Join the US Military - Part 4 - "Airborne!"


Rank irrelevant

The thing to keep in mind with pretty much anything in life is that we are all human.

Some people forget this way too often:

  • We are all born helpless - bald or bad hair - stinky - regardless of gender.
  • We are all required to eat, drink, breathe.
  • We all have to gas up our automobiles if we want to drive long distances.
  • We all get stuck in traffic jams.
  • Sooner or later, we all die - although some people drag this out with Botox and become cartoon characters (I saw one in real life the other day - unbelievable).

That being said, Black Hats - otherwise known as jump school instructors - who are generally all senior noncoms - don't care what stripe you wear when you show up for Army Airborne School. Because of the safety issues associated with cramming required training for an inherently unsafe activity into a very short three weeks - you are just another student to the Black Hats, regardless of rank. I'm sure at least one person has questioned this fact of Airborne life at some point in time - subsequently not pinning on jump wings because of it.

I was a Private E-1 when I attended the school. I stood in military formations with at least one full-bird colonel - and trained alongside airmen, marines, sailors, and a few foreign service members. The US military has only one jump school.

Ground Week. If you decide to attend jump school - and, yes, you have to volunteer - make sure you enjoy doing pushups and pull-ups. Instead of personal fitness trainers (ha), Black Hats drop students for push ups for minor infractions, such as standing around with sweat dripping off your face: "Get on down, Airborne, knock out some pushups!"

They essentially dream up reasons to drop you for pushups, partially to tear down your upper body muscles so that, in theory, they are built up just in time for the third week of school - which is, of course, jump week. This practice is also an intimidation factor - which works rather well. They yell or scream at if you mess up something - and you actually listen to them and right yourself - or do more pushups. A perfect combination of training, discipline, and incentive specifically designed to encourage you to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.

You also get to run around the asphalt roads that encircle the parachute training areas in a slow jog called the "airborne shuffle."

Most of Ground Week is spent learning how to wear military parachutes, which are nothing like civilians parachutes. The US military version of a parachute smells funny, is usually olive drab or some other off-green or off-tan color. According to Wikipedia, during Ground Week students "build individual airborne skills, which prepares them to make five parachute jumps, and five safe landings. They train on a mock door of a C-130 or C-17 aircraft to prepare themselves for a proper exit from each aircraft. Students also learn and practice the parachute landing fall (PLF), a landing technique specifically developed to ensure a safe landing for personnel as they impact the ground while wearing a parachute (right). Students train to exit the 34-foot (10 m) tower, which prepares them for a safe exit from an aircraft in flight by exposing the students to the physical sensation of an actual jump. Students train on the lateral drift apparatus (LDA) to develop proper technique for controlling a parachute during descent. To progress to Tower Week, students must individually qualify on the 34-foot (10 m) tower, the LDA, successfully complete all PLFs, and pass all PT requirements."

Ground Week was relatively easy for me. Tower Week was not.

Tower Week. I've heard they reduced the number of 250-foot tower practice jumps for reasons unknown - but there are other towers and similar training aids that are nearly as much fun, so there's nothing to worry about (34-foot tower, swing-landing trainer, suspended harness). This week of training prepares you for:

  • Team effort / mock-door, mass exits.
  • Pre-jump in-flight instructions.
  • Equipment jumps.
  • Swinging and landing - via the swing landing trainer (SLT), aye.
  • Hanging suspended from a harness.

The only thing I distinctly remember about Tower Week was the pair of huge 250-foot towers with four winches and cables - and Black Hats yelling into megaphones: "No, steer AWAY from the tower, Airborne!"

Everything else was a blur.

The 250-foot tower jumps went like this:

  • Big metal ring suspended from the tower by a thin cable.
  • Bunch of students covered in sweat and sawdust hooking the edges of a full-size, real parachute to the big metal ring.
  • One student wielding a long pole pushing the center of the parachute up to attach to the tiny little cable situated in the middle of the big ring.
  • Students yelling, "Hit the hole, pole man, hit the hole," over and over and over until, yep, the pole man got the pole in the hole.

At which point the unlucky fellow (me) who was attached to the parachute got dragged into the air at a high rate of speed. If you have a fear of heights - well, tough. At the top of the tower, you must detach a safety line that drops to the ground - in order for the tower, cable, and big metal ring to let you go - so you can smash into the ground a few seconds later hoping you don't break a leg.

That was it. Nothing to it.

Jump Week. This is the week you get to jump from real airplanes. We jumped from C-130s and C-141s. Total of five jumps - one at night - one with equipment and rubber duck M16.

The first jump was surreal, as in, no vertigo, no fear of heights. It was like watching a YouTube video of someone looking out the open door of an airplane at 2,000 feet. I just followed everyone out the door with the knowledge that my parachute would probably open because it had been checked numerous times - plus, I had a spare parachute on my chest (the big main chute on my back) - and was thoroughly trained in the art of total panic while deploying the spare chute if the big one did not work as advertised.

My battle buddy and I yelled at each other in the air, then executed "controlled PLFs" - smashing into the ground and rolling - again, hoping we didn't break anything.

I don't remember the second jump other than that it was from an airplane.

I injured my knee on my third jump - to the point that I had to hide a limp from the Black Hats. The threat was that I would be recycled if they noticed I was injured and forced to re-do weeks of training. Heck, they might have sent me back to Ground Week - since I was obviously doing something wrong during my PLFs - as I slammed into the ground at four hundred miles and hour (not that fast, although it felt like it). No, you don't pull your little parachute toggles, and reach out with your tippy-toes to lightly land on the surface of the earth. That's only in the movies.

Five jumps. I made it, then reported to my first duty station.

As noted at the beginning of this Hub:

  • We are all born helpless - bald or with bad hair - stinky - regardless of gender.
  • Some people jump out airplane doors with much more style than others.
  • Some people go out the door chomping on a cigar like Sergeant Rock - because they are not afraid of heights.
  • Some people do acrobatics as they get sucked out the door during jet airplane jumps.
  • A few people get pushed out the door with a Black Hat's boot placed firmly on their behind.
  • Some people have bad luck when something malfunctions, and end up flopping around outside the airplane door, still attached to the airplane by their static line (Black Hat usually cuts them loose with a cool knife).

A small number of people make it through jump school without having lost their fear of heights. I gained confidence in military equipment, because it usually works, alas I still get vertigo while watching movies that involve scenes and perspectives from on high.

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Comments 2 comments

sean kinn profile image

sean kinn 4 years ago from Key West and Budapest Author

JT, you're probably right. I actually had orders for an airborne unit in Alaska after my first duty station, before they changed the orders to read "Germany." I guess I would have eventually got used to it. Don't know about the "letting go" aspects. :-)

JT Walters profile image

JT Walters 4 years ago from Florida

Hi Sean,

Great hub once again. DOn't most people who go through jump school fall in love with jumping? Isn't it all about letting go?


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