Walking on Air

My foot itched. It was one of those nasty pin prick kind of itches in the arch of my foot. Wearing combat boots and squished into a line of us sitting in the C-130 meant I wasn’t going to be able to scratch it. I tried kicking at my arch with the heel of my other boot, but all that got me was an elbow in the ribs as a guy next to me shouted “cut it out!” over the din of aircraft noise.  Didn’t matter, kicking didn’t help. The only thing that would suffice was unlacing and removing the boot, and that wasn’t likely. Not there. Not then.

It was about 110 degrees in there. The air was thick and smelled of jet fuel, hot oil, sweat and air sickness. We’d been sitting in that stupid airplane for the better part of two hours waiting to jump out of it. The discomfort was undeniable. Parachutes strapped on in front and back, equipment strapped to us and our weapons standing up between our legs made us like little insulated heat engines, slowly getting hotter with each passing moment. Then again the air was rough. The plane kept dipping suddenly and rolling side to side as it lumbered along in the summer heat, no doubt flying around in circles for no particular reason. After all, this was the army and nothing ever made much sense. Not here. Not in training. And training was what this was all about. I was assigned to Fort Lee, Virginia at the Rigger School. They’d been teaching us to make parachutes, repair parachutes, pack parachutes and use parachutes of all different kinds. Regular Pioneer or Switlik T-10 personnel parachutes, B-12 Ripcord Freebacks, Martin-Baker Ejection Parachutes and a whole variety of cargo chutes from humongous to gigantic. They taught us to sew, they taught us to fold, they taught us to pack. Now they were rushing to make sure that we made a qualification jump to keep our status. We had to jump at least once every 90 days to stay current.

The airplane feel about fifty feet, making all of us weightless for a couple of seconds. A couple too many for a few guys who frantically yanked out Urp Sacks and spewed their breakfast into them. Or missed. It just added to the odious thickness of the stinking hot air inside the plane. Almost as if they knew we couldn’t take it much more and would likely lock and load and start shooting each other, the rear side doors were thrown open by loadmasters on the air crew. Our company First Sergeant stood in the center of the plane, all the way in the rear, and yelled for us to stand up. He raised both his hands as if he was conducting a symphony. We all wiggled and shoved against each other, gaining an inch and then falling back, looking pretty spastic all in all until we managed to stagger to our feet.

Things started moving pretty quickly then. We were commanded to check equipment and we gave ourselves a once over before doing the same for the guy in front of us. We made sure we were buckled in okay and that the safety pin was in the static line clip that attached our chutes to the steel cables running fore to aft. We made sure our static lines and the guy’s in front of us showed no cuts or obvious signs of wear or problem. It was a necessary part. Our parachutes were stuffed into bags, and the tops of those parachutes were attached to the static lines, connected by a piece of break-away twine. When we jumped, our weight would pull against the static line, hooked to the plane, and that would pull the parachute out of the bag. We’d stay hanging from the airplane that way except for the break away twine. It would fail and we’d be free to drift down underneath our hopefully inflated canopies.  There were load lights mounted by the doors. They stayed off through the flight. Nearing the jump point, they lit up bright red, warning us of the coming moment of deployment. When they turned from red to green, the loadmasters would start tapping us on the shoulder and yelling “go!” and out we’d go. One after the other like mesmerized lemmings.

It was fun, really. While I didn’t think much of long hot flights cooped up with a planeload of other uncomfortable and unhappy paratroopers, I lived for the exit, the sensation of the opening canopy, and the quiet drift earthward with a view that was always simply spectacular.  It would get almost instantly silent out there. The aircraft would be a receding rumble, and you could talk to other jumpers in conversational tones. You could easily hear the shouts from the ground as non-commissioned officers would bark at us to keep our head in the game and pay attention. Today was a hot day, and that offered an added extra. Thermals blew warm air upwards from the way the sun heated the ground. It would slow our descent, making it take longer to get down. Bonus, you know? It was like getting to stay on a ride for an extra turn or something.

It was really hot and I could hear the air whispering in my canopy. A slight breeze was tracking me across the huge empty drop zone below. We were over sand, and lots of it.  It took me a minute to figure out that I was not really dropping much at all. Instead, I’d hit a kind of balance. Thermals pushed me up with enough force to oppose my falling weight, and so I was just being carried along on the breeze, staying pretty much at the same height. Some of the other guys were sharing the experience, lucky enough to be over a strong thermal like I was. We just hung there and watched the others, the unlucky ones, descend down and down until their canopies would flutter and collapse showing they were on the ground.   The seven or eight of us caught in the thermal just wafted along, all of us thinking it was pretty funny. Below the sergeants were yelling at us to slip. That means grab one of the riser straps that the suspension lines attached to and pull on it. This would alter the shape of the canopy, spilling more air more quickly.  Screw that.  This was a gift of nature and we weren’t about to look the thermal gift horse in the mouth.

There were hawks in the air with us, they too riding on the updrafts from the hot ground.  They would glide past and around us, looking at us as intently as we looked at them. But after a bit, we had moved enough that the thermals no longer held their magic and we got lower and lower.  I could see that a two and a half ton truck was speeding across the ground in our direction, and that was good news. It meant we wouldn’t have to hump it back to the pick up area at the drop zone.  All tolled, it took us about six minutes or so to drop to the ground. That was a record; a personal best.  I never got a static line ride that long ever again. I’ve heard of guys who managed to stay up for literally hours, drifting thirty or more miles from the designated landing spot. I never knew whether that was urban legend or the truth, but it sounded cool enough I never questioned it. Preferring, of course, to believe in such absolute magic.

What is the point to my story? No point. Sometimes days go well and lead to great memories I guess. The lack of drama being what made it all so great maybe. I was just sitting here and happened to think of that particular jump. No reason. Like the jump itself, it just happened and it was kind of pleasant.