Keep Your Feet and Knees Together Airborne!
"TEN MINUTES!" cried the jumpmaster over the thunderous drone of the four Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines.
"Ten minutes, ten minutes, ten minutes!" the ninety aspiring jumpers called back wanly, looks of trepidation on their faces. Of those ninety, the ten minute warning was only relevant to the thirty clustered closest to the rear of the Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft. The others would have to wait for the next pass over Friar Drop Zone in Fort Benning, Georgia. I was one of those thirty, roster number 306, and had already watched with a mixture of amazement and horror as the thirty before us had been fed, one at a time, out both jump doors into the waiting maw of the unknown.
We had prepared for this moment, to be sure, for all of the previous two weeks. The United States Army would never ask one of its soldiers to perform any task, however mundane, without first providing a detailed block of instruction. During those first two weeks of Airborne school, we had been introduced to the T-10 parachute and the MIRPS (Modified Improved Reserve Parachute System), been taught how properly to land ("Hit, shift and rotate. Kick your legs up and over. Activate your canopy release assembly."), been told what to do in case of a mid-air entanglement or a water, power line, or tree landing, and been thoroughly indoctrinated into the history of the Airborne, from the first test platoon in 1940, to the Rangers' jump into a hailstorm of bullets over Panama in 1989.
Prepared, yes, but ready? Absolutely not, we would have said. No one, we thought, could possibly become inured to plummeting one thousand two hundred fifty feet out of a moving aircraft, suspended only by a few square yards of thin nylon fabric. "What have we gotten ourselves into?" we all asked ourselves. Only the engines would answer us with their continuing mind-numbing roar.
"GET READY!" came the next command from the jumpmaster.
This was the moment of truth. True, I could always quit the course. It was incredibly easy to do. I would merely need to get the attention of the closest jumpmaster or safety, and tell him I didn't want to jump. I would be moved forward in the aircraft, so as not to interfere with the other jumpers, and be told to stay there. Then, when the aircraft landed, I would do the duffel-bag drag, as it's called, over to the holdover company, where all the quitters and failures went. After I had spent a few lousy weeks sweltering under the hot June sun, mowing grass maybe, or painting rocks, I would be given orders to some non-Airborne assignment, such as Korea or Fort Drum, and I would be told never to come back. Nobody outside the Airborne community would think any less of me. But quitting is never really an option for me. Once I have made up my mind to do something, I will follow though. I detest the bitter taste of failure, especially when made all the more unpalatable by being voluntary.
"OUTBOARD PERSONNEL STAND UP!" called the jumpmaster.
The soldiers across from me struggled to their feet, encumbered as much by the bulkiness of the parachute as by the wild bucking of the aircraft. One of the female West Point cadets, roster number C54, I think, tumbled forward into the reserve parachute of someone seated to my right. She, being short, blond, and a future officer, had always gone out of her way to act tough and aloof. But the look of unreasoning terror in her eyes as she unsteadily rose to her feet again laid to waste all of her earlier posturing. Being in the throes of our own terror, we pretended not to notice.
Roster number 308, seated next to me, turned in my direction and shouted something to me which I couldn't hear over the noise from the plane. From his tone and the look on his face, though, it was obvious that he was saying some words of encouragement.
"Airborne!" I yelled back as enthusiastically as possible, giving him my most ebullient thumbs up.
"INBOARD PERSONNEL STAND UP!" was the next jump command.
Because I was sitting in the center section of the aircraft, this was the first command that required me to take action. I, along with the other six jumpers of my thirty person stick who were on the same row of jump seats as me, threw my weight forward in a desperate attempt to shift myself into a more or less standing position. Since I had taken the Airborne instructors' advice about properly tightening my parachute harness, the best I could manage was a tall and slender parody of Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant.
"HOOK UP!" we were commanded.
We bounced and rolled as the plane bounced and rolled, trying to get the hook on the end of our static line around the anchor line cable. The static line, fifteen feet long, slender as a whip, bright yellow, and with a tensile strength of over six thousand pounds, by virtue of being connected to the aircraft via the anchor line cable, pulled the D bag off of the parachute, and thence the parachute off of the pack tray, and out into the open air, enabling the parachute to open with no action required of the jumper beyond a step into emptiness. This, of course, presupposed that we could get our limbs to stop shaking long enough to lock the snap link at the end of the static line.
The plane bucked, and finally, CLICK. The snap link closed, and I was tethered to the plane. I traced the static line down, making sure it was correctly routed over my shoulder, and finally grasped a four-inch bight in my right hand, which had previously been guarding my reserve parachute's ripcord grip.
"CHECK STATIC LINES!" we were ordered.
I again traced my static line down from the place where it met the anchor line cable, through the four-inch bight, and back toward my shoulder. I then traced the static line of roster number 307, who had previously been sitting across from me, over his shoulder, down, down, zig-zagging through the retaining bands on the outside of his parachute pack, and into the center, where the four flaps met and were held closed by a thin line of white cotton string, while roster number 305 checked mine in exactly the same manner.
"CHECK EQUIPMENT!" we heard, and we did.
I traced the chin strap of my ballistic helmet from left to right, and then the parachutists' retaining straps, first left, then right, from the rear forward. Then I inspected both my leg strap quick releases and my chest strap quick release. These three clips, all rated above two thousand pounds, kept my body firmly secured in the parachute harness during even the most violent opening shock. They were correctly fastened, as they had been two hours before, when I donned my parachute; as they had been one hour before, when I boarded the aircraft; as they had been five minutes before, when I checked them for the millionth time. This done, I checked roster number 307's equipment. His, too, was well in order.
"SOUND OFF FOR EQUIPMENT CHECK!" bellowed the jumpmaster, his hands behind his ears in the familiar gesture.
"OK!" "OK!" "OK!" "OK!" the jumpers called, one after the other. When I felt a smack and heard roster number 305, I, too, called, "OK!" The cry went up the line until the last jumper yelled, "ALL OK JUMPMASTER!" The safety scuttled by, rechecking all of our static lines and equipment, and admonishing us to look the jumpmaster in the eyes as we handed him our static lines.
Centuries passed. The aircraft was now in its final approach to the drop zone. The jumpmaster waited for word from the pilot. We waited for word from the jumpmaster. The plane continued to roll and yaw as it encountered choppy air close to the ground. The four engines increased their roar slightly as the pilot inched the throttle forward. The jumper on the other side of the aircraft looked at me and our eyes locked for a brief instant. He would be swept out of the other jump door within one second of the time when I went out mine.
"ONE MINUTE!" An invisible signal had arrived from the cockpit.
The index fingers of our free hands shot up, a mirror image of the jumpmaster. I felt sweat slide down my face, although the air rushing in through the open jump doors was keeping the cabin cool. The jumpmaster leaned out of the door, checking for any potential hazards, and then leaned back in.
My heart skipped a beat just before pumping adrenaline through my system.
The first jumper in line handed off his static line to the jumpmaster, and pivoted to face the door. The rest of us shuffled forward a half step. I could hear my heart over the deafening drone of the engines. We were just then clearing the leading edge of the drop zone.
The first jumper disappeared, his static line quivering as it tore the D bag off of his parachute. A second later, the first jumper on the other side, too, disappeared. These first two voluntary sacrifices were followed by the rest of us, one at a time.
I shuffled forward until my eyes met those of the jumpmaster. I handed him my static line, pivoted, stepped, and was ripped out of the aircraft by the wash from the turboprops.
Elbows tucked into my side. Chin on my chest. Feet and knees tight together. I could hear the quiet snapping as my static line freed itself from the retaining bands, the clink of metal as my risers slowly deployed. "One thousand, two thousand!" I counted. More than four thousand and I would pull my reserve. "Three thousa-" I felt, more than heard, the loud WHUMP as my parachute filled with air, scattering my limbs every which way.
Safe! My parachute had deployed in exactly the same manner as I'd feared it wouldn't. All that remained now was a short ride to the ground where I'd turn in my parachute and wait for the bus to take us back. All fear and nervousness had evaporated.
As I slowly floated down, my mind cleared and I entered an almost meditative state. I was able to see how truly amazing an experience this had been. I have jumped many times since then, but the fear will never come back. In its place will always be an excitement, a nervous anticipation. Nothing I have ever done before or since can compare with the feeling of complete weightlessness, both physically and mentally, that only comes with taking a leap of faith into an abyss of the unknown.