US Army Pathfinders trace their origins to the massive airborne operations of World War 2. After a series of mishaps involving airborne troops, it was decided that a force of trained men was needed to help guide transport aircraft and gliders to their intended destinations. The concept originally developed by the British was used as a model.
The original group of volunteers was selected from members of the 82nd Abn Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The men were trained to parachute in and mark parachute Drop Zones (DZs) and glider Landing Zones (LZs). The Pathfinders would use colored lights, flares, panels, and smoke to mark the DZ/LZ’s. They also provided radio check points to aid in aircraft navigation.
The experimental Pathfinder group was first used during the Allied invasion of Sicily, in 1943. Pathfinder teams jumped in ahead of the main assault force. The teams marked drop zones and set up radar homing devices to guide aircraft to there targets.
The next large scale use of Pathfinders teams occurred during the D-Day operations. Pathfinder teams from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, were dropped in a few hours before the main assault was to begin. German antiaircraft fire caused many of the aircraft transporting the Pathfinders to veer off course. Because of the disorganized nature of the drop, pathfinder teams were scattered all over the French countryside. Many men found themselves operating alone or in areas they knew nothing about. Many teams were unable to reach their objectives and their missions met with various levels of success. Not long after the Pathfinders landed, the main assault force began landing. The Pathfinders linked up with whatever units they could, and eventually they were able to make their way back to their parent units. Pathfinders went on to participate in every major airborne operation of the war.
With the end of hostilities in 1945 the US began a massive draw down of its military and most of the Pathfinder units were disbanded. After the Air Force became a separate service in 1947 the Air Force claimed that only qualified Air Force personnel should guide Air Force aircraft. The remaining pathfinder units were disbanded and their tasks were assigned to the Air Force’s new Air Resupply and Communications Service, the predecessor to the Combat Control Teams.
With the Army’s increased use of helicopters during the 1950’s, a need was once again felt for the renewed services of Pathfinders. The first group to form a new pathfinder unit was the 11 Air Assault Division (TEST), the first Army unit to actively utilize the helicopter’s mobility. As the US became more deeply involved in Vietnam, the Army began to deploy large numbers of combat troops. As these units began to arrive in Vietnam, many began to establish provisional pathfinder units. Pathfinder’s were usually assigned to their parent organization’s aviation unit. Operating as four man teams they secured, marked, cleared, and established DZ/LZ’s; Provided initial aircraft guidance at remote locations; and provided some limited air traffic control capabilities.
Unfortunately some unit commanders felt that any unit that “drained” away some of there best trained men, was a luxury that they could not afford. As a result some of the men who volunteered were not qualified. Some teams were misused or deployed for missions outside of there scope. Many of the men assigned as pathfinders had no formal training, instead learning there skills on the job. However most units found the pathfinders services helpful, in their day to day combat operations.
Originally established in England during WWII, the US army Pathfinder School is located at FT. Benning’s Lillyman Hall. Potential pathfinders spend approximately three weeks learning and practicing their new skills. When the US Air Force assumed the combat air traffic control duties in 1951, the school was closed. In 1955, the school was reopened under the Airborne-Air Assault branch of the Infantry School. It continues to operate to this day. During the course students are taught basic air traffic control techniques; drop zone marking techniques; how to use computed air release points (CARPs); the ground marking release system; the Army Aircraft Verbal Initiated Release System and the proper use of the PIBALL weather balloon, to measure mean effective wind.
Today’s Pathfinders are trained in airborne, small boat, vehicle, foot, and sometimes free fall infiltration techniques. These small four man teams may be parachuted in up to 72 hours in advance of the main assault force. They provide DZ/LZ surveys; site security; initial aircraft guidance, and mark and clear drop zones for follow-on forces. They are capable of engaging in demolition operations to clear DZ/LZ’s of obstacles. If equipped with laser targeting devices (LTD) they may also designate targets of opportunity for air strikes. Pathfinders may be expected to coordinate aircraft movement, control parachute drops of personnel and equipment, conduct sling-load operations and provide initial weather information to commanders.
Currently the US army only maintains three pathfinder units:
- 101 Avn. Regiment Pathfinder Co.
- 17 Avn. Bde Pathfinder Section
- C/509 Inf. (Pathfinder)
- 101 Abn. Division (Air Assault)
Some of the most recent pathfinder operations were conducted during Operation Desert Storm. Pathfinder teams assigned to the 101 Abn. Div.(AA), deployed in support of the 101’s air assault into Iraq. The Pathfinder teams were flown into Iraq by division aviation assets. Once their the ground the teams deployed radio homing beacons and helped establish Forward Arming and Refueling Points (FARPs) for the division’s aviation units. The Pathfinders also acted as the Aviation Brigade’s Quick Reaction Force. On one occasion the platoon rushed out to retrieve EPWs (Enemy Prisoners of War) for interrogation by Army intelligence staff. One three man Pathfinder team was compromised by Iraqi troops operating in the area. The teams commander immediately called for an emergency extraction. Because of an emergency situation elsewhere, the team was ordered to remain in place. With no choice left the teams commander ordered an attack on the Iraqi’s position. The Pathfinders successfully attacked and captured an Iraqi bunker; in the process they captured a number of EPWs and classified documents. All three men later received Bronze stars fort their actions.
Pathfinder teams have also deployed to support US domestic law enforcement agencies, during counter drug operations. The pathfinder teams provided tactical ground intelligence to law enforcement aviation assets, during aerial drug sweeps.