by john harrison
It was the last jump in jump school. As a treat, we the almost airborne, would get to tailgate a C-130. For those NAPs (Non-Airborne Personnel) reading this, that means you walk right out of the back of the C-130, right down the aircraft’s wide open tailgate, and then step off into nothingness about 900 or so feet up in the air going about 150-60 miles an hour. Although the ending could have been better, it immediately became my all-time favorite jump, at least until I tailgated a Caribou, which was the same experience, except better.
Unlike in a unit jump where everyone was usually stamping their spit-shined, black, Corcoran, jump boots on the plane’s metal deck and shouting: “Go!, Go!, Go!,” in jump school, while the aircraft’s jet engines roared, the men inside the plane were quiet, waiting for their jump. Even over the jet engine’s roar, you could actually hear the electric motors work as they lowered the ramp at the rear of the plane. When it was down, we could see the sun swept Georgia countryside of Fort Benning, below as the three planes lined up on the drop zone. We could also see the red light turn on beside the jump master.
“O-K. O-K. O-K. . . All O-K.”
The jump commands came loud and fast, but there was no command this time of “Stand in the Door!” because this was a tailgate jump and we were all already in the door. We were all looking out that huge, gapping, opening in the back of the plane looking at the land constantly retreating away, far below.
Then came the deceptively simple command:
I never had a feeling of height when jumping out of a plane, or with walking out of one as we did with tailgating the C-130. I think my mind looked down at the ground way below me and said to itself something like this:
“No, you’re not really dumb enough to do this, are you?”
”We’re not really this high, are we?”
“You can’t be serious?”
“You’re not really going to just walk off the edge of this ramp?”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“No o o o o!”
“Four thous. . .”
Opening shock felt.
“Chute open. Fully deployed. Panels all there. No tangles. Good.”
“God, it’s pretty up here. And, it’s so quiet. So, still. Wow.”
And then you sort of sit in the chute’s webbing as you drift, seemingly slowly at first, down to the drop zone. The only thing that was important was to keep looking around to make sure that you did not run into another trooper in the air. But, it is so beautiful up there, hanging from the chute and the view is so incredibly unobstructed that you really do want to look in every direction at the same time, all the time even if you did not have to look out for, and try to avoid a mid-air collision with another trooper.
Although it never happened to me, landing on another chute on the way down is always a risk as well. I saw it happen to at least someone during every mass jump I ever made. If you land on another chute on the way down, the training is to quickly run off of it before your own chute collapses around you or you get tangled up in the canopy below. If you do not run off quickly enough, the lower chute will “steal your air”. At that point, you will have a useless collapsed parachute draped all over you that you must get rid of in midair. Then, you must deploy your reserve, if you have time before you hit the ground, which you probably will not have.
If that happens you will not be able to make what the Army calls a PLF (Parachute Landing Fall). You will make instead a, SPLAT. A SPLAT is not a good landing because it is not a survivable landing, and it can be messy.
If you go through jump school, you will never forget how to do a PLF. Several years ago, over 40 years after jump school, I fell off of my daughter’s horse and executed a perfect PLF rolling away from the horse’s hooves. The first two weeks of jump school are mainly devoted, not to teaching a proper PLF, but to inculcating it into your soul forever. You start by jumping off of one or two foot high platforms and progress from there. It is not as simple as it seems.
The main idea of a PLF is to ensure that you always land on your side, that you never land going forward or backward, and that you always land rolling. You do this by instantaneously twisting your body to put your side in the direction of the fall as soon as you feet make contact, or sometimes even before contact. It must be done absolutely automatically, or it will be too late. You must be able to roll right side or left side, equally well.
I think anyone that has gone through jump school could no more stop his body from twisting to land on his side in a fall and then rolling than he could stop his right foot from slamming down on the brake if a child ran in front of a car. Even if he was not driving, the right foot would still stomp where the brake should be. It would be automatic, exactly like doing a PLF is for anyone that was ever Airborne. After Jump School, you just can’t, not, do it.
Scarcely tree top height, about thirty-four foot tower height, is where I get a feeling of height. And, that is also where the land stops moving slowly toward you and begins rushing up fast. The thirty-four foot tower, not the 290-foot tower, not in the aircraft either, is also where almost all of the people that fail jump school, freeze. They simply cannot make their foot, make that step out of the tower. It is a psychological thing, and it is the reason for the thirty-four foot tower. It is much better to find out there than in the aircraft.
I was almost at that point, about 45 feet or so in the air, when the other jumper’s chute drifted under mine that day; it stayed under me, just out of reach; I could not get away from it even though I pulled one riser frantically trying; it stole my air; it collapsed my chute into a streamer. Bummer.
Being forty or so feet in the air left me plenty of time to realize that I must make the PLF of my life as I hurtled down accelerating at the rate of: 16 feet per second, per second. For those with a mathematical mind, that is the equation that expressed my rate of acceleration according to what we had been taught. More practically stated, with the drag of my streaming parachute, it was not quite the same as jumping off of a three story building—but it was close enough as far as I was concerned and the landing was coming up fast.
When you do a PLF they teach you to count off the parts of your body doing their job sticking the landing:
But, then I went right back up into the air. I bounced back up. They said that I did a belly flop the second time I landed. Not a PLF, but not quite a SPLAT either. My solar plexus was centered over my reserve chute; the one I did not have time to deploy; and the reserve was what probably knocked me out, knocked me out cold.
When I woke up I was laying face down on my stomach, another trooper was shaking my shoulder saying:
“God damn sir.”
“I never saw anybody bounce that high.”
“God damn sir.”
“Are you all right?”
“God damn sir. . .”
Slowly, carefully, I reached up and released my tongue from where it was stuck to some red Georgia clay. Then, I rolled over and pulled one of the two canopy releases holding one set of risers so that the ground wind did not drag me around. Finally, I just lay there for a while.
The funny thing is; although I always liked jumping out of airplanes and I made probably 15 more jumps, when the Army stopped paying me for it, I never did it again.