U.S. Army Airborne School, more commonly known as Jump School, takes place at Ft. Benning, GA. This is where the majority of military parachutists earn their basic qualification.
The school’s basic jump course is three weeks long, and consists of three phases: Ground, Tower, and Jump.
During Ground Week, students learn the basics of the parachute landing fall (PLF), and how to identify and control (sort of) the direction of their descent.
Tower Week gives the students practice in mass exit (lots of people exiting an aircraft quickly), deploying the combat load, and getting used to the physical shock from the opening canopy.
Jump Week…is when the fun stuff happens: actually parachuting from an aircraft in flight.
I had the opportunity to go to Jump School as a Marine Corps intelligence officer. I commanded a platoon of ‘radio reconnaissance’ Marines, and our mission required me to be a parachutist. So off I went to earn my wings.
Here’s what I wrote after my first jump:
Here I am in the third and final week of training: Jump Week. This week we’ll do five low-level static line aircraft exits. Two of the jumps must be during the day, and two at night; two must be slick (just the main parachute and reserve), and two must be made with a combat load. Today, we jumped slick. Our remaining jumps include 1 day-slick and 1 day-combat; and 1 night-slick and 1 night-combat.
Then we’ll all be basic parachutists.
Up until now, I haven’t really been nervous. As we boarded the aircraft, wearing our parachutes and reserves, our helmets, our ankle braces, and some anxious smiles of excitement…I still didn’t really feel nervous. But I was paying attention to my mental, emotional, and even physical reactions to the whole experience.
It wasn’t until we were fully in flight, and the first team of jumpers exited, that my physiology changed. Straining to turn and watch the first jumpers prepare to exit, anticipating the commands they received from the jump master, and then seeing them fling themselves out the door on the right side of the craft, I had a cold, hard realization.
I was about to jump out of an airplane! I got nervous.
Honestly “nervous” isn’t the right word. Fearful is more appropriate. This is what I noticed:
- my heart rate increased, but it felt like it dropped into my stomach;
- my mouth became dry;
- my perspective became slightly myopic, internal.
Yeah…those are some physiological effects of fear.
I wasn’t crippled by the fear, though. It’s not like everyone else on that plane had no fear or anxiety. We all did. But we were still going to jump.
And no way, as a Marine, would I chicken out while a bunch of Army guys jumped!
The C-130 Hercules we were on made a few passes over the drop zone, and vomited out wave after wave of jumpers. Soon…it was our turn. We focused on the Jumpmaster, anxiously waiting for his commands.
“Outboard personnel, stand up.” Those seated against the skin of the C-130 stood up.
“Inboard personnel, stand up.” Those of us seated on the cargo net in the middle stood up.
“Hook up.” We hooked up, and checked our lines and equipment. I was the third jumper in the stick.
The door was open. I was ten feet from it. I could feel the warm air coming in, and could smell the C-130’s exhaust.
My heart began to race; my breathing became more rapid.
My heart was pounding, and I made an effort to keep calm by controlling my breathing and, surprisingly, by looking outside. We were 1250 feet up. It didn’t look all that daunting, and gazing out at the treetops and fields actually soothed my nerves.
“Stand by!” The number one jumper was standing at the door, facing out, ready to launch himself from the platform.
“Green Light! Go!”
Jumper 1, a Marine Corporal stationed at MCAS Cherry Point, disappeared. Jumper 2, an Army Second Lieutenant stationed at Ft. Benning, shuffled toward the Jumpmaster. I shuffled forward, too, but kept back about an arm’s length.
Jumper 2 turned to his right and disappeared.
I made eye contact with the Jumpmaster, handed him my static line, and turned. Step, kick…
I left the aircraft and was met by a shocking wall of air from my right.
“One thousand.” I was blown into a horizontal position.
“Two thousand.” The force of the air tossed my helmet about my head.
“Three thousand.” I realized my eyes were closed and opened them; I could see the first two jumpers in the air ahead of me. My chin was tucked to my chest. My hands clutched the sides of my reserve parachute.
“Four thousand, five thousand.” I could feel the tug of the deploying parachute catching air.
“Six thousand.” I reached up to grab my risers, the straps that connected the parachute to the harness on my body. I looked up to inspect the canopy. I needed to make sure it had fully deployed and that there were no rips, tears, holes, or broken suspension lines.
No damage and it was open, but it was twisted. I grabbed the two risers and pulled them outward away from my head. I began kicking my legs as if riding a very awkward bicycle. I spun a couple times until the twist undid itself and the parachute opened fully.
Then…it felt like I was just hovering.
There wasn’t much noise. All I could really hear was my breathing. The descent was so smooth, I wasn’t sure I was even moving at all. I looked around to ensure no other jumper was too close to me, and to get my bearings on where I was in relation to the drop zone.
I was floating straight down.
My landing was great; I executed a perfect PLF. Then I quickly set to work putting the spent parachute into my aviator kit bag.
I was happy for an uneventful landing. I could have been dragged by the parachute, landed in a bog, or caught a patch of weird air and dropped harder than expected. Easy day for me, though.
I picked up my aviator kit bag with spent parachute inside, and headed for the rally point.
I had completed my first parachute jump. And got paid to do it. Not a bad day.
Jeremiah graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with the Class of 2009, and went on to become a Marine Corps intelligence officer. Prior to the Naval Academy, Jeremiah was a Marine Corps Sergeant. He has deployments in the Pacific, and to Afghanistan.
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