“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 rarefied 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 provide 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.
The command was given by the Jump Master, “Stand up!” We were signaled to move toward the rear of the aircraft and onto the ramp. The leader of my group of five began to grab arms and form us into a tight circle where we were holding onto each other’s arms. The intent was for us to all exit as a connected group called “taking a piece off of the ramp.” This had not been part of the briefed plan.
Let’s get one more thing straight: Master Sergeant (MSG) Hand only exits an aircraft with a head-first dive. He doesn’t poise off the ramp (where one steps off facing backward, his head turned up to watch the aircraft race away), he doesn’t exit hanging onto people, and he doesn’t exist with people hanging onto him. But there was no time to argue as the Jump Master gave the next-to-last command: “Stand by!” As the final “Go!” command was given, our group leader shouted, “One!” Together, we rocked toward the rear of the aircraft. “Two!” We rocked toward the front of the aircraft. “Three!” We hurdled our group off the ramp in an amorphous mass of limbs.
And then it happened. My head was filled with a flash of white light as my bro, Jace B., and I collided hard immediately off the ramp. Our “piece” broke apart and gents when cartwheeling, flipping, spinning, and rolling in all directions. I detected very quickly that I could barely breathe like someone was holding a cloth over my nose and mouth. I wasn’t getting any O2 through my mask.
In my collision with Jace B., my brass O2 lever and been flipped to the off position. I flailed my right hand down to where my 02 bottle should have been. That movement caused me to go unstable and flip. I looked out at the jumpers around me. All color was gone, and the scene became something like a black-and-white cartoon. I knew I was blacking out.
Subject to our AFF training was a trip to conduct training in and altitude chamber. The chamber could be depressurized to simulate different altitudes to introduce students to the effects of a rarefied oxygen atmosphere. One of the drills consisted of a volunteer removing his oxygen mask and performing a simple puzzle, such as pushing different shaped blocks through their corresponding holes in a wooden panel.
My good friend Mac volunteered, dropped his mask, and commenced to plug away at the holes with ease, all the while reciting Steve McQueen lines from the movie Papillion, “I feel alright, but… how do I look?” Slowly, Mac began making mistakes. Eventually, he could no longer get a single block through a single hole. He suddenly stopped and lifted his head to a 1000-yard stare. The instructor quickly reconnected Mac’s O2 mask.
Then, we were all instructed to disconnect and drop our 02 masks. Within seconds, the instructor passed out black and white maps to each student and told us to study them. We did, and after a brief spell, we were told to reconnect our masks and continue to study the maps. Within seconds, my black-and-white map slowly started to reveal colors: violet, blue, green, yellow, and red. I was fascinated. The exercise demonstrated how the oxygen-starved brain fails to process colors. If the starvation continues, the subject will lose consciousness.
My view darkened and went black. The next thing I remember was seeing the landscape below me slowly fade in, and it was in color! I shook my head and checked my altimeter. I was at about 5,000 feet, meaning it was almost time for my pull sequence, and I was sucking in hard to squeeze more and more air between my mask and face into my lungs.
As I quickly looked up to regain my circle of awareness, I was startled to see Sergeant Major C. M. flying three feet from my nose, rendering a fierce, piercing stare. He had seen me falling and knew there was something wrong. He flew in close to watch me and, if necessary, pull my ripcord to save my life.
I gave Sergeant Major C. M. a quick and snappy thumbs up to assure him that my wits were recovered, and I waved off. The wave-off is an arm signal to other jumpers that you are starting your pull sequence. Once under canopy, I finally unhooked my O2 mask and sucked in six liters of oxygen-rich atmosphere. I studied the ground below to assess how far off I was from my landing target.
I was amazed to realize I was not at all off and would be able to land on target. It occurred to me that I fell more stable when I was unconscious than conscious; no back sliding or sideways crabbing. I performed downwind and crosswind runs and then turned into the wind for a soft standup landing.
I stood for a while and did nothing but contemplate how much I hated jumping, and the old cliche “when it rains, it pours” kept running through my mind. It dawned on me that both of my hands were stinging quite a bit. I pulled off my flight gloves to see that both of them were quite red, and in the coming days, the thin layer of epidermis covering my hands would flake and peel away. My hands had been frost-nipped by the extreme cold and lack of movement.
Jace B. came jogging up as I gathered my hateful parachute. “George! Are you ok? Was that you I collided with?” he asked.
“I just want a beer, Jace,” I whined. “But you know Jace,” I continued, “I am going to count that as credit for a midair linkup for you and me!”
Sergeant Major C. M. was next in line to check on me. “Ok, so??” he shrugged. I told him my sob story, and he had me go repeat it to the head rigger. In the end, my position was that, although it was easier for everyone to be coddled on the aircraft by the riggers when it came time to turn on our personal O2 system, I didn’t like that we weren’t familiarized enough with our equipment to turn our own supply on and off.
Also, let’s keep one thing straight: I hate jumping! Geo sends.