- An experienced Navy SEAL died this week after being injured in a fast-rope training exercise.
- Fast-roping is a common infiltration method used by special-operations and conventional units.
- It’s a convenient and effective way to insert troops quickly, but fast-roping has inherent dangers.
On Tuesday, a seasoned Navy SEAL officer died after an accident during routine training in Virginia Beach.
Cmdr. Brian Bourgeois, the commanding officer of SEAL Team 8, suffered serious injuries during a nighttime fast-rope insertion exercise over the weekend. He died at a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia.
Fast-roping is one of the most common infiltration methods, used mainly by special-operations forces but also by some conventional units. It’s a convenient and effective way to insert troops, but it has some inherent dangers.
Slide for life
The Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES), the technique’s official name, is used to get special operators out of a helicopter or tilt-rotor aircraft and on target quickly.
Fast-roping uses a very thick rope attached to a bar on the fuselage of an aircraft — usually an MH-60 Blackhawk, an MH-47G Chinook, or a CV-22 Osprey — that is rolled out once on target.
Usually, a sandbag on the end of the rope holds it in place on the ground, keeping the rope from getting tangled and endangering the troops. Then, special operators wearing thick, heat-resistant gloves mount the rope and slide to the ground.
“You straighten your legs and hold tight on the rope. Imagine like you’re trying to enter a room through a window like they do in movies. You straighten your legs like that, and then you slide down,” a Special Forces operator assigned to a National Guard unit told Insider.
Depending on the airframe, an aircraft could have two ropes being used by exiting troops simultaneously, making the insertion that much faster. Unlike rappelling, there can be more than one troop on the same rope. Most special-operations units around the world use the technique.
“Fast-rope is a great way to get quickly on the target. A well-trained assault team can fast-rope from the bird on the target in only a few seconds. There is an element of danger to the bird and the operators during this process, but that’s an acceptable risk — plus there is almost always some kind of overhead support covering the insertion. The fast-roping bird also has some of its organic defensive systems that can put down a good cover if need be,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.
The Army has a course for experienced troops to become FRIES Masters and supervise fast-rope trainings or insertions during real-world operations.
During this course, prospective FRIES Masters have to pass written and verbal exams, rappel from a 40-foot tower with and without a combat load, show proficiency in rigging an aircraft for FRIES operations, and conduct nighttime and daytime fast-ropes with and without a combat load — all without any safety violations during the course.
“Fast-rope is one of the first insertion methods you learn in SOF [special-operations forces]. It has a very small barrier to entry and requires almost no real skill. You just have to hold tight to the rope and use your legs correctly. That’s it. It helps if you aren’t afraid of heights!” added the retired Delta Force commando, speaking anonymously because he still works with the US government.
In regions like the Indo-Pacific, where dense foliage and jungles create a restricted operational environment for aircraft, fast-roping is a valuable technique, as it puts troops on the ground without the aircraft having to land.
In the last few years, conventional infantry units have begun fast-roping as well.
Fast-roping is not the first insertion method exclusive to special missions units — like Delta Force and the former SEAL Team 6 — to be adopted by conventional units.
“This is in fact an intended outcome of ours,” the former Delta operator said. “We take pride in experimenting and developing equipment, TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures], and insertion methods for the joint force.”
A dangerous insertion method
During fast-rope insertions, special operators aren’t hooked to the rope. Their grip with their hands and feet is their only security. Should their hands slip or their boots slide, it can be a long fall, ranging from 20 feet to 100 feet.
“It’s a great tool to get guys on target fast and grouped [together]. If the helicopter can’t land, then fast-rope is the best answer. You can bring dogs with you too,” the National Guard Green Beret said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
“It can be dangerous, though. The reports mention that the SEAL was injured during a nighttime fast-rope. These are more dangerous because you [can’t] see shit and you have all the noise from the rotor blasting in your ears,” the Green Beret added.
Bourgeois is the first senior Navy SEAL to die in almost a decade. In 2012, Cmdr. Job Price, the commanding officer of SEAL Team 4, died while deployed to Afghanistan.
It is very unusual for officers of Bourgeois’ rank to die in training, but the Navy SEAL officer apparently led from the front and shared the same dangers as his men, even at 43 years old.