Airborne student to instructor: “Sergeant, if our main parachute doesn’t open, how much time do I have to deploy my reserve parachute?”
Instructor: “The rest of your life, private… the rest of your life.”
Low-altitude parachute operations in the regular army airborne units are hours of pain and terror followed by approximately 30-second of a refreshing float to Earth and a sack-of-potatoes crash to the ground.
High-altitude parachute operations with Delta are minutes of equal parts discomfort and terror, a minute of free-fall, another minute of floating to Earth, then a kiss of a standup landing.
Low altitude jumps are fairly “hands-off” as I like to describe them. Most of the work is done for the jumper by the Jump Master in charge and the pilots of the jump aircraft. Calculations and adjustments are applied to ensure the jumpers land in a safe area. At about 1000 feet above ground level (AGL), there really isn’t enough time for the introduction of a large drift or steering error. In fact I have ventured to say that if you grab a random person off of the street, rig them up and drop them from an airplane, they will probably be ok.
That was heads; the tail side of the coin represents high-altitude jumping where Jumpmaster calculations and adjustments to the pilot’s course give the jumpers a fair chance to land in the safe zone… provided they don’t have problems in the air and skip-zones in their sanity. At 12,500 feet there is a ginormous amount of time and range to make multiple huhangus errors in landing accuracy.
Once on a high-altitude jump over a layer of spotty clouds below, our Jumpmaster put us out based on what he thought to be the expected smoke signal on the ground. As we fell and punched through the cloud layer I discovered that all the forest below us was ablaze, something that drove my mood somewhat south of enchantment. The sentiment became instantly contagious among my falling brothers.
My instinct was to pull my ripcord higher than planned to give myself more time aloft to run from the blaze. I expected that my brothers thought as much, but none of us would dare to break the established pull altitude for fear we might put one another in jeopardy. In “jeopardy,” I chucked — jeopardy is of the choosing on this day. I’ll take what’s behind the curtain that Carol Merrill is showing us, Bob Barker!
With a dozen near-simultaneous POPs we were all under canopy. Our usual orderly descent in formation was replaced by a popcorn popper hopper of men darting about looking for a way out of the plunge into Dante’s folly. It was, as Yankee Papa puts it, a “sauve qui peut” event, and every man was for himself.
I quickly pulled myself together and fancied an apparent sandy clearing where no fire could burn. It was plenty large for a jump-queer, but scared-o-heights me was exactly the polar opposite of jump-queer; I would rather pass out hand towels in a bathroom at the Democratic Convention than jump. I saw that my brother T-Bone had fancied the same clearing and we both headed straight for it. Assuming an actual landing pattern between the two of us, I yielded the point to seasoned T-Bone.
My fear of the high-fall was edged out by my concentration on flying my canopy: subtle corrections to my forward track; and dumping air from the chute with my breaks to sink it faster so as to avoid over-shooting the clearing and landing in burning trees.
And it crossed my mind, in the most unwelcome and inappropriate of fashions, that a landing in flaming trees would earn resounding bragging rights. But it also came with an untenable life expectancy prediction. So, rather than my habitual faux ballet of yanking and pulling on $hit, I continued to aim for the “X,” hoping for the best until I met the ground in an Ore-Ida splat.
T-Bone was a long-gunner (sniper/reconnaissance); his troop jumped ten times more than us meat sacks on the assault teams. He landed (Chinese accent) “right in the middle of smack!” of the sand clearing. I was dismayed at the realization that I may have sunk my canopy too quickly and would not quite make it. You can always dump altitude under canopy, but yeah, you can’t ever get any back. There was no fire directly below me so the double jeopardy of landing in a blazing pin cushion was reduced to just landing in the pin cushion.
It was so close that I pulled my legs up toward my chest and: SNAP, CRACK, POP-POP, CRACK, SNAP… I smashed through just the last few feet of dried branches and flopped into the sand. I snapped up to my feet and looked at T-Bone who had watched me punch through the treetops:
“I’ve never jumped into a forest fire before, Geo, but there’s a first time for everything I suppose.” He croaked a little weakly. Elated, I held out my arms to Broadway and belted out the song from Peter Pan:
“HE CAN FLY, HE CAN FLY, HE CAN FLY, HE CAN FLY, HE CAN FLYYYYYYY!”
Snapping back from my excursion to Never-Never Land I recovered my parachute. Though clear of flames in our sand clearing, we had not factored in that being downwind of the blaze we would be overcome by smoke. T-Bone and I decided to bag our parachutes and leave them there in the discernible dead-center of the clearing and run from the blaze due west until we found a firebreak road. Our hope was that ground recovery parties would be running those roads looking for poached paratroopers.
I plowed through the forest like a… a plow… steamrolling a path for T-Bone and myself with my face, reasoning that he had lead the way to the clearing, so I would lead the way out. Arriving at the first firebreak, and the second, and the third there were no vehicles of any sort for as far as we could see. With no recourse given to us I had to push on. T-Bone offered to take over as I was whipped, thrashed, and sliced by foliage to the degree that I began to look like our Lord and Savior Jesus in The Passion of the Christ.
“It’s all good, T-Bone… I’m already broken in, and this way it puts at least one person between me and an agonizing death by fire, aha.”
A number of circumstances made the fate of our A-assault team one of the funniest anecdotes I have ever heard:
First of all, just the bizarre nature of the jump gone awry had everyone suspicious and wondering what in reality was going on. Were we being tested? A-Team had all landed together (five brothers) in a well-cleared area north of the track of the blaze.
Second, we all were vaguely familiar with this remote location of Ft. Bragg, in that it was where the prisoner of war (POW) camp was located — a well-documented ring of hell that we all held partitioned in our subconscious. It was understood that a body only had to go through that training one time in the Unit, but what was ever really understood in that place?
Third (and this is the best part) Delta’s Wayne S. had been aloft in a Blackhawk helicopter in the vicinity on an unrelated mission. He witnessed the errant paradrop and heard distress calls over the ship’s radio. He diverted from his primary task to conduct air search and rescue of stranded jumpers in the burning forest. Wayne S., my friends, was regularly in charge of gathering and cycling Unit personnel into no-notice sojourns in the POW camp!
The brothers of A-Team watched Wayne’s helo land near them hopeful that they were being rescued. They watched as men jumped from the bird and ran toward them, five of them. Their Colgate grins turned upside down to frowns when they saw the unmistakable Wayne S.
“Ok… ok boys, we all know what’s coming. We’re not going in again without a fight!” the A-Team leader pledged.
With that they drove into the crew with furious fists as if filming a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury. The helo crew was stunned and clueless as the assault team felled them like a copse of trees — of burning trees… Then they took off at a gallop to the east. Poor, bloodied and confused Wayne S. limped behind them hollering for them to stop. A-Team ran on and on with Wayne trying desperately to keep pace.
Overhead Wayne’s Blackhawk with its battered crew tracked the fleeing brothers, who gazed up continuously as they ran.
“They’re not going to take us that easily, boys… let’s make them work for it!!”
And on they evaded them until the dawn’s early light. It took the Unit Sergeant Major to personally travel out to where A-Team was holed up in the woods and talk the brothers down. As with most thoughtful and true stories, there is typically a learning point, a moral of the story if you will. By virtue of the tale there can be no exception.
The moral of the story? I reckon it’s: “Don’t fuck with A-Team.”
By Almighty God and with honor,