“The sky, even more than the sea, is terribly unforgiving for even the slightest mistake.” (Author Unknown)

Let’s get one thing straight: I hate jumping. Don’t get me wrong, the whole concept and execution is sexy enough, but I was simply cursed with a wicked bout of acrophobia. Two or three days prior to an airborne operation I would start feeling anxious and preoccupied. That anxiety, however, kept me focused and safe; it kept my circle of awareness clear and well-defined. I should also add that I never missed an airborne operation during my entire 18 years on airborne status in the Army.

I attended the Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) high altitude parachute course with the Delta Force in 1990. Typically, we jumped three to four times a day accomplishing relatively simple tasks like falling flat and performing a proper ripcord pull sequence.

As the course progressed, the tasks became more and more complicated. Our typical altitude for a free fall jump was 12,500 feet. One of our requirements for the AFF course was to complete a jump from 24,000 feet. At that altitude, the atmosphere is too rarified of oxygen to sustain life, so we each had to wear a self-contained oxygen (O2) system.

Here’s how a high altitude jump on oxygen (O2 jump) goes: Each jumper has an O2 mask fixed to his Gentex helmet, and a pouch on his right side fastened to his waist with a green O2 bottle inside. And folks, it is an axiomatic truth that the moment you put your O2 mask on your nose will immediately start to itch, and it will continue to itch until you are able to remove your mask.

Once inside the aircraft and seated, our parachute riggers connect us to an O2 console that stays installed in the aircraft. Prior to an O2 jump of that altitude, it is required to “pre-breath” pure O2 for at least 30 minutes. By breathing from the aircraft’s supply, we can save our personal O2 for the actual jump; our personal bottles only provided approximately ten minutes of breathing.

In the last few minutes prior to exiting the aircraft, the riggers disconnected us from the aircraft console and turned on our personal O2 systems. I could understand the logic of having the riggers handle the external equipment, the aircraft’s equipment, but I got an uneasy feeling about not being in full control over my personal equipment. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t see or manually identify my O2 supply lever.

The personal O2 bottles were actuated by way of a flat brass lever that flipped on and off. I reached my right hand down toward my O2 bottle to see if I could detect the configuration of the brass lever. I could not.