Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"TEN MINUTES!" cried the jumpmaster over the thunderous drone of the four Allison turboprop engines.
"Ten minutes, ten minutes, ten minutes!" the ninety aspiring jumpers called back, looks of trepidation on their faces. Of those ninety, the ten minute warning was only relevant to the thirty clustered closest to the rear of the Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft. The others would have to wait for the next pass over Friar Drop Zone in Fort Benning, Georgia. I was one of those thirty, roster number 306, and had already watched with a mixture of amazement and horror as the thirty before us had been fed, one at a time, out both jump doors into the waiting maw of the unknown.
We had prepared for this moment, for all of the previous two weeks. The United States Army would never ask one of its soldiers to perform any task, however mundane, without first providing a detailed block of instruction. During those first two weeks of Airborne school, we had been introduced to the T-10 parachute, been taught how properly to land, been told what to do in case of a mid-air entanglement or a water, power line, or tree landing, and been thoroughly indoctrinated into the history of the Airborne, from the first test platoon in 1940, to the Rangers' jump into a hailstorm of bullets over Panama in 1989.
Prepared, yes, but ready? Absolutely not. Who, could possibly become inured to plummeting one thousand two hundred fifty feet out of a moving aircraft, suspended only by a few square yards of thin nylon fabric. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"
"GET READY!" came the next command from the jumpmaster.
This was the moment of truth. True, I could quit the course. It was incredibly easy to do. I would merely need to get the attention of the closest jumpmaster and tell him I didn't want to jump. I would be moved forward in the aircraft, so as not to interfere with the other jumpers, and be told to stay there. But quitting is never really an option for me. Once I have made up my mind to do something, I will follow through.
"INBOARD PERSONNEL STAND UP!" called the jumpmaster.
I, threw my weight forward in a desperate attempt to shift myself into a more or less standing position.
We bounced and rolled as the plane bounced and rolled, trying to get the hook on the end of our static line around the anchor line cable. The static line, fifteen feet long, slender as a whip, bright yellow, and with a tensile strength of over six thousand pounds, by virtue of being connected to the aircraft via the anchor line cable.
The plane bucked, and finally, CLICK. The snap link closed, and I was tethered to the plane.
I again traced my static line down from the place where it met the anchor line cable. I then traced the static line of roster number 307 over his shoulder, while roster number 305 checked mine in exactly the same manner.
I traced the chin strap of my helmet from left to right. Then I inspected both my leg strap quick releases and my chest strap quick release. These three clips, all rated above two thousand pounds, kept my body firmly secured in the parachute harness during even the most violent opening shock. This done, I checked roster number 307's equipment. His, too, was in order.
"SOUND OFF FOR EQUIPMENT CHECK!" hands behind his ears in the familiar gesture.
"OK!" "OK!" "OK!" the jumpers called, one after the other. The cry went up the line until the last jumper yelled, "ALL OK JUMPMASTER!"
Centuries passed. The aircraft was now in its final approach to the drop zone. The jumpmaster waited for word from the pilot. We waited for word from the jumpmaster.
"ONE MINUTE!" An invisible signal had arrived from the cockpit.
I felt sweat slide down my face, although the air rushing in through the open jump doors was keeping the cabin cool. The jumpmaster leaned out of the door, checking for any potential hazards, and then leaned back in.
My heart skipped a beat just before pumping adrenaline through my system.
The first jumper in line handed off his static line to the jumpmaster, and pivoted to face the door. I could hear my heart over the deafening drone of the engines.
The first jumper disappeared. I shuffled forward until my eyes met those of the jumpmaster. I handed him my static line, pivoted, stepped, and was ripped out of the aircraft by the wash from the turboprops.
Elbows tucked into my side. Chin on my chest. Feet and knees tight together. I could hear the quiet snapping as my static line freed itself from the retaining bands, the clink of metal as my risers slowly deployed. "One thousand, two thousand!" I counted. More than four thousand and I would pull my reserve. "Three thousa-" I felt, more than heard, the loud WHUMP as my parachute filled with air, scattering my limbs every which way.
As I slowly floated down, my mind cleared and I entered an almost meditative state. I was able to see how truly amazing an experience this had been. I have jumped many times since then, but the fear will never come back. In its place will always be an excitement, a nervous anticipation. Nothing I have ever done before or since can compare with the feeling of complete weightlessness, both physically and mentally, that only comes with taking a leap of faith into an abyss of the unknown.