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.”

Parachute Operations

Low-altitude parachute operations in the regular army airborne units are hours of pain and terror followed by approximately 30 seconds of a refreshing float to Earth and a sack-of-potatoes crash to the ground.

Photo courtesy of the author: low-altitude jumper from a C-130 Hercules transport AC near the Nevada Test Site in 2014.

High-altitude parachute operations with Delta involve minutes of equal parts discomfort and terror: a minute of free fall, another minute of floating to Earth, and 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.

Photo courtesy of the author: low-altitude jump operations exiting from the ramp of the AC.

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 humongous errors in landing accuracy.

Fire Bad

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 the forest below us was ablaze, something that drove my mood somewhat south of enchantment. The sentiment became instantly contagious among my falling brothers.

Not a great view.

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!