So you’re scared of heights, yet somehow you’ve found yourself in line to jump out of a C-130. Your mind is reeling with all the stuff you’ve been taught to land safely, but still, if you screw it up, it could mean your life. No big deal, right?
But that’s the life of a Basic Airborne School recruit at Fort Benning, Georgia. The three-week course, which sees about 14,000 trainees a year, is mostly filled with recruits right out of basic training or AIT who want to be paratroopers, Army Rangers or other special operations forces across the Defense Department. Some of them have chosen to be there, while others have not – their specialties require it.
I’ve been told Airborne School is kind of like grade school: Ground Week training is like elementary school, Tower Week is like high school, and Jump Week is college.
During Ground Week, you learn how you’re supposed to jump, activate your reserve parachute and recover from “the drag” – being dragged across the drop zone if the wind catches your chute. During Tower Week, trainees learn about all the bad things that can happen, like landing in trees, water, etc., and how to get out of those situations. You then get to practice what you’ve learned by jumping off a 250-foot freefall tower – something that’s often harder for students than jumping out of an actual airplane.
Jump Week is the culmination of the training, where the students have to complete five jumps from an airplane at 1,250 feet.
When I visited Fort Benning, I wanted to know the concerns of both the instructors and students, because it has to be nerve-wracking, and there have to be some crazy stories that come out of it, right?
Getting Past The Fear
For a lot of people, fear of heights is a major problem. Gaining the confidence to get over that is the goal of the instructors.
“No matter if it’s a 4-foot platform or 30-foot tower, falling for anyone is the big thing,” said instructor Army Sgt. 1st Class Lawrence Washington. “So, the biggest challenge is getting over fear, but the other challenge is the mental aspect to get them past everything they’ve been taught – to bring it to the forefront and then do it.”
“They don’t lose their fear of heights, but they get it out of their head,” said Army Staff Sgt. Robert Nicoson, another instructor. “I try to tell them that I’m scared to death of heights, and I’ve been jumping for 10 years. I try to keep it in their mind that we’re all scared.”
Acing the Exit
So what’s the most important thing to remember? The instructors pretty much agreed it’s successfully getting out of the plane.
“The exit can really do some catastrophic damage to you if you do it wrong,” said senior master trainer Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Hart, who has jumped more than 100 times during his 22-year career.
“I’m really a stickler on their exit and how they land,” Nicoson said, who knows from experience. He hit the side of a plane during one of his early jumps and broke the whole left side of his body. Nicoson was unconscious when he landed and was injured so badly that he was out of commission for about a year.
“It’s the only memorable experience I have,” he said jokingly. “That’s why I get on [recruits about] the exit. I tell them that story on Day One.”
For Army Pvt. Kelly Allen, a recent recruit, the exit was her last thought before her first jump. She tried to think of it like an amusement park ride – it’ll be scary for a few seconds, then over before you know it. “Just looking out the door and seeing the clouds and how far the ground was – it was a lot more intense than I thought it would be.”
Hitting that Landing
The second toughest part for recruits? The landing.
“If you do it right and you turn into the wind like you’re taught, it could be like jumping off the bed onto you floor – it’s nothing. Then there are people that run with the wind and increase their lateral drift and force, and they hit like crap,” Hart said.
Allen learned that the hard way when she landed in a marsh. “Right when I landed, water shot up 3 feet, all up in my face, and then I got drug through it like 20-30 meters before I could get my canopy releases off. I was soaked.”
For Army Pvt. Samuel Boyd, the most important thing he learned from his instructors was to “keep your knees and feet together when you land.”
Another key part: Making sure you have good control of your static line before you take the leap. That’s the line that’s hooked to an anchor cable and actually pulls your main parachute. If recruits aren’t focused on securing it before handing it off to the plane’s safety, it could potentially wrap around their arms or head.
“You have to make sure you have good static line control, eye-to-eye contact and safely hand it off, and make sure everything’s good and clear. We have a lot of issues with static line injuries,” said Army Staff Sgt. Jace Myers, who said many new jumpers often drop the lines in the door.
At the end of the day, most Airborne School recruits are successful because they have faith that they know their instructors know what they’re doing.
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