In the fall of 1990, after completing Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Benning Georgia, I was assigned to attend Airborne school at the same post. Contrary to popular belief, Airborne school does not teach you how to jump out of airplanes. Any idiot can jump out of an airplane with the proper motivation. Airborne school teaches you how to land without perishing, that requires a little more finesse and training. I remember Airborne training as being a lot of fun, but it nearly killed me.
Every morning we awoke at 4:30 to dress our bunks and do PT. We ran about four to five miles a day then we spent seven or so hours falling off ledges, jumping out of towers and rolling around in sawdust. We did this for two weeks, Ground Week and Tower Week, respectively. The third week was called Jump Week. This was the biggy. During Jump Week we performed five static line parachute jumps from several different aircraft.
They used to do one jump a day, with the final jump leading directly into the graduation ceremony. Bleachers were set up and family and friends were invited to enjoy the spectacle of humans dropping out of airplanes and then donning funny looking hats in a short, but poignant ceremony. Unfortunately, shortly before I attended the school a young lady had a dangerous and unrecoverable parachute failure during the final graduation jump; Her parents where in the bleachers when she fell 1200 feet to her death. Since that incident they have changed the schedule for Jump Week. On Monday you do one normal jump. On Tuesday and Wednesday you perform two jumps, one with a simulated combat load another normal jump. Thursday is then reserved for that most holy of Army activities, cleaning the barracks and on Friday you graduate.
The combat jump was what nearly did me in. Let me get some details out of the way before I begin the tale. Static line jumping is different than what most of you probably think of as parachuting. Because of the low altitudes (1200 feet) these jumps are performed from, and the rapid descent parachute used by the Army, freefall is not only dangerous, but practically impossible.
A steel line is strung from the bow to the aft of the plane. Each parachutist stands and attaches his or her static line to this steel cord by a hook and then shuffles slowly towards the door where they exit the plane rapidly, virtually on top of each other. The static line is a length of heavy nylon strap that is attached to the back of the chute pack in simple loops and attached with rubber bands. One end of the static line has a hook for attachment to the plane and the other end is attached to the top of your chute. When you exit the plane the static line remains attached to the plane and pulls your chute from its pack almost as soon as you exit the plane. The resulting descent lasts approximately a minute and a half.
That’s just enough time to unstrap all your equipment and safely roll out of your landing.
There are four things they constantly warn you about in Airborne school.
- Never, ever, ever let your static line fall under your arm. If your static line pulls out of too many loops it can fall below your elbow, when you turn to exit the plane it will then run from your back around your waist and over your arm. If you exit the plane in this manner, the static line will be jerked up your arm and the potential for damage is severe. They courted us with horror stories of young men who had their biceps ripped off and displaced around their wrists.
- Always jump clear of the plane. If you don’t propel yourself far enough forward, you may strike the side of the aircraft as you exit. This of course, is bad. I shouldn’t have to detail the problems this could cause.
- If you don’t keep your chin tucked firmly into your chest when you exit, your chute straps will twist across your neck and you could have significant problems, a broken neck and asphyxiation are among those possible problems.
- If you don’t untie the strap for your weapons case it will break your leg when you land. The weapons case is a canvas bag, into which you place your rifle. It is secured to your harness at the chest, and to your ankle by a knotted strap. If it is still tied to your ankle when you land, you cannot roll properly and may break a limb.
On Tuesday morning I made my first simulated combat drop. I violated
every one of those rules and a few others and walked away virtually unscathed. By all rights I should have hit the ground as a whimpering mush of broken bones and displaced flesh
The problems all started when I was shuffling slowly towards the exit. As I moved forward, my static line worked its way out of one of the loops. The man behind me noticed and brought it to my attention. I was attempting to compensate for the extra loop when I reached the end of the line and turned to exit the door.
When I turned the loop passed under my elbow and now traveled over my arm. I was now frantically trying to get my arm out of the loop, then the Jump Master began yelling at me. “Go, go go!!” he screamed. I desperately attempted to explain my situation to him over the roar of the engines and the open door. He either didn’t hear me or didn’t care. Before I could extricate myself from the static line, he applied a size fourteen motivator to my ass and quite literally booted me out the door.
All I could think about where the horrible stories of dismemberment. I had barely begun to panic when my situation got worse. The Jump Master’s kick, while quite forceful, did not propel me far enough from the plane. I bounced along the side, striking my knee and my head. The impact with the hard aluminum exterior set me spinning. The static line jerked my right arm up and the back of my hand was forcefully driven onto the left side of my Kevlar helmet. My head was snapped back when I impacted the plane and my chute straps twisted under my chin.
The twisting of the chute straps drew the edges of the parachute together and hastened my descent towards the approaching earth. I grasped the straps as well as I could and began fiercely pedaling my legs in mid air. We had been taught that this would help untangle the lines, and it worked, but not fast enough. I didn’t have much time left to release my rucksack and untie my weapon bag.
During the combat jumps our rucksacks were strapped between our legs, and fastened by means of a friction harness. One simply pulled on the harness and the rucksack was released to drop and dangle on the end of about twenty feet of nylon strapping. Of course my harness was jammed and it would not release my rucksack. Because my rucksack would not release I could not bend over far enough to untie my weapon case.
I had just enough time to contemplate my dilemma and imagine the worst. I was still in a state of high panic and had begun to cry in frustration as I sped towards the earth looking for all the world like a pregnant kangaroo with a tree tied to it’s side. About this time a Jump Instructor on the ground had started to yell at me through a mega phone. He screamed profanities about how I should release my rucksack and about how stupid I must be. His insults were honestly the last thing on my mind. When I landed I made the best of a bad situation. I tried to roll as best as I could without breaking anything. After I released one of my chute straps and gathered the chute up I took a moment to examine myself. I was bleeding pretty badly from the back of my hand, and I had a slight limp, but other than that I seemed to be all right.
The Jump Instructor with the megaphone was livid and continued to run towards me screaming through his megaphone the entire time. He wanted to know why I had done so many things wrong. I told him the whole story in what I hoped was a calm and rational tone of voice. He gave me a quick once over and told me to report to the medic to get my hand bandaged. Almost as an aside he mentioned that I was lucky to have lived through the experience. I completed the rest of my jumps and graduated from Airborne school. I was supposed to continue on to the Ranger Indoctrination Program. I dropped out because my knee had started to bother me and I didn’t feel confident that I could continue without some sort of injury.
Three and a half years later the Army gave me a medical discharge for inexplicable damage to my knees. I told the doctors my story about striking the side of the plane and the complications I had afterward. None of them thought the two were connected.