As the old C-119 trundled down the runway it was a bouncy ride. The wings of the ancient cargo aircraft wobbled up and down almost as if it were trying to flap like a bird to help it lift off. The wing movement caused the walls of the fuselage to oilcan, reducing the confidence level of those of us inside wildly. It was a two storey aircraft and there were paratroopers on both levels. There were four rows of us on each level. Down the center were two rows back to back and there were rows against each wall looking towards the center rows. A rivet popped out of the wall and flew across the interior of the aircraft, striking one of the troopers in the forehead. “Ow!” he yelped. Those who saw the incident passed it up and down and across the rows until everyone on both levels heard the story. More confidence building.
The inside of the aircraft was hotter than the 95 degree day at Ft. Benning, GA, where the US Army Parachute School is located. The air was stagnant and reeked of hot oil, sweat and burned and unburned fuel. Before long it smelled of vomit as the motion of the aircraft as it rocked back and forth combined with everything else to induce motion sickness into one out of every five guys on the plane. As the engines wound up for the takeoff run, the sound level escalated into a nonstop thunder of propellers slapping the air, the growling of the engines, and the incessant rattling of an airplane that seemed determined to shake itself apart in some desperate suicidal act. When the wheels lifted and folded into their fairings with a loud thud, the noise was reduced by half; a minor reprieve from the takeoff run.
We sat crammed into our seats in full combat gear. Parachutes strapped to our backs and emergency reserve chutes to our front, our 80 lb equipment backs shoved between our legs. Someone yelled out “if they fill this thing halfway with fish oil, we could be sardines!” The thought of dead fish and oil started a new round of emesis, much of which missed the opening of the barf bags we’d been handed on boarding. All in all, we were miserable and could wait for them to open the doors on either side of the plane and let us escape from the heated, stinky hell of the rickety airplane. For our sins, the plane circled the drop zone that was a mere two miles from the airport for two and a half hours before the jump masters finally called “Stand up!”
We were all newbies and this was our second of five jumps it would take to be awarded the holy grail of our training: our jump wings that would place us into the special class of soldier. We would be paratroopers. For now though, we were merely trainees. Lowly recipients of non-stop physical training and taunts from our instructors. The doors one each side of the aircraft were thrown open and we all, now standing, formed ourselves into two single file lines, one for each of the beckoning doors that were blowing hot, exhaust laden air into the cabin at hurricane force. “Stand in the door!” hollered the jump master.
There was a red light adjacent to the door. All who could see it started at it myopically as if it was about to perform a miracle we didn’t want to miss. And then it did, it turned from red to green and the jump master screamed “Go! Go! Go!” as he slapped the parachuted backs of each jumper, sending them out the door. In a shuffling pair of lines, first the lower and then upper deck of the aircraft spawned two rows of olive green mushrooms in streams behind the roaring aircraft.
I went out the door and was first struck by a wall of wind and a wall of engine thunder. And then quite suddenly it was silent, with only the sigh of light winds. Looking about, I had a bird’s eye perspective of Ft. Benning and the surrounding territory. It was beautiful and I felt a serene reverence for the moment. That moment was broken as I realized I could hear the crews and observers talking on the ground, their voices somehow miraculously carried up to me. My attention snapped back to the job at hand, and I used pulling on the risers holding me to the parachute’s suspension lines to turn myself into the wind as I’d been taught. I stopped looking down and focused on the horizon as taught, readying myself for contact with the ground. I knew from training and my first jump that my impact would be similar to jumping from a chair, and only lateral movement, a drifting in one direction or the other could create problems in my landing. My knees were slightly bent and I readied myself to execute a PLF, a parachute landing fall, the dissipate the energy of my descent. When my feet felt the ground I would throw myself into a roll over the shoulder. But because of conditions and a lack of any real wind, my landing was gentle and I found myself standing with my parachute deflating and falling over me like a shroud.
I worked my way from under the fabric and unfastened the harness, then in a figure eight motion, I collected up the parachute and suspension lines and stuffed the resulting bundle into a bag I withdrew from my equipment bag. It was then I realized that I’d forgotten to release it when I was fifty or so feet up to get it out of my way so that I would be free to execute a PLF on landing. My gentle stop had saved me the indignity (and pain) I would have endured had there been any wind. But I was still very new to jumping and was still very impressed and fascinated by parachute jumping.
“Asses and elbows, people!” yelled the drop zone commander. “Get your equipment to the trucks. It’s not going to walk there on it’s own!” Mentally roused, I hiked my equipment and parachute bags to my shoulders and started toward a gathering of trucks assembled to take us and our equipment back to the base. “Move! Move! Move!” he screamed. We moved.
As I sat in the truck and jounced back to base with the others, I lamented the time that jumping would become ordinary and I would lose my child-like fascination. Yet thousands of jumps in military and civilian life later, the feeling never left me. Were I to jump today, I would still feel as if caught up in a magical moment, a time of fantasy merged with real life.