I have a fear of heights. A clinical fear of heights, I should say. I can reveal in all confidence that my acrophobia is what made me decline the offer to attend Airborne School from my initial visit with an Army recruiter; I would have none of that. I went into the Army because I meant to be there and wanted to be there, not because I had no other place to go. My GT score was high enough that I could have picked any military occupational specialty (MOS) available. I wanted to be in combat arms. I wanted the infantry.
In my first infantry duty assignment, there was petty bickering and fighting among the ranks. There was lying, cheating, malingering, shirking, there were soldiers arrested for illegal drugs and soldiers missing duty call because they were drunk in bed and couldn’t get out. After serving for two years in a peacetime army in a mechanized regular infantry unit with court-directed enlistees and other dead-end ash and trash, I was ready to jump out of an airplane without a parachute if it meant extracting me from my demise.
I made my way through airborne training at Ft. Benning en route to Ft. Bragg to attend the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. Ft. Benning had been a training environment for me and fraught with young men who were unsure of the choice they made to be there. Ft Bragg was more business-oriented and boasted men who had a cause and a mission to fulfill. This place was more like where I felt I wanted to be.
I spent the next eight years with 7th and 1st Special Forces Groups and the Combat Diver Academy in Key West, Florida. Aside from my participation with the diving school, I performed strictly static line parachute operations, during day and night, on land, and in water. Static line parachuting is low level, typically at 1,200 feet, and uses a 20-foot yellow nylon cord to pull out and deploy the olive drab parachute. The jumper need only jump; the static line does the rest. Ultimately, I would find myself completing Delta selection and assessment in West (by God) Virginia, and fully engaged in the six-month Operator’s Training Course (OTC) at “Lamont and McKellars, on the farm, behind the fence, at the Unit.”
Mandatory to the OTC, I knew that I would ultimately have to face the accelerated free fall (AFF) course as a substitute for the longer duration, more formal military free fall (MFF) course in Yuma, Arizona. Such locations in Arizona featured statistically higher good weather days per year than most any other location in the U.S., thus were low in risk of jump days ruined by foul weather. Our AFF course would be an intense training event condensed into just under two weeks, would be taught exclusively by Unit personnel, and was augmented by the vaunted Golden Knights Parachute Team.
Static line parachute operations had been a terrifying experience for me. I would never admit it to my peers, but I couldn’t fathom what effect High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jumps would have on me. To confess such a fear would take away some of my credibility and cause my brothers in the unit to lose confidence in my courage. Fortunately, OTC was a fast-moving train and I wasn’t left with much time to wring my hands and worry about AFF; I would just have to deal with it as it came.
When it came, it came to Morana, Arizona, another place with consistently clear blue skies, where we all gathered to execute. Many of the Rangers in my OTC class were already MFF qualified and pulled apart from the rest of us novices, who remained embedded in the misery of each other’s company as we gutted out our first jumps. The subset of experienced jumpers just did their own thing and had a blast all day, every day, while the rest of us kissed our rosaries and did that awkward walk to the jump aircraft three or four times a day. As we progressed through the course, we would engage in at least one of every level and configuration of HALO jump operations. I was blessed with a staunch poker face and showed no fear of the jumps, completing all my objectives with a fair level of conviction. I watched other men from time to time flounder a bit, but always recover, like my bud Greg who I witnessed flip and tumble uncontrollable for 8,000 feet before stabilizing.
The day came for the HAHO jump. For this jump we would exit the aircraft at 18,000 feet above ground level (AGL) instead of the usual 12,500 feet. We would fall only long enough to get a flat and stable body position, which usually took a man about five seconds, and immediately pull our ripcords. The result put a paratrooper under parachute canopy at approximately 17,000 feet. At this altitude, a man could travel over a vast distance and remain in the air for an extended period of time. It had its tactical application for sure, but it did indeed leave a jumper exposed for a greater length of time.
My exit was smooth and I fell the typical five seconds until I was in a stable pull altitude. I pulled my ripcord and endured the typical opening sequence and opening shock. At once my parachute began an aggressive clockwise spin. The spin was so violent, it prevented my eyes from being able to focus on anything; everything was a blurry smear. Just a split second before my spin commenced I remember seeing a few of my buds dispersed across the sky. I was amazed to see that we were all at relatively the same altitude.
Everyone had a good exit and did what they were supposed to. Now my instincts urged me to counter the spiral by pulling my brake opposite the spin. I pulled my left brake as far down as it would go. The spin slowed. With my right hand I reach over and wrapped the left brake cord around my left hand enough times until the spin stopped and I was flying straight. At this point I could no longer see other jumpers. I glanced at the ground for orientation but other than that I took no interest in the ground, as it was not my problem at the moment.
My malfunction was called tension knots. A parachute consists of a pack tray, risers, suspension lines, and a canopy. Some of my suspension lines had looped themselves around part of my canopy and knotted up, deforming my canopy and causing a spirited spin to the right. There was no proven treatment for releasing tension knots. It was adventure time.
I was so far away from the rest of the group that I could scarcely discern even a single other canopy in the sky. I couldn’t tell how fast my rate of descent was because I had not a thing or anybody for which to gauge my descent rate. I couldn’t see my drop zone (DZ—the destination where I was supposed to land), but knew I was flying in the opposite direction that I needed to go. I let up on my left brake somewhat and I made a slow right turn full about. I could see an Army airfield in the distance and knew my DZ was in that direction. Below me was the interstate. To my surprise, I noted I was moving faster than the cars below and understood that the winds aloft were swift and backing. I was comforted and astounded at the same time.
My training with respect to cutaway (release my deformed parachute and transition to my reserve parachute) of my main canopy began to scroll through my head. Although completely backward, I did in fact have a steerable/controllable canopy, but my rate of descent remained a mystery. All my technical thoughts came to rest with the ultimate principle: I, and I alone, must make the determination to cut away. My altitude was still upwards of 13,000 feet. I would ride this canopy down to 6,000 feet and make my final decision based on the performance of my equipment. I continued to make subtle right-turn adjustments to keep me on azimuth toward the Army airfield. The DZ was somewhere that way.
At 6,000 feet, I came to the conclusion that I had grown too fond of my main canopy to chop it. We had come this far together and I resolved that this captain was going down with his ship. We would ride it in together and I would auger us into the dirt. As I approached the Army airfield, it occurred to me that, without making more aggressive maneuvers, I would in fact come down inside the compound, where several Blackhawk helicopters sat with their rotors turning. When it rains it pours; I was coming down onto a human blender.
I spotted a dry creek bed with what appeared to be sand to my right about a hundred meters outside the airfield fence. I left my left brake up high and made a hard right turn toward the creek. I hoped the airfield control tower could see me and would keep the helos grounded long enough for me to get the hell out of their airspace. I was under 1,000 feet now. I could tell my rate of descent was faster than normal, but I deemed it manageable if I could make it to the soft sand. I was incredibly amped and eager to get it over with.
As I approached the ground, the warm ground turbulence started to bounce my canopy in such a way that the the tension knots released and I began a violent spin again, in a counterclockwise direction this time. The remedy was simple enough. I just unwrapped the brake cord from my left hand and let it go. There I flew at 500 ft. AGL with a perfectly controllable main canopy, headed right for my sandy creek bed. Prepare to land, land!
I came down soft, but did a parachute landing fall (PLF) nonetheless, probably just to strip away any last would-be risk from my already harrowing jump. I sat in the sand for a moment kissing my imaginary rosary. So this was terra firma once again. I had bull’s-eyed the creek bed and sat in warm, soft sand. Sage was all around, gracing my new landing zone with a sweet scent. The heat was just something I was inclined to notice at the time. I had no injuries to speak of beyond that to my pride.
At once, I saw one of our instructor trucks racing up to my location. I sheepishly began to recover my parachute and only at that moment did I notice that I had placed my ripcord over my wrist as I learned to do in training even during my initial spin-out at 17,000 feet. At least one thing had gone right on this jump; the day was not totally lost.
From the truck emerged Mr. Ray Frovarp, retired military bad-ass who worked as a senior authority in our unit parachute rigger shed. Ray was lean and strong with a sincere face giving me a thoughtful assessment as he made long strides toward my position. He helped me recover my parachute in silence—no ass chewing, no smart remarks, nothing. As we drove to the drop zone, I marveled at how far away I had landed.
There was an awkwardness on the ride back to the school as I looked out the window pretending to be interested in the jack-shit featureless view of desert nothing along the way. Ray finally asked me what happened. “I had some wicked tension knots, Ray. I don’t know how the hell that happened.” Ray told me that the next time I packed my chute to call him over during the step where we stowed our suspension lines into the rubber retaining bands. I told him I would.
That was it for the day. We returned to our hotel rooms and turned in, psyching ourselves out for the next round of problem-solving the following day would bring. I engaged in packing my parachute for the first jump. I struggled with the usual steps. “Rigger check; clear wind channels!” I shoved my sloppily folded canopy into the way-too-tiny deployment bag. “Hey, man…garbage in, garbage out,” my bud cautioned. “Bro, garbage is all I got when it comes to packing. Worry about yourself,” was my feeble retort. I came to the step to stow suspension lines in the rubber bands and paused. Ray suddenly appeared without me calling for him. He watched me stow the first fistful of suspension lines and stopped me. He pulled them free and calmly talked me through the process, demonstrating, then having me replicate his technique.
I had nothing but smooth jumps from then on in. Even my night combat equipment oxygen jump was smooth. Ray Frovarp had been the quintessence of a professional. He knew how to communicate with raw, audacious operators. I never let up on my gratitude to Ray for how he had handled my situation. The many more times I saw him at the rigger shed he alway greeted me with, “How’s it going, George?” I always responded with something like, “It’s going great thanks to you, Ray.” He would let loose an ear-spanning grin and we would go our separate ways. That’s the way support rolled in Delta: the best people, the best attitudes, some of the best souls in the military.