Why I Jumped Out Of A Perfectly Good Airplane, 5 Times
Realizing the full effect of what I had just done, I started uttering every word that George Carlin had implored us never to use on TV.
I did a number of foolish things in my youth. Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane five times probably belongs somewhere on the list.
I was 22, had just finished my Army Adjutant General (AG) Corps Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., and was in transit to Bad Kreuznach, West Germany, for my first duty assignment with the 8th Infantry Division. But little did I know that my branch manager had other plans for me.
Being both a young woman and a personnel (AG) officer heading into an infantry division, laden with crusty combat arms soldiers, my branch manager thought I needed some street cred before reporting to my new unit. His advice: Arrive in Germany with jump wings sewn on your uniform.
He was either really convincing at his job or I was really gullible, because after hanging up the phone, I had new orders sending me to Fort Benning, Ga., for the United States Army Airborne School, better known as Jump School.
The course was three weeks long, voluntary, grueling and consisted of three phases -- Ground Week, Tower Week and Jump Week. The primary focus of the course was to qualify students in the use of a parachute as a means of combat deployment. Leadership, self-confidence and mental and physical toughness were also emphasized during the training.
We each got assigned to a squad called a “stick.” I was the only woman in my group. Also appointed to my stick were numerous Navy Seals-in-training (including G. Gordon Liddy’s son, who was a total stud.)
Since Jump School was one of the final phases of the Navy Seals’ training program, they arrived ripped, cocky and full of hijinks. I had a love-hate relationship with them. I was in awe of their physical prowess and their super-human ability to endure pain. Yet these very traits also translated into ridiculous amounts of additional punitive push-ups getting levied against our stick. Thanks to my Navy Seal buddies, I left Airborne School with biceps that rivaled Michelle Obama’s.
Our first week of training took place on the ground. Before we could jump out of a plane, we had to know how to safely land. We were instructed how to wear our parachute harnesses and how to use special training gear. We also spent an extraordinary amount of time practicing and perfecting parachute landing falls (PLFs), a maneuver that taught us how to absorb the impact of landings up the sides of our bodies, starting with our lower legs.
The key to a good PLF was to keep feet and knees together upon making contact with the ground. We’d spend days jumping from platforms of different heights into sand or pebble pits while the Black Hats (our instructors who were named this due to the color of their baseball caps) observed and corrected our form.
By week’s end, we did practice jumps from a 34-foot tall tower which simulated the sensation of what an actual jump might feel like. Our bodies -- except, seemingly, those of the Navy Seals who treated everything like it was a cake walk--- throbbed at the conclusion of each day from all of the jarring.
In the evenings, we’d have mail call, get fed a hot meal and then, crash in our barracks, totally depleted. Mail call was the highlight of each day, as it was our only contact with home. The Black Hats would call out the names of those who had mail and subject them to verbal chiding and naturally, more push-ups before turning over the mail.
My sister, Debbie, and my college ROTC buddy, Jerry, were my most ardent supporters. Not only would they write me hysterical letters, but they’d also scroll pictures and funny quips all over the envelopes, knowing damn well that their renderings would generate more abuse for me from the Black Hats.
“Oh, Foxy ROT-Cee, is it?” a Black Hat once smirked, mocking the way one such letter had been addressed to me. “Well then, Foxy, you better get your pretty little self into the front-leaning rest position [push-up position] so you can claim this mail.”
Our second week of Jump School focused on the jump towers. We continued using the 34-foot tower and also used the swing-landing trainer, the suspended harness, and the 250-foot tower, which we actually jumped from with a parachute. We were oriented to the mock door trainer to simulate mass exit training (how to exit an aircraft in a group, in flight.)
We also were taught the different phases of parachute flight from aircraft exit, through opening shock and chute deployment, to the deployment of the risers, steering the chute, and finally, to landing. We were trained how to recognize a parachute malfunction (I was petrified that this would happen to me or that I would land in a tree) and how to use our reserve parachute if it occurred.
We learned about oscillation and how to recover from drag upon landing. Our parachutes were partially steerable using parachute risers, so we also learned how to direct our chutes into the wind and aim for the center of the drop zone (DZ).
In our last week, or Jump Week, we finally got to practice our new skills and jump out of real aircraft in flight. All of my jumps were from a C-130 flying 1,200 feet above the ground at a speed of about 130 mph. In order to graduate, we each had to successfully complete five jumps, including one night jump and one combat-load (full battle gear with a mock M-16 strapped down our leg) jump.
The jumpmaster picked me to go first in our stick for every jump. I think he secretly hoped, since I was a woman, I’d cry or resist as he wanted to stir up more fear in everyone jumping behind me. And even though I felt like my heart was going to beat right out of my chest on my first jump, I refused to show any trepidation and maintained a stoic poker face.
Upon take-off for our first jump, we were all seated in the order we’d be jumping. Our first jump was a no-load (no weapon or gear) or "Hollywood” jump. The flight crew completed a pre-drop and slow-down checklist over the airfield, and then the jumpmaster had us rise out of our seats and move to one of two paratroop doors (on each side of the aircraft). The doors were opened and the power of the wind from that altitude felt like an oversized magnet trying to suck us out of the aircraft.
The jumpmaster got directly beside me, while holding me in by my harness as I stood looking out at the ominous sky ahead of me. With a taunting grin on his face, he said, “When I say ‘Go’ you will either jump on your own accord or I’ll be helping you via a kiwi injection (kick to my rear end with his boot.) But either way, you are going out this door. You choose how.”
I was far too proud for the latter so right as the command was given, I inhaled deeply, closed my eyes, took one step out of the aircraft into the sky, felt a strong gravitational pull suction me out forcefully and then … upon realizing the full effect of what I had just done, started uttering every word that George Carlin had implored us never to use on TV.
The sensation that followed is difficult to describe. The best comparison is an amusement park ride that rises fast and high and then suddenly bottoms out on you. I was in a total freefall, and it was also eerily quiet. I was dropping so fast that I feared that I might hit the ground and die before my chute might even have a chance to open. The whole time my trembling right hand clutched on my reserve chute release as I wasn’t sure that my main chute was properly responding.
But then, mercifully, I heard the gentle “poof” of the chute ascending and felt a slight tug that suddenly lifted me back upwards and abruptly slowed down my descent. I looked up and saw that the cerulean sky had been replaced by the even more beautiful Army green of my fully deployed chute. It was only then that I felt all of the tension release from my body and I was able to appreciate just how amazing what I was doing actually was.
I remember thinking, “This must be what heaven feels like.” It was just so calm and peaceful, and I was literally floating amongst clouds. Before long, I could see the horizon, which snapped me out of my reverie and forced me to start mentally preparing for my landing.
In spite of my extensive training, my first landing wasn’t stellar. I did a decent PLF, but I landed hard and missed the DZ. I ended up in a shallow stream, which made me panic a little. I was so disoriented over being in water that I forgot to properly pull in my chute at first. Every time I tried to stand, a wind gust dragged my chute and pulled me back down on my rear end into the stream. Finally, I had the wherewithal to properly collect my chute and break the cycle. I then double-timed it back to the rally zone, pumped and ready to do it all again.
But not before having been spotted by several amused Black Hats who had observed my frantic antics in the water. In turn, for the rest of the course, they called me, “Splash.”
Four (more polished) jumps later, and it was time for graduation. As families and loved ones watched, we were each presented with our silver parachutist badge or wings. Upon receiving wings, an instructor or distinguished guest, placed the pins of the badge pointing into the chest of each graduate directly above the left breast pocket.
The hard core thing to do, which all of the Navy Seals naturally opted for, was to have the badge slammed against the chest with a closed fist, resulting in the pins of the badge penetrating the flesh and drawing blood. Receiving wings in that manner was known as, “blood wings.”
(The actual origins of blood wings are uncertain, but most think they date back to World War II paratrooper training. Though technically viewed as hazing now and therefore prohibited by armed forces policy, my understanding is that the practice still occurs. And even though it’s not politically correct, recipients of blood wings continue to consider it a highly honorable rite of passage.)
A couple of days after graduation, I was on yet another C-130, in transit to my new duty station in Germany. Only this time, I was airborne, both figuratively and literally, and I had some new street cred.