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But it wasn’t just my first jump, we – our battalion – was jumping into Panama to attend Jungle School.
Jumps are pretty nerve-racking. Jumping into the jungle is double-espresso nerve-racking. Only our platoon sergeant had been to Jungle School before (plus a couple of tours in Vietnam), so the rest of the platoon was worried sick about the jump and the jungle environment: snakes, spiders, ants, and weird diseases for starters. The dangers and fears mix with the adventurous feeling one always gets from doing something new.
After a few days of briefings, lectures, issued jungle boots and shots, we are packed and began the slow serpentine trail of movement, catnaps, and manifest roll-calls, finally arriving at Pope Air Force base, adjacent to Fort Bragg.
For this trip we were taking six aircraft, C-141’s, each holding 50 to 120 paratroopers. One C-141 was simply going to air land. The trip would take about 10 hours and require us to in-flight rig. And yes, the Air Force served us lunch. A box lunch, with little white barf bags included. There was also a “comfort” pallet, or bathroom, on-board
About halfway to Panama, in-flight rigging started. In-flight rigging requires a paratrooper, with the assistance of Army Jumpmasters, Safeties and Air Force Loadmasters, to dawn his parachute, hook up equipment such as rucksacks (backpacks), rifles, and crew weapons and then safety check it all. In my C-141, we had a full 120 troopers complement, so this process took many agonizing hours. Once ‘chuted up, I returned to my seat (these are full bench cargo seats designed for paratroopers) and a longer agony began because, like my fellow paratroopers, my rucksack was full, weighing about 120 pounds, containing an M-60 machine gun tripod with T&E, two cans of blank M-60 ammo, plus two PRC-77 radio batteries for good measure. In order to sit, my ruck had to lie on top of my legs, thus cutting off nearly all circulation– welcome to the Airborne.
Soon we were approaching the Caribbean coast of Panama. My nerves were frazzled – no real sleep in the last 24 hours (as it turns out, this is the norm for most of our jumps). Everyone was in his own little world; either one’s eyes were focused off into space or closed, pretending to get a little sleep. The anxiety was high. The aircraft was noisy and nobody was talking.
“Thirty minutes!” commands the Jumpmaster. “Stand up!”
The slow process of men and load getting to their feet began, one at a time, with the assistance of Safeties, Jump and Loadmasters. The relief of having a heavy pack frame removed from thigh muscles is replaced with full weight on your shoulders.
Have you ever had pregame jitters? Your stomach has butterflies, a lump in your throat, mouth dry, and heart pounding so bad you swear you can hear it. This is that – only in spades. You see, in the back of every paratrooper’s mind is the thought that … well, he could die. This is not a 100 percent fail-proof activity: accidents happen a lot. Parachutes fail, collapse, tangle, Roman candle, and May-West. And the most dangerous: paratroopers colliding with each other. It can happen on exit or descent and since we are using steerable parachutes, MC1-1 round with two rear controllable panels, the odds of this go up.
There is no mistaking when the doors open on a C-141. The two side doors aren’t very far from the engines and the 160 knot speed (slowing to 110 knots jump speed) turns a jet engine cacophony into a noise hellscape.
When the doors come open, the air oppresses us. From winter at Fort Bragg to the equatorial heat and humidity of Panama, it’s definitive. It’s as if a hot, wet wool blanket has been thrown upon me. The aircraft A/C units above hiss chilled white streams but it never reaches the suffering cargo below.
Having gone through all our airborne commands, our static lines are hooked up to the anchor line, safety checked, and ready to go – my ears are pounding out my heartbeat.
The Jumpmaster counts down 10 paratroopers and tells them they’re the first stick. You see, this is a small drop zone – 10 seconds – located next to the old French Canal. By regulations, only one man per second is supposed to exit the door. If you did the math, there are two doors, 120 paratroopers, which is six sticks per door — in theory. So now what? We racetrack! The five C-141’s will each drop a stick and follow each other in a racetrack shaped route or pattern, each time around dropping a stick over the drop zone.
The moment of truth arrives for the first stick, as we are coming to the drop zone. The Jumpmasters are waiting. The stick is monitoring the red light, waiting for it to go green – green light! – and they exit the door. Static lines pop, men shuffle forward. The stick ends and the Jumpmaster must physically stop the 11th man.
The sun is glaring through the door with a strange 1970s Kodak film quality hue. I can see jungle through a porthole window – green. The plane flies on its racetrack route, tilting as it executes the first turn; we look through the door and see jungle. It gets rough. We’re the third plane in the racetrack and the air is turbulent. The rotting jungle smell has reached us. It mixes with the jet exhaust fumes and vomit. Yes, vomit from nearly everyone. The racetrack is causing the turbulence to increase dramatically – even the Air Force Loadmasters are puking. The aircraft plummets and jumps like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The pilot is throttling the engines back and forth trying to maintain a slow drop speed and correct yaw, and keeping the plane flying in the dense humidity through multi-jet turbulence, all while maintaining the flight pattern. This is a rollercoaster ride of gravity, heat, and smell that no Disneyland could ever match.
Inside our aircraft it’s like a bucking bronco on crack. Men are buckling at the knees and someone has gone down. The Jumpmasters and Safeties pick him up. Safeties continue going up and down the bay checking static lines. The men are pushing forward. I’m about number 18 from the door but we are smashed together like a cartoon accordion of clowns — my feet no longer are touching the floor. The trooper behind me says “Don’t stop. We are going out the door.” OK, no argument from me. The lurching aircraft is taking its toll on our heavily loaded bodies — other troopers behind me are yelling, “Get us the hell out of here!” The primary Jumpmaster has his foot braced against the bulkhead door frame while holding the first paratrooper with both arms. Another Jumpmaster is holding onto that Jumpmaster – this is happening!
We’ve all had those moments in life, like your first kiss, the opening kickoff ball comes your way, the first pitch of the game – where everything goes into slow motion. This is one of those.
I don’t remember moving my feet, but they must have moved. I got to the door, swept along with flow of troopers behind me, and I exited. And as if a small miracle had happened, the sound-hurricane ended immediately. I counted one-thousand, two-thousand…. My feet skirted across a parachute canopy of a paratrooper below me. I looked up to check my parachute and watched dark footprints run across my canopy then disappear.
Then I saw my risers — the straps that connect my harness to parachute cord, which then in turn connect to the canopy – they are twisted. To fix this problem I have to bicycle my legs, which in turn gets me counter-spinning quickly. As I gently untwist, I take in the view. Now this is one of the dividends of jumping: getting those few moments of where you can just relax (but still look out for other troopers) and look around. Our “steerable” parachutes have about a seven-knot speed so collisions are possible and deadly. I notice the French Canal has a motorboat heading over to pick a paratrooper out of the water. I see another motorboat just circling, waiting for another off-course, waterbound paratrooper.
Finally I get my parachute completely untwisted but realize I’m only a few hundred feet from the ground. I quickly pull my rucksack releases and it drops to the extent of its 20 feet. I’m running with the wind – which is not good – add seven knots canopy speed to whatever the wind was and that’s how fast I’m going. But there is no time to turn back into the wind – I’m going in hard!
Then a true miracle happened. As I braced myself for what was sure to be a nose-first, ass-over-tea-kettle landing, my rucksack hanging below me caught something on the ground. The parachute continued to pull me over. Picture a balloon blowing sideways on a string as you hold it in the wind – that’s me.
Gulp — here comes the ground!
Only it didn’t come. I gently pushed over and stopped on 10-foot-high elephant grass. And there I was suspended four feet above the ground, horizontal.
Boy, was I ever happy. What a relief. I’m slung between my rucksack line and parachute. It was a bit like wiping out in deep powder snow and not being able to get a solid foot hold. I began disconnecting releases on the harness and, soon, I actually touched down on terra firma.
I did all the proper paratrooper things: removed my rifle from its case, gathered up the parachute and put in the canvas kit back, stored my rucksack harness and lower line. More planes were coming over so I looked up to watch. What a sight – paratroopers and little white snowflakes filled the sky. Wait! What!? Those little white snowflakes are little white bags — barf bags. Dozens and dozens of the small white vomit bags issued by the Air Force crews fluttering down from the sky – welcome to Panama.