs – a shot of whiskey and cream liqueur dropped into a half-pint of Guinness.

The Germans brought 1,500 liters of beer and 600 steins – and sold out by Thursday afternoon.

Rainier Beach provides a chance to let loose a little after intense competition. Teams prepare hard and play to win; the 446th Security Forces Squadron has been training for nearly a month leading into this week. That meant running 30 to 35 miles per week, doing Navy SEAL-style calisthenics and training while carrying 40 pounds of equipment.

“You have the big party, but during the competition, every airman is taking this seriously,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ed Stewart, a 45-year-old reservist from Graham who is the 446th Security Forces Rodeo team chief. “They’re out there competing. They’re putting forth their blood, sweat and tears. They’re trying to do the best that they can do. Because that’s what it’s about. It’s about winning.”

And it’s about comparing techniques with other teams from the United States and abroad, he added. That’s a main draw for many of the international teams. Col. Soocheol Park, an operations group commander in the South Korean air force, said his C-130 Hercules crew attends so they can analyze what other countries do and tweak their own procedures.

The Germans are here for similar reasons, but their commander said his team also savors the challenge.

“We like to take part in the competition,” Capt. Torsten Sattler said. “We are here to show what we can do, to show that we are professional.”