Saturday, May 3, 2008

Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane

By SPC Mark M.

Chance of showers before 2pm. Partly cloudy winds
south southeast between 2 to 8 mph.

“Bummer. Looks like there won't be any help from the rain gods
tonight. For once. Let's see if the Air Force will
give us a little help,” I told myself followed by a
short sigh.

But I had the feeling. . . The feeling that I wasn't going to get out of this one. I was going to actually earn that extra hundred and fifty dollars I
get paid each month. I closed my laptop, grabbed my
keys and headed for work. They had given us a late
call of noon, seeing as I most likely would
not get off work until tomorrow morning.

When I got to the company, I walked up the ramp removing my maroon beret and was greeted by Sgt. Anderson at the door. He stopped and looked at me and without a word we both
looked at each other and began shaking our heads.

A staff sergeant was standing at his locker changing into
the duty uniform.

“Grab the cherries (privates) and get ready for
weapons draw.”

“Roger sa’arnt. Already on it.”

"Shira, Bulger, let's go fuckers, weapons draw five minutes."

Both jumped to their feet and headed for the arms room.

“Uh, specialist?” Shira said in his small voice and going to parade rest.

“What's up guy?”

“Uh, will I be jumping the SAW (machine gun) tonight?”

“Yeah,” I replied laughing. “Oh, and make sure you
draw a modified weapons case.”

He cracked half a smile that clearly said “dammit!” the only way a
private can.

“Roger.”

At once we were first in line at the arms room so the draw went
quickly which is rare. With our weapons and night vision drawn, we went to our task
double checking the rigging on our parachute drop bags
as well as checking our night vision and changing
batteries as needed.

“ALL RIGHT CHALK LEADERS, GET THEM MOVING OVER TO
FALCON FIELD FOR INITIAL MANIFEST!” yelled the first
sergeant from his office.

“You heard the man get your gear and move over to
chicken field,” someone echoed.

Generally that's where things start to get interesting. Several
hundred men all gaggled around. . .the phrase too many
chiefs and not enough Indians comes to mind.

As NCOs try to make sense of it all and get everyone divided
into the right birds and the right order. For a
combat equipped jump, they do what they call combat
cross loading. Basically mix you in with a bunch of
guys you don't know from other units. That way you
have no idea whether or not they are going to freak out
in the air. At least that's what I think they say, so if
in the “real thing” a bird gets shot down a whole
unit wont be lost.

Jump masters begin combing the lines inspecting helmets and checking dog tags. For
some reason you cannot jump without you dog tags. I
think they help with aerodynamics during the free fall
portion. . . not really I made that up.

At that point, there were still rain clouds moving in
and out and the overall thinking was that we weren't
going to jump 'cause of the weather. I knew better.
For some reason I think I'm the only one who checks the
weather. But I didn't try to tell them otherwise. They
seem happier when they have hope.

I guess I should explain that the majority of America's paratroopers
hate to jump out of airplanes. It's not at
all like sky diving. Oh no, it's much more dangerous.
Between 60 and 80 some odd paratroopers exit two doors
in an average of thirty seconds. There is certainly a
long list of things that can go wrong, from becoming
a towed jumper (I'll let your imagination figure that
one out), to mid-air entanglements (which happens quite
often), to partial or total malfunctions of your main
parachute (nice way of saying your chute doesn't
open), and to the fact that you have no way of really
controlling where you go, so you are at the mercy of
the wind.

I will say, most don't care about
the jumping out part, it's the landing really. Hitting
the ground at 18 to 22 feet per second, and a lateral
speed of whatever wind gust has you, never feels very
good. Broken legs, ankles, heads are common place. But
I digress.

Eventually we made our way over to Pope Air Force Base
to a place called Green Ramp. It's basically a line of
warehouses and bays along the flight line with row
after row of strange looking wooden benches that are
'specially made so that they are only comfortable to
sit on when you are wearing a parachute.

We waited for hours before actually dawning our parachutes. My
shoulder hurt just thinking about it. The T-10-Delta
parachute weighs around 60 pounds alone. Then strap
on combat equipment and you're looking at about a hundred
pounds all together rested on two torturous shoulder
straps. The longer you're in the harness, the more you
want to jump out the door just so when you hit the
ground you can take the damn thing off.

Now in the chutes and hating life, the jump masters
having done their final inspections, the
starting of jet engines introduces adrenalin into the
blood stream. The only two guys from my platoon in my
chalk was Shira and another young private named
Myamoto, both doing the airborne infantry man thing. . .
they were both asleep. It's funny to me that all these
guys getting ready to exit an aircraft at over a
hundred miles an hour and eight hundred feet above the
ground can sleep. Heads slumped down in front resting
on their reserve parachutes.

Everyone wakes up when they open the giant metal doors to the flight
line. . .front row seating over looking a row of four
C-17 massive cargo jets, sleek and very impressive with
rear ramps down, bright white lights shining out from
within.

I turned to the two guys, “Hey, when you hit the ground come to me and we will
move out to the assembly area together.”

“Roger, specialist.”

“You know what to do if you can't find me? Find
the center line dirt road and follow the direction of
the planes. The company assembly point should be on
corner of the field.”

“Roger, specialist.”

Then it comes.

“CHALK TWO ON YOUR FEET!”

With a sigh, I struggle to my feet. With the parachute drop bag strapped around
your legs in the front, it's nearly impossible to walk. So,
of course, the Air Force parks their birds like a mile
away, which makes for a very awkward and painful
walk.

C-17s look, well, like a space ship inside. Very
high tech and powerful birds with much more room inside
than C130s. Those Vietnam era birds are louder on the
inside than the outside and smell of oil and exhaust
and often break down. It's so tight in there that when
the jump masters have to get to the front of the
aircraft, they literally walk on you.

Less than five minutes in our cargo net seats and
guys are again passing out left and right. Many times
the pilots need flight hours so we load up and “race
track” for several hours. Was not to be the case
tonight. We had been pushed back already for whatever
reason so it was to be a about an hour flight to a
drop zone five minutes away. When the ramp goes up
the white lights turn off and the red lights come on.
Really sets the mood, I'll tell ya. A short taxi and a
hard throttle up and we are airborne.
The adrenalin really starts going when the two
jump masters near the tail begin yelling and giving
hand and arm signals.

“TWENTY MINUTES!” and the jumpers snap awake look to
the front and repeat. “TWENTY MINUTES!” f

Five minutes later comes, “TEN MINUTES!. . .GET READY!”
Each time the jumpers turn to the front and repeat.

“OUTBOARD JUMPERS STAND UP!” All the jumpers on the
outboard side of the aircraft stand up folding up their
cargo net seats.

“INBOARD JUMPERS STAND UP!” The jumpers along
the center of the bird move over the anchor line
cable, two steel cables strung from front to back
along the side of the aircraft about a foot apart from
each other.

“HOOK UP!”

I grab the long yellow chord thats draped
over my shoulder and hook it to the cable above my
head.

“CHECK STATIC LINE!”

I trace the line from the cable down over my shoulder making sure it hasn't gone under
the riser or under my arm. Then reach forward and
trace the line on the guy in front of me from his
shoulder down ensuring the same for him. Then slap
him on the shoulder letting him know he is good as
someone does the same for me.

“CHECK EQUIPMENT!”

Trace my helmet strap, tightening
it once more and go down ensuring each snap hook on
the harness is secure. Then from the back its passed
to the front. Someone slaps me on the ass and yells
“OKAY!” I do the same to the man in front. When it
gets to the number one jumper he yells, “ALL OKAY
JUMP MASTER!”

It's about that time that they open the doors and the
wind rips around the cabin as the four screaming jet
engines reach your ears. Guys start screaming and
yelling muffled “WHOO!” and “YEAHS!”

I turned to the guy standing next to me and yelled in his ear, “YOU
KNOW, IT'S TIMES LIKE THESE THAT I CAN'T HELP BUT WONDER
ABOUT ALL THE DECISIONS I'VE MADE IN MY LIFE THAT HAVE
LED ME TO THIS POINT!” He laughs and shakes his head.

All the noise and commotion seem confusing but its kind
of a strange ballet. The jump master known as the
safety literally sticks his head out the door and
looks for the approaching drop zone. When he sees
that he's two thousand meters away, he gives the signal and the
jump masters yell, “ONE MINUTE. . .STAND BY!”

The number one jumper turns and stands in front of the door. That to me
would be the worst job and I refuse to do it. I can jump
because I don't think about it, I just do it. The
number one jumper stands there for an eternity looking
out into the world from a high performance aircraft.
Then the amber light comes on and the jump masters
give the second to last command.

“THIRTY SECONDS!”

Blink hard, breathe deep and focus. Body and mind ready.

And then it happens. The little amber light by the door turns green.

“GREEN LIGHT, GO! GREEN LIGHT, GO! GREEN LIGHT
GO!. . .”

One by one, each jumper hands off the static
line to the safety turns and runs into the darkness
and disappears.

TO BE CONTINUED.........

2 comments:

Love Letters to the Middle East said...

Mark, I've been reading all of your posts and you have a seriously great talent for telling a story.
I know this post was quite a while ago, but I just wanted to say Thank You for everything (your service) and know that I am here reading whenever you post next.

Your experiences are truly fascinating and this blog reads like a book, really!

If you ever need letters or packages, let me know!
Be safe and God Bless*

BobbyH3 said...

nice