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“I’ve done this before,” I said to myself as I was packing my own parachute, again and again, making sure I check all the critical points (uhh, can you define “critical? because it’s all critical to me.”) At this point, I have well over 60 static line parachute jumps. The difference being with a static line all you have to do is jump. (Easy right?) The parachute deploys by itself and you fall for approximately three to six seconds. The aircraft is relatively low, usually 1,250 feet above ground level. In free-fall parachuting, you fall for 40 or more seconds, control yourself during the fall and deploy your own parachute. The height varies usually from about 12,500 feet up to 25,000 feet above ground level. And in static line you don’t pack your own parachute, trained professionals do … or so I am told.
It all started when I was selected to become a Warrant Officer. You get what is colloquially known as “dream sheet.” Being an astute NCO I searched out the Warrant Officers in my sphere and asked “hey, any suggestions on what I should put on this?” Resulting in sideways looks (“go away kid you bother me…”) and usually the “no idea, never filled it out…” standard response. So I ran with it. Special Forces, known as SF, also stands for Schools Forever. There are a number of schools most SF guys want from survival schools to Sniper school, language training, and Close Quarters Combat training – the list goes on and on. Then there’s the vaunted W9 identifier meaning you are both Military Free Fall (MFF) and Combat Diver qualified (scuba school). The difference being one is high profile, low physical stress, zoom and boom course, the other is a watery nightmare. I’ll let you decide which is which. Anyway, I put about a dozen courses on the sheet never expecting any of it to see the light of day. Lo and behold when my orders arrived after graduating Warrant Officer Training I was off to Military Free Fall school.
The school is broken up into ground phase and jump phase. Ground week is when you learn how to pack your parachute, the hypobaric chamber training, how to control your body during free fall, and react to malfunctions and problems. Malfunctions being an issue with your equipment. Problems being all the other neat things that can happen in the air including collisions, entanglements, and landings that can ruin your day. For example, a downwind landing (running with the wind at speeds of upwards of 30 mph) is preferred to landing in high tension power lines. It’s great having choices eh? The chamber ride, as it is known, lays out the physiological challenges faced as you leave mother earth resulting in progressively thinner air and less oxygen. The most severe effect being hypoxia which leads to unconsciousness – no bueno. Weirdly I remember that due to the decrease in oxygen in your bloodstream the cones in your eyes, responsible for seeing color, dampen, almost cease to function. I was handed a color wheel at a simulated 18,000 ft and had my oxygen mask off for three or four minutes. The wheel appeared to be basically black and white. I then put on my mask as I looked at the color wheel and shazam! Just like the Wizard of Oz the colors came to life! Then there was the wind tunnel. I had almost 10 minutes of simulated free fall at Wright Patterson AFB wind tunnel. Notably, it would not lift the average man untethered. You do get trained on controlling your body but I equate to riding an exercise bike in the gym to riding a real mountain bike in the wild. It’s close but no cigar. So after a week in Ohio, we packed up and returned to Fort Bragg for Jump Phase.
Jump phase consists of, wait for it … jumping. Initially, you do “Hollywood” jumps meaning no equipment daylight jumps. Obviously named due to the fact that this only happens in Hollywood. Next is night jumps. Nothing like 40 brand-new MFF yahoos leaving a plane in the dead of night with only a chemlight on them. From there it gets serious as the military is notorious for sucking the fun out of everything. The school sees fit to add a solid 60+ lbs. rucksack to the 55 lbs. of parachute you are already wearing. Then night, then weapons, and lastly oxygen causing all to reflect, even briefly, on why we were here. The Army Regs state above 12,500 feet you go on oxygen. Without oxygen, you can also get the bends. (I am really selling this aren’t I?) You have to pre-breath oxygen on the ground for seemingly hours when going over 13,000 feet to saturate yourself and mitigate the effects of the nitrogen in your bloodstream.
So there I was sitting on the ground, wearing the parachute I packed, waiting for the plane to land, and my first military free fall jump. We were called “sky pigs.” A name used for the bigger guys in the class done on a calculation of weight, height, and surface area all because we fall faster and I tell you we wore that moniker proudly. We look at the others filtering in who’ve just completed their first jump. They are lit up like Christmas trees, all smiles about cheating death. We sit in silence, make eye contact, and force a smile. It is our turn next. We get up as the instructor calls our names and walk towards the plane. It’s C-130 Hercules – a true workhorse for the USAF, heck for the whole military. It waits for us totally unaware, feelingless. The crew aboard the plane just smiles knowingly at us; they’ve seen this before. I think to myself “the only reason you’re smiling (insert expletive here) is you aren’t jumping. We find our seats and buckle up for the ten-minute ride to 12,500 ft. It has begun.
I look across the aisle at my instructor. He’s another Special Forces guy and has well over 300 Military Free Falls. He lounges on the seat as if he’s at home watchin’ the game and drinking a cold one – I can’t sit still. I am hyper-focused watching everything on the plane, nobody is smiling, we are all in our own heads. I go over all the jump procedures we’ve been practicing non-stop over the last couple of weeks: how to exit the plane, how to turn left & right, how to pull the ripcord, how to land, and the dreaded emergency procedures for the myriad of parachute malfunctions. The mantra echoes in my head “look, grab, look, grab, arch, pull, pull, check…” “Please no, not this jump…..”
As we get to jump altitude the inside of the aircraft comes to life. The jumpmaster gets up and starts doing his checks; he’s responsible for our safe exit from the plane. The crew starts prepping the plane for us to jump. The ramp on the C-130 opens letting in cool 60-degree air vice the stifling 90+ degree air on the ground, it’s refreshing and we are locked on, looking out the rear of the plane. The first group to exit starts getting their commands from the jumpmaster. They don their helmets, check their chutes, several go through mock pull and emergency procedures. Then they move in mass to the rear of the aircraft. There are several raised fists from those of us still seated giving them a final emotional push. Suddenly they receive their commands and exit the plane, nobody freezes. As each student and instructor exit, it sounds like a vacuum when you put your hand over the nozzle and release it again. We all stare, trying to glean any insight to our own pending jump.
Now it’s our turn, the sky pigs put on their helmets and stand up. We arm our Automatic Ripcord Release (ARR) that will pull the chute automatically at 2000 feet should you become incapacitated. It’s based on barometric pressure and usually works. Next, we check the ripcord pins on the back of the parachute on the man in front of us, ensuring they are not obstructed in any way while simultaneously hoping the man behind us is not having a bad day. We are the last ones out of the plane, no raised fists, no emotional push for us. The mantra echoes again. I am thinking about my family and I’d better make it home – I’ve got a lot to live for. I box up the fear and focus. The instructor in front of me is amusingly rubbing the helmet of his student like a father. My instructor bumps fists with me – it helps. The jumpmaster gives the hand signal to stand by (casually chatting inside a military airplane isn’t actually a thing despite dozens of depictions as such). He looks back out of the aircraft, off the side of the ramp, then pulls himself back in and faces us. He takes his hand, pointing, touches roughly his sternum, then in one smooth motion sweeps his hand horizontally pointing off the ramp – GO!! The only thing that’s missing is a deep demonic voice booming “get out.”
This is it, I can see clearly out of the plane now and it’s awesome. The first man jumps out facing toward the inside of the aircraft (known as a poised exit versus a diving exit), I can see his face and it instantly disappears as he drops away. The next man dives out and immediately goes into a tumble, I look away hoping whatever was on him does not get on me. My senses stop working, I don’t hear the plane or feel the air whipping about me. Time slows to the point I wonder if we’re not jumping (that would be convenient right about now) then I feel my instructor tapping (hitting?) me. I do a poised exit (for the record, not my first choice), spinning with my back to the ramp facing the inside of the aircraft and jump. My arms extended out at a 45-degree angle down from my shoulder and legs roughly the same. I am looking straight into the face of the man standing behind me. In a flash, I am dropping away from the plane. I was just in it and now it looks like a toy. I have no sensation of falling. I am supposed to transition to a face-down stable position but it seemingly is not happening. I look down and right. You know the old saying that the body follows the head? Well just to be sure that is actually correct I test it. I am now cartwheeling to the right through the air. Somewhere in the trained recesses of my brain I hear, “arch, arch, arch”; I comply and snap nicely into the proper position. Whew, what a ride! I check my altimeter, it reads “10,500”; I tumbled for 2,000 feet.
Inconceivably, my instructor flies right up to me (literally as if he is flying) and signals me to extend my legs. Common issue. I have pulled my legs too close to my rear and sliding backwards through the air. I am just happy that I am not tumbling anymore. Now my instructor is doing backflips and smiling. I remain flat and stable, check my altimeter, and watch the instructor not wanting to tempt fate. The sensation is incredible.
4,000 feet is pull altitude. We blast through 4,500 feet, I clear my airspace “no one around me, especially above me” and reach for my ripcord. It’s located on the right side of my chest. I reach with my right hand while simultaneously extending my left hand roughly to my forehead. This keeps you stable as you change the aerodynamics of your body. My instructor is literally right next to me and it’s making me nervous as this is yet another place that things notoriously go wrong. I pull and look over my right shoulder. This ensures air rushes over your back and helps pull the parachute from its pack. As I watch the chute deploy something flashes in my vision. It’s the instructor, he continues to fall and I am stunned how fast he drops below me. I see his chute open at 2,500 feet, instructor’s pull altitude. My chute inflates fully with no apparent problems. Can I get a hallelujah?
I fly the chute around testing all its capability and conducting the maneuvers required. It’s an amazing ride compared to a static line chute. I start looking for the windsock and the lowest jumper and we follow him in. We fly with the wind, then sideways to the wind, then into the wind to land. I prepare to land and hope my timing is on so I can do the proverbial cool guy stand up landing. I flare too early and end up sliding on my butt for about ten feet (bad news) but manage not to go over any of the prickly pear cactus abundant on this drop zone (good news). This is a common error and improves with practice. We pick up our chutes and move to the packing area.
Now we are the ones with the smile and telling our own “I just cheated death” story. I feel great, I see everything. In some weird way, we are all bonded now. I cannot wait to go home and see my family and tell them about the jump. I wish they were here. I go over to my place at the packing mat and start laying out my chute to pack it for the next jump. And so it continues getting just a little bit easier each time.
“Sky Pigs!”Published in