What Goes Up, Must Come Down
by: john harrison
It is not true. I don’t care what they say, or who says it, the stories are just not true. This is what really happened that day.
As the XO, or executive officer, of Alpha Company, particularly before I also became a platoon leader, I missed some things, but I got to do some things too. Early on I was sent to Jumpmaster School at Ft. Campbell. After I passed Jumpmaster School, I was assigned to the rotation for qualification jumps.
Since paratroopers drew jump pay they were required to jump at least once every 90 days or they went off of jump status there was always a need for a qualification jump or two at the end of every month to allow these troopers to continue to draw their jump pay if for some reason they had missed their unit jump that quarter.
A qualification jump was always a “Hollywood” jump, which is defined as one with no equipment and no tactical exercise after the jump. After you landed you just got on a truck at the drop zone and it returned you to your unit.
Since most of the qualified jumpmasters were E-6 Staff Sergeants, or even E-7 Platoon Sergeants and E-8 First Sergeants, they all had jobs to do. So, they were too important to spare even for such an essential, if not at all that demanding, assignment.
I on the other hand was a brand new, second lieutenant, and an XO, not even a platoon leader yet. That made me perfect for the job of qualification jump, jumpmaster. I guess it was assumed that nothing I had to do was as important as what almost any senior sergeant was doing. Probably right too.
In any event, I was assigned the first post qualification jump after Jumpmaster School. We were to take off from Campbell Army Airfield at 6:30 AM and the Drop Zone was in the far eastern portion of the Fort near Clarksville, Tennessee. Almost all of the jumpers were from Headquarters Company, 101st Airborne Division.
After drawing parachutes early that morning I went over to the tarmac at Campbell Army Airfield with a big, brand new, role of green duct tape. I walked up to the C-119, the old Flying Boxcar that was our designated jump aircraft already parked on the tarmac. The first thing a jumpmaster does at the airfield is check out the aircraft. As I recall it was flown by an Illinois, Air National Guard unit.
C-119, By USAF – Travis Air Force Base Public Affairs., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32471809
While there is an Air Force, or Air National Guard sergeant responsible for the aircraft called the loadmaster, the paratroopers are the responsibility of the jumpmaster. The first thing you check on the aircraft as the jumpmaster is the doors of the aircraft. You do not want a sharp edge to cut a static line. That is what the roll of duct tape was for, to cover any sharp edges I found.
The rules say that you both look at and feel all of the edges that the static line might hit when a trooper exits an aircraft. However, when I looked at the frame of the door we would jump out of, it was already covered with duct tape far beyond where any static line would hit. Lots and lots of duct tape, everywhere. In fact the duct tape on the edges was at least a half an inch or more thick in most places. The same thing was true of the door frame on the other side of the aircraft too.
Probably just to be doing something, I plastered on one more strip of duct tape on each door frame. After that I went back to the troops. I checked the troopers’ parachutes, loaded up the aircraft and then, Army style, we waited.
A few minutes later the pilot started up the engines. I have never heard louder engines in my life. The C-119 is a piston driven, prop plane of World War II vintage. I always thought it was a cool plane, both because of its nickname, the “Flying Boxcar” and its unusual double tail. I was really looking forward to jumping out of it, and the sound of those powerful engines roaring really increased my confidence.
I just knew that when the pilot released those brakes that the plane was going to leap into the sky. Then, I noticed that the plane was already moving forward, just a little. The engines were still roaring and now the plane was shaking a little too. You could even hear the airframe rattling above the noise of those engines, but you had to look real close to see the forward movement.
Although everyone else was sitting down, as the jumpmaster, I was standing up in the back of the aircraft between the open side doors. I could move around if I wanted to. After a while, I walked over to a door and looked out. We were still moving slowly, a little faster than crawling speed I guessed, but we were less than a quarter of the way down the runway. Plenty of room I thought. This was a jet runway; it was really long. I was not worried yet. Not me.
I started worrying when we were almost half way down the runway and it still looked like I could have gotten out and walked faster than the plane was moving by then. It was at that moment that I realized that the plane and its engines were probably older than I was, probably a lot older. Not a comforting thought at all. I looked at the loadmaster, he had an enormous amount of hair stuffed into his cap, a pen protector full of ball point pens in his uniform pocket and he was chewing on a toothpick. I got nothing reassuring from him.
Finally, the plane began moving faster. I was afraid to look out the door again. I was afraid my head would increase wind resistance and slow the thing down.
No, really I thought that, and then I thought:
“That’s really stupid.”
So, I looked out and immediately wished I hadn’t. Then end of the runway was coming up fast. The engines were still screaming and the plane was still shaking and rattling, but it did not seem to be moving fast enough to fly yet.
At the end of the runway the pilot just sort of blipped the plane into the air at the last minute. We were still flying low, but when the pilot retracted the wheels out of the way of the tree tops in the next field that we were flying over, I could feel that we picked up some speed. Fewer leaves blew through the open doors too.
Slowly, we climbed to about 300 feet.
When we got there I shouted:
“Stand in the door!” All in one quick sentence.
Then I told the jumpers in each door that if the plane lost any altitude at all, we were jumping, drop zone or no drop zone. I did not want to land in that thing. I had the distinct impression that both troopers standing in the door thought jumping rather than landing was a really good idea.
However, the pilot was good and the plane slowly climbed, I sat every body back down at about 500 feet and we waited. Ultimately we reached a real jumping altitude, about 1,100 feet. Later, when the Red Light came on, I ran them through a complete series of jump commands, rather than the abbreviated set I had used before.
When the light turned green, we jumped.
It was a beautiful, clear, already very hot, sunny day, a perfect jump day. I even did one of the best PLFs (Parachute Landing Fall) of my short jumping career. I was still smiling and had just finished gathering up my chute when I saw the sergeant on the ground crew running over toward me. He was pointing up. I looked up and saw the plane disappearing in the distance, probably headed back to Illinois I thought.
“No, Sir! Look! Look! Look up Sir!” the sergeant yelled again at me still running toward me.
So, I looked again, this time to where he was pointing, and then I saw him, way up in the sky. He was probably already at least at 2,000 feet; he was still headed up, and he was picking up speed heading East as well.
When you jump in the Army, you jump into a DZ. A DZ, or Drop Zone is a cleared area, usually a large cleared area, usually surrounded by trees. The DZ we had jumped into was fairly small, but then so is a C-119. I had only jumped about 12 parachutists that day so we did not need a big DZ.
The problem, as was later explained to me in excruciating detail even though I was not the one that had picked the DZ, was that when you jump, particularly early in the morning as we did, the air on the DZ is rapidly heated by the sun and rises. Colder air pours in from the surrounding forest and it is rapidly heated as well. On a large DZ this is rarely a problem, on a small one it can create quite an up draft. That was what had happened.
This problem was compounded by it being a “Hollywood jump.” That is, a jump without equipment. The chutes were designed for troops and their equipment. Adding the equipment would almost double the weight the chute was carrying. Or, put another way, not carrying the equipment cut the weight about in half.
I waved my jeep over and the sergeant and I climbed in
“Follow that paratrooper!” I said to my driver and off we went.
We tore across the DZ, then down the road trying to keep the trooper in sight. The trooper seemed for a while to have leveled off, but then he started rising again. If I had had a radio, I would have called for a chopper. Since I had no radio; I had no chopper.
“Ignore the speed limits. Drive as fast as you feel comfortable, but keep him in sight.” I told my driver.
We raced out a gate and turned left onto the highway still heading mostly East. We had to drive a lot further than the kid above had to fly to keep him in sight. He was really moving but my driver had a lot of confidence in his ability to drive that jeep. The sergeant on the other hand had a death grip on the back of my seat. His knuckles were white.
As a young second lieutenant still new to the Army I did not know then how unstable Army jeeps were, particularly at speed, but the sergeant did. Later our Recon Platoon Leader wrecked all of the recon platoon jeeps in one week, all five of them, one a day. We nicknamed him “Crash” because of it.
According to our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Geraci, “Crash,” yes Geraci called him that too, did not even have the courtesy to get hurt at least a little when he had crashed the jeeps. On the following Monday, Geraci revoked all the battalion lieutenants’ military driver’s licenses.
By then, Colonel John Geraci. He is muddy because his helicopter was shot down as he attempted to save a badly wounded platoon leader. He was special. He won that Eagle patch on his right shoulder leading the 3/506th (ABN), the famous Currahees, in combat.
It was about morning rush hour time when we got to downtown Clarksville. When we were stopped by the traffic I told the driver to drive on the sidewalk, but to keep that trooper in sight because he seemed to be coming down. So we bounced up and down crossing streets, going over the curbs, yelling at people, dodging people, parked and moving cars and just stuff, but we kept the kid in sight.
Ultimately, we could see that the trooper was really coming down. He was going to land. Although he was not one of my troops, I was really proud of his training, because when he first landed on the edge of the roof of a three story building, he pushed off rather than try to land there. If he had tried to land there, even a small gust of wind could have dragged him over the edge, but his chute would almost certainly not really be open. So, pushing off was the smart thing for him to do. After all he had been through, and he still had his wits about him. I was impressed.
We saw him land on the sidewalk next to the building. After his PLF, he jumped up, collapsed his chute and waited for us to drive up. He was so excited. He thought it was all “fun.” He would not shut up on the drive back to base.
So, if you hear stories about some crazy second lieutenant standing up in a jeep waving a .45 caliber pistol around yelling at people to get out of the way while the jeep raced down a sidewalk in downtown Clarksville chasing a lost paratrooper dangling from a parachute in the middle of rush hour, that part about the pistol waving is just not true.