Sunday, June 12, 2005

Jumping with the Brits, part two

After our adventures in balloon jumping at Wesson-on-the-Green, we needed three more jumps to get the requisite five to qualify for British parachute wings. The next two were non-tactical jumps from a C-130 (non-tactical jumps are otherwise known as "Hollywood" jumps, meaning that we were only jumping with parachutes on- no weapons or other combat equipment) into South Cherney DZ. South Cherney was not a large DZ, but it was reasonably close to an airfield that could take a C-130 . That meant that we could jump in the morning, drive back to the airfield and jump again after lunch, and still have some time left to train on the British lowering system for their Bergens (the Brit version of a rucksack - I liked it better than ours because it was just this huge rucksack without anything attached to the outside. It made it harder to find stuff, so you had to be more organized in packing to get to things quickly, but it was a lot less likely to hang up on trees, aircraft seats, etc.) As it turned out, we never did figure out how to use their lowering lines with our rucksacks, so we didn't get to see how well the hemp rope held up.

We grabbed and donned our parachutes and filed onto the C-130. Sure enough, as soon as we sat down, the RAF crew chief started making his way around with boxes of some sort of fizzy lemon drink and packs of "biscuits." We all rushed to eat the biscuits and drink the lemon stuff before we jumped. It gave us something to do, and besides, while we didn't have a clue about where the custom came from, we didn't want the RAF to think we didn't appreciate being fed every time we boarded one of their planes. We did barely have time to finish up and make action stations, though.

The first jump was pretty uneventful, except for the inevitable cross-cultural communications difficulties. On an American jump, the first jumper in the stick stood in the door, one foot on the edge of the deck, both hands outside the aircraft, ready to hurl himself out - and the rest of the jumpers lined up close behind him. The Brits stood by, waiting about halfway between the door and the centerline of the aircraft, and did a kind of "hut, hut, hut" jog out the door when it came time to go. So, the RAF dispatcher gives us "Action stations" (and remember, that's all the warning you're going to get from Brits before it's time to take the leap of faith) and we go through the whole stand up, hook up routine on our own. Our fearless team leader, George, was leading the stick out of the aircraft, and, after ensuring that all of us were in fact, hooked up and reasonably likely to survive the jump, he stood in the door, the toes of his lead foot over the edge of the deck, and both hands outside the aircraft. The dispatcher, thinking that he was about jump when he wasn't supposed to, grabbed his hands and pulled him back inside the aircraft. George, thinking the dispatcher didn't trust him not to fall out of the airplane, got annoyed, shrugged the dispatcher off, and got back in the door. The dispatcher grabbed him again, and again George shrugged him off. This time, the dispatcher, apparently thinking that our fearless leader didn't realize it was the dispatcher dragging him out of the door, approached from the side, and placed one arm in front of George's chest while attempting to wrestle his near hand off the door. Realizing that George had inexplicably taken a death grip on the door, the dispatcher slapped George's wrist, knocking his hand loose from the door. George turned his head and glowered at the dispatcher, and grabbed the door again. Again the dispatcher slapped it loose. Again George grabbed the door. Finally, in the middle of the game of slap hands, the dispatcher noticed that we were, in fact, over the drop zone, and motioned and yelled for us to go. George jumped and we followed, all of us jumping American style: "up 6 and out 36" (inches), instead of the jog out the door preferred by the Brits. Graciously, our hosts counted that jump, even though when it was all over, the dispatcher did ask George about "what the fook he was fooking doing fooking around in the door of the fooking aircraft?"

I jumped out and noticed that the DZ wasn't very big and was separated from a highway by chain link fence topped with barbed wire. On the other side of the road was a tract of suburban housing. Fortunately, none of us landed near the fence, and, after gathering our chutes up, we had a nice picnic lunch their on the drop zone and then took a bus back to the airfield.
That morning had been another beautiful, cloudless, warm day, but by the time we got on the bus the wind had started to pick up, and, by the time we got back, had a brief but colorful and memorable lecture from the dispatcher on the proper actions in the aircraft, and started to get back on the C-130 for our afternoon jump, it was blowing pretty hard. I had a bad feeling about the wind speed, but assumed that the Brit's had the same rigid rules about jumping with wind that we did, and figured the jump would probably be scrubbed. (Unless it's an actual jump into combat, static line operations have to be suspended if the winds at ground level gust up above 13.5 knots. As it turned out, that was apparently the British rule as well, only . . .)

But, the jump must go on. While our aircraft was lining up on the approach for the first stick, one of our guys was standing on the DZ and chatting with the Brit who was running things. The Brit asked Don if "his lads" really wanted to get British jump wings. Don told him that we were looking forward to getting them and that we wanted them pretty badly. According to Don, the Brit then held an anemometer up, watched it gust to 20 knots and told his radio operator "Winds are 12 knots."

The first pass was an all Brit stick - apparently, with the winds, they figured that the only polite thing to do was to put four Brits out first as "wind dummies" to see where the winds would carry us when we jumped. They went out and we started our racetrack for the first pass. I figured that after one or two minutes, we'd get action stations and start getting ready for the jump, but as the plane flew around, we sat there with not word from the dispatcher. The plane circled again, and still nothing. Finally, as the plane started in on the third racetrack, the dispatcher stepped over to where we were and leaned in close. "We've had a spot of trouble" he yelled over the noise of the C-130. "One of our lads had banged himself up proper on the jump, and they're seeing to him now." (We found out later that he had broken his leg.) I felt bad for the guy, but also felt a profound sense of relief - the winds were marginal anyway, and somebody had gotten hurt. Obviously, the jump was scrubbed. My relief was short-lived, however, as the dispatcher continued. "So we'll have to wait until they've dragged his carcass off the D Zed before we can put you lot out." Oh goody. We were going to get to jump anyway.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, we got action stations and a few minutes after that, go. I jumped out and felt myself being hurled away from the aircraft by the slipstream. A few seconds later, my 'chute opened. That's where, under normal circumstances, I would have started drifting down towards the ground. In this case, though, I looked down and realized that I was doing a good imitation of a kite broken loose on a windy day: I was screaming across the DZ right towards the fence, and the highway, and the housing development. I started slipping the riser to dump off some forward speed (slipping, on parachutes without a steerable canopy, is pulling one of the risers - the straps that hold the canopy to the harness - in the direction that you want to go. It's not much of an option, in terms of steering, but if it's all that you've got . . .)

Holding the slip all the way to the ground, I managed to land - hard - about 30 feet away from the fence, and then continued to move towards it, as my inflated canopy caught air and starting dragging me across the ground. Instinctively, I reached for the quick release on the riser, and . . . didn't find it. Oh, right - this was a Brit parachute, and didn't have quick releases on the risers. Great. That used up about 10 feet of the alloted 30. I started struggling with the dial of death, trying to get it open, and finally got the straps undone just as the canopy hit the fence and collapsed. I skidded to a halt with a few feet to spare, gathered up my parachute and trudged in across the DZ. It was a good jump - in the sense that any jump you walk away from is a good jump.

Our fifth and final jump was a tactical night combat equipment jump into a field problem. Aside from some scheduling issues, it seemed to be a straightforward jump. Of course, the scheduling issue had to do with the British Army's astounding efficiency in making use of limited amounts of land. We were jumping into a sheep pasture - the sheep had been removed earlier, but we shouldn't be surprised if we ran into a few stragglers - and in the briefing, the OC (officer in charge) told us that we needed to make a real effort to get our gear policed up and get off the DZ as quickly as possible. We were jumping at 9pm, and at 11pm, they were using the pasture for a night mortar fire exercise, so - don't be late. I wondered how the stragglers among the sheep would fare, and then I realized that we had always had plenty of mutton sausage every day for breakfast. Now I knew why.

We were jumping a "stretch" model C-130 with some extra troop seating aft of the door. I was lucky enough to get the seat right by the door, which meant that I would have to walk forward when it came time to hook up and jump. That didn't seem like a big deal at the time it was being explained to me, but it turned out to be one of the scarier things I've done in my jumping career. Soon after we boarded, and while we were still working on finishing the requisite snack, the dispatcher stood up, checked his harness to be sure that it was securely fastened to the inside of the aircraft, and opened the door. There I was next to it, still seatbelted in, and in my parachute harness but without a reserve on (when jumping static line, the main parachute deploys automatically, and cannot be deployed manually by the paratrooper - the reserve is the only chute the paratrooper can deploy on his own.) We were cruising probably 1000 or so feet off the ground, and as I watched the night rush by below me, I decided, action stations or no, as soon as he closed that door, I was going to put on my reserve. But he didn't close the door. Instead, he looked around and yelled "Action stations!" According to his instructions, that was the point that I was supposed to unfasten my seatbelt, move forward of the door, and get rigged up for the jump - to include putting my reserve parachute on. Surely not. Surely, yes - the dispatcher was gesturing at me with a "come here" hand and arm movement. He apparently thought that I had forgotten what to do. No, I remembered. I just didn't remember anyone mentioning that I would get to amble across an open aircraft door without a reserve on. Reluctantly, I took my seatbelt off and took the short stroll to the area to the front of the door. The rational part of my brain made a point of telling me how unlikely it was I would fall out. The scared to death part of my brain made of point of telling me how much it would hurt if I did.

We made the jump, gathered up our equipment, and made our way off the DZ without either scaring up any lost sheep or encountering any mortar fire. We turned in our chutes, and rucked off into the night into a very nice tactical problem our hosts had set up for us.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Jumping with the Italians

I think T-10's story about the German Auslander parachute course reinforces my point about why people don't really freeze in the door. He was behind an Italian jumper who stopped in the door because he expected an individual tap-out and T-10 ran right over him (um, err, "assisted him out the door.") I've been in a stick before where the guy in back (big, big guy, about 6'3" and very muscular, came to us courtesy of the 82nd) started making train whistle noises and stamping his feet quickly on the deck in imitation of a train making it's way down the tracks right at the 30 second warning. Even if stopping in the door seemed like a good idea at the time, it wasn't a feasible alternative. In the parlance of the US Army Airborne, the last guy in line is "pushing the stick." Sometimes that's a literal description.

I've never jumped with the Italian airborne, but I have a friend who has his Italian wings, and he swears that the story he tells is true (for whatever that's worth): On his third or fourth jump, while he was inspecting his static line, he noticed a frayed spot in it. So, he stops sending up the OK signal and instead, throws his hand over the anchor line cable to signify a problem. The jumpmaster comes back, looks at my buddy's static line, gets this huge look of concern on his face, whips out his knife, cuts the frayed portion out of the static line, ties the two ends together with a square knot with a half hitch on either side, gives my buddy a huge smile and hands the static line back to him. My buddy jumped anyway, although he says it was against his better judgment.

Which M-4 did he have?

While it doesn't materially change my opinion of what happened, there appears to be some difference of opinion on what weapon Lt. Pantano was equipped with. I thought that the USMC procured the M4A1, not the original M-4 (which shares the "3-round burst" design flaw with the M-16A2.) Does anyone know generally which version the Marines use, and specifically, which version Pantano was equipped with?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Lt. Pantano

I originally wrote the following post in the comments on this article regarding the resignation of Lt. Pantano. As many of you know, I think that he got a raw deal in this case. Mustang23 disagrees, and offers a thoughtful, reasoned discussion of his point of view. He suspects that there was an understanding that lesser offenses wouldn't be considered against Pantano in exchange for his resignation. I hope not, but it does go to show that even soldiers who have "been there, done that" can have different interpretations of whether something is right or wrong. As I've mentioned here before, I've seen a long-time friendship end over whether a particular shot was justified.

I do think though, that absent some clear indication of malice, the proper forum for such discussions is the AAR (after action review.) I think that we do need to be seen punishing those in our ranks who wilfully violate the law of land warfare, or who act unlawfully out of hatred towards the enemy. But I don't think that, absent a clear violation or malicious act, decisions about tactics and rounds fired, etc. need to be debated in the pages of Time, or decided in a military court. All that incidents like the aftermath of the Pantano case do is demoralize the troops, and introduce another layer of doubt into the most uncertain situations imaginable.

With that said, here's what I said about Mustang23's post:

I'm afraid that I have to disagree with Mustang23, a soldier for whom I have a great deal of respect, at least in terms of his feeling that there was a lack of proportionality in Lt Pantono's response. I'm not convinced, at least from what I've seen in the case, that 2 mags worth of ammo was overkill. The 5.56mm NATO round is woefully ineffective as an immediate manstopper, and I can certainly envision a situation where, even after 30 rounds, a human body or two is still moving around - in the worst case scenario, with enough conscious control to move a finger and detonate a remote controlled IED in the car before expiring.

If he was justified in shooting at all - and I strongly believe that he was - he was justified in shooting until all movement ceased and the two threats were completely, totally and finally dead.

If I were in the same situation - faced with a potential carbomb and two men who appeared threatening, and who could potentially have a device as small as a keyring door opener that required as little as a single slight finger push to detonate the carbomb - I don't think that I would fire a few rounds and stop to evaluate the situation. I would fire until both bodies were conclusively incapable of any further movement. And, to be honest, I doubt that I would even notice that I had changed magazines. For a well drilled marksman, a magazine change is a pretty automatic act.

I wasn't there, but my interpretation is that the nature of the enemy dictated his response - for the enemy to threaten his life and the life of his men did not require an obvious, overt gesture like pulling the pin of a grenade or pointing a weapon - all it required was that the enemy press a button on a concealed detonator.

The cyclic fire rate on an M-4 is 600 rounds per minute, or 10 rounds a second, or 3 seconds per magazine - and it takes less than a second for a trained shooter to make a magazine change. Again, I wasn't there, but the whole thing could easily have taken place in far less than 10 seconds, under the extreme stress of close quarters combat, within killing range of a potential carbomb. I'm not willing to second guess the number of of rounds fired under those circumstances. (And the reports I've seen indicate that he was armed with an M-4, not the M-16A2 with its ridiculous burst mode, so emptying a mag would require one trigger operation, not 10.)

Which leaves only the calling card as a possible offense. Was leaving the calling card wrong? Maybe - it's certainly something that US units have done in past wars. I don't know what the RoE says about it, but absent a clear prohibition in the RoE, I don't think it's a sufficiently heinous to be career ending. And I don't think that it would have been, absent the hysteria over the premeditated murder charge.

I do think that Mustang23 nails it when he says that "this has been a black mark on the Corps and needs to be buried." I also agree with that, given the media attention that would have followed him around, Pantano would have been ineffective as a combat leader. At this point, whether or not there was a quid pro quo agreement, I don't think that he had a real alternative to resignation - given the embarrassment the Corps caused itself through him, had Lt. Pantano stayed on, he would have been a pariah in the Corps, and certainly would not have been afforded a opportunity for a meaningful career.

I disagree with Mustang23 over the root cause, however. Absent some detail that hasn't been made public, I don't think Pantano's actions that day have been demonstrated to have been wrong. (It would be different, for example, if it came out that Pantano had paused, ensured the two men were dead, and then fired into their corpses to mutilate them, or if it came out that the RoE emphasised that calling cards were prohibited. But I haven't seen anything like that established in the reports I've read about the incident.) I think that the Corps overreacted to the potential media response if Coburn went public with an allegation of murder (which is why I believe the commanders on the ground were overruled) and Pantano paid the price.

Maybe, given Coburn's allegations, the Corps had no choice but to prefer charges, and given the media attention those charges engendered, maybe Pantano had no choice but to resign. I'm not convinced, though, that the whole situation couldn't have been handled in a way that preserved the career of a good combat officer and ended that of a substandard NCO, instead of the other way around.

And, while I agree that a "poor example to the troops" has been set, I think that it has been set by a Marine Corps JAG officer somewhere who has let the troops know that, if they resort to automatic weapons fire in close quarters combat, they stand the chance of being subjected to excessive and automatically career-ending scrutiny over that choice.

A wise old sergeant major once told me that "you may love the Army, but don't make the mistake of thinking that the Army loves you back," and I think that applies here to the Marine Corps as well. Pantano loved the Corps, but when, at least from what I know of the case, through no fault of his own, he became a liability to them, they cut him away like a screaming bag-lock. The Marine Corps has a fine sense of public relations, and I think that in this case, they let that overcome their sense of honor.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Jumping with the Brits, interlude

Let's see, a few questions in the comments here . . .

Oh yeah, they had a climbing frame at one of the bases where we stayed, but it wasn't tied to the airborne stuff - our hosts just thought we would enjoy it. And, back in the day, one of the coolest things the radio guy could do on an extended field problem was pull out the AN/PRC-74 and tune in commercial shortwave stations - BBC World Service was always a favorite.

In theory, if somebody jump-refuses in the door, the jumpmaster is supposed to give them three chances to jump (by yelling Green Light, GO!, three times) and then pull them out of the door. I've never seen it happen. In practice, unless you were the last man in the stick, I don't think that you could stop in the door - once the adrenaline gets going and the stick starts moving, you're sort of swept away by events - besides, the guy behind you would probably run right over you. If you did freeze in the door, by the time they could get you out of the way, the drop zone would most likely be long gone, so yes, the aircraft would have to racetrack and make another pass.

Although I've personally considered being a jump refusal about eighty times, I've only actually seen two jump refusals in my entire career - one was on the aircraft in Airborne School on our first jump: one of the trainees decided that the life of a paratrooper was not the life for him, but that happened pretty much as soon as we took off. The other one happened on the ground, when two experienced 82nd Airborne NCOs psyched a kid fresh out of jump school into not jumping. We were about to jump into phase one of the Q course, and our lift was delayed because the first lift had someone hurt on their jump. The two experienced jumpers fell to describing and embellishing all the grisly airborne accidents they had seen, heard of or could make up on the spot, and the poor kid let it get to him, which ended his SF career before it began - but both of the jump refusals happened before they could interfere with the jump.

And yes, you can wear one pair of foreign wings - pilot or parachutist - on your dress uniforms. Foreign wings go above the right pocket. If you've earned more than one set of foreign wings, you get to pick which ones you wear. British wings on the US uniform are kind of a pain, because the British normally wear cloth parachutist wings sewn onto their uniforms. Wings on the US uniform have to be the metallic pin-on type, so you have to search around to find pin-on British jump wings. Supposedly, the British wear metal pin-on wings on their dress-mess uniforms, so you can find them in a metallic version for sale, but for all I know, the only people who buy them are Americans who wear them as foreign wings.

I'm an old jumper, but not that old: SOF troops still start issuing jump commands at six minutes, but then, we're jumping a dozen or so people at a time instead of 64. On my one (and please, my only) jump with the 82nd Airborne, they started at the ten minute mark. (I had just graduated the Q course, and was riding around Bragg with a friend of mine who was in my class. He had come from the 82nd, and his Sergeant Major had given him a lot of help and encouragement in moving to SF, so he wanted to go by and say "Thanks." I went in with him, and in the course of the conversation, it came out that I had gone straight from jump school to the Q course. The Sergeant Major told me that, if I was going to be airborne, I should understand what a real airborne operation looked like. They had one going on the next night, and my friend and I were invited to strap-hang. Let's just say that I never understood the "mass" in mass tactical until that jump.) And, until I jumped with the Brits, I'd never seen the dial of death - although the more experienced jumpers with me recognized it right away.

If the current Brit harness and chute is based on the version they were in the process of modifying, it's a great chute - and the harness is much more comfortable than ours.

And, finally, I don't jump out of "perfectly good airplanes." I jump out of military airplanes. Back when I started jumping, flight crew pay used to be $150 a month, and jump pay was $110. Flight crewmen used to claim that was because their job required greater intelligence than jumping, but our take was that the extra $40 a month compensated them for the additional danger of landing - we got to get out before then. Actually, jumping is one of those things that's scarier than it is risky - Something to do with our monkey brains screaming "Don't fall out of the tree!" at us. Once you get through that, it's a hell of a ride.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Jumping with the Brits, part one

(Read a comment on my blog from Special Constable, which got me to thinking about the times I trained with the Brits, which leads to this:)

Back in the '80s, when I first got into SF, the "threat" was still the Soviet Union, and my team's wartime mission was to respond to the Russians screaming hell for leather through the Fulda Gap. Thanks to the hard and dedicated work of various leftist and anti-war protesters, that never happened, and the Soviet Union eventually collapsed under its own weight peacefully disbanded, despite an unprecedented arms build-up by the United States. Unfortunately, war-mongering reactionaries led by Ronald Reagan actually believed that confronting and combatting the Soviet's aggressiveness would do more good than acquiesing to it. Sadly, Maggie Thatcher supported the US in this position - yet, despite all that, the noble members of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Green party succeeded in preventing war, although much to their chagrin (and that of the New York Times), the wrong side fell apart. Fortunately, the left now sees another chance to take down Western civilization, and the same apologists and advocates for communism have turned their support to the radical Islamic world.

Even though World War III never happened, we did get to spend a fair amount of time in England and Europe training for it. Training with British units was always an exceptional experience. Their parachute infantry and special operations units (read the SAS) were consumate professionals, and the training was invariably challenging and realistic (and occasionally humbling.) During one rotation, in addition to the other training they had laid on, the Brits had set up an opportunity for us to earn British "jump wings." The rule of thumb for qualifying for a foreign parachutist badge is that you have to jump with the foreign nation's equipment, intermingled with their personnel and using their jumpmasters. Some countries take a pretty loose view of the rule, sending a jumpmaster and as many jumpers as they can round up over to the US for a "wings exchange." In a wings exchange, they let us jump with their equipment and jumpmasters, then they jump with our equipment and jumpmasters. Usually only a single jump is required to qualify, a brief ceremony awarding each other new jump wings is held, and then a massive amount of beer is consumed. The Brits, however, were sticklers for the rules (even if not averse to consuming massive amounts of beer.) Although the training was abbreviated from their regular jump school, we did have to go through training on their equipment and jump procedures, and we had to make the requisite five static-line parachute descents.

Jumping with them was a fascinating trip back in time. The parachute harness was cotton webbing, and the "d-bag" (the deployment bag that holds the parachute) was canvas. When jumping equipment, the rucksack was lowered with a hemp rope. The parachute harness was fastened closed with a round buckle device in the center of the chest that had been discontinued by the US years before, and replaced with quick release snaps. Because the buckle had to be turned before the parachutist could get out of the harness, and because, in the case of water landings, or high winds on the DZ, getting out of the harness quickly is a matter of life or death, the old-style buckle was known as the "dial of death." Prepping for a jump had all the atmosphere of getting ready to jump into North Africa in World War II.

It's not that they didn't have a more modern parachute: they did, and it had just been introduced into service - and just as quickly taken out of service. It was a wonderful harness, much more comfortable than the American T-10 (the T-10 leg straps come up between the legs through the crotch, which can be distressing when the sudden stop from the parachute's opening pulls them taut, while the Brit harness leg straps wrapped around the leg.) Unfortunately, the Brits had very experienced paras test the new chute - no problems. Then they introduced it into their jump school, where they found out, if the harness wasn't adjusted correctly, the opening shock from leaping from an aircraft going 120 or so knots and suddenly decelerating would send the jumper sliding right out of the parachute. The parachute would then waft gently to earth without the jumper, whose descent was extremely rapid by comparison. They were working on modifying the new chute when we were there, so they were mostly using the old equipment. We did get to jump the (un-modified) new chute a couple of times - they figured we were experienced enough to tighten the harness down and avoid the problem (and we were, too: when I jumped the new Brit chute, the harness was so tight that I couldn't stand up straight, and nearly passed out from not being able to breathe, but I didn't fall out.)

The Brit paras also had a more nonchalant approach to jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. It is holy writ in the US Army that before any jumper exits an aircraft, he will be inspected (JMPI'd - for Jump Master Pre-Inspection) by at least two jumpmasters. The British took a much more laid back approach - their attitude seemed to be "you rigged it, you ride it." The only inspection I recall ever getting was a quick "Alright, mate?" and a slap on the back getting on the aircraft.

Their more laid back approach extended to the mechanics of exiting the aircraft. In the US, jumpers are completely rigged up long before they jump. Then, 10 or 20 minutes before the jump, they start to receive time warnings. At the six minute warning, the jump commands start: "Get Ready!" The jumpers undo their safety belts and take care of any last minute items to be stowed. "Stand Up!" Jumpers stand up in the aisle between the nylon webbing that serves as their seats. "Hook up!" Jumpers hook their parachute static lines to the anchor line cables that run lengthwise through the aircraft. "Check static lines!" The jumpers check to ensure the static line is properly connected to the anchor line cable, and then trace the static line as far as they can, checking for any tears or frayed spots. Then they check the remainder of the static line of the jumper in front of them. "Check Equipment!" The jumper checks the security of his parachute harness, helmet, and (if jumping combat equipment) his rucksack and weapon, to include lowering line. "Sound off for equipment check!" Starting with the rearmost jumper, each jumper slaps the side or butt of the jumper in front of him and sounds off with an "OK!" If the jumper's equipment or static line is not OK, he places his arm over the anchor line cable and does not send up the check. When the jumper in front get's his OK, he looks and points at the jumpmaster and yells "All OK, jumpmaster!" Meanwhile, two or more safeties - qualified jumpmasters - are moving up and down the line of jumpers doing their own visual inspection of jumper equipment and static lines. Then the fun starts - a few minutes before the jump, the troop doors at the rear of the aircraft are opened, and the jumpmaster begins his door checks, ensuring that the door is safe to jump. Meanwhile, the wind from the slipstream is roaring into the aircraft, and the first few people in the stick have a terrific view of the height they're going to jump from. Additional time warnings are given at one minute and at 30 seconds. At the 30 second mark, the jumpmaster gives the command "Stand by!" The lead jumper walks back to a position 2-3 feet away from the door and the stick of jumpers behind him shuffles tight. (Actually, at the time, on a C-130, the command was "Stand in the door!" and the lead jumper actually took his place in the door. I understand why they did away with it - standing in the door gets in the way of the jumpmaster spotting the DZ, and it increases the chance of the first paratrooper falling out prematurely - but I still miss it. John Wayne stood in the door, by God. He did not "stand by.") The last command is "Go!" and the jumpers go out the door, "maintaining a good one second interval between paratroopers" according to the book, or "shotgunning the door" and getting out as fast as humanly possible, sometimes literally on top of one another, according to the old school jumpers in the 82nd Airborne.

The Brits reduce all of the above complexity to two jump commands: "Action Stations!" and "Go!" At "Action Stations", you finish putting on your parachute (the Brits didn't put on the reserve chute until right before jumping), stand up, hook up, check yourself out and shuffle back to the troop door all on your own. Meanwhile, the dispatcher (the British equivalent of a US jumpmaster - unlike the jumpmaster, however, the dispatcher is an Air Force crewmember and not an army paratrooper) is opening the door and getting his end ready. Unlike the iron-clad rule in the US, the dispatcher isn't shy about opening the door before the jumpers are hooked up. "Go!" at least, works the same as it does in the US.

But, to the everlasting credit of the RAF, you could not get onto one of their aircraft, under any circumstances, without getting at least a snack. Our first jump from an airplane entailed a flight of less than 10 minutes, and yet the second we got on the bird, the crew was passing out a carton of lemon drink and "biscuits" (shortbread cookies to us.) The USAF could definitely take a lesson from them in terms of hospitality.

Our first couple of jumps, though, weren't from airplanes. The British para school at Brize Norton kept an old World War II barrage balloon around, and they had rigged a steel frame cage with a waist high guard rail as a jump platform below it. When I saw it, my first response was "Cool - helium balloon!" The dispatcher set me straight - it was a hydrogen balloon. Hydrogen was twice as light and cheaper than helium. "Oh great," I thought, "for four solid weeks they've been warning us about the danger from IRA terrorists, and here I am about to get on a bag of hydrogen in an open field surrounded by farmland. One pissed off Paddy with a rifle and incendiary round, and I get to star in Hindenburg - The Sequel."

It turned out that I didn't need to worry about the balloon catching fire, though. At least it hadn't happened up to that point. What I did have to worry about was the cable connecting the balloon to the winch that raised and lowered it snapping. That had happened in the past, and the balloon tended to ascend rapidly. The drill for that situation was to jump off the platform as quickly as possible, before you ended up making a parachute descent from the stratosphere. Or, as our dispatcher put it "If the fooking cable breaks and I tell you to go, don't bother looking around and saying "Pardon?", because you'll fooking be talking to yourself." If the cable didn't break, you jumped from about 600', which made for a short ride, considering that it took a good 3-400 feet for the parachute to open.

And actually, nothing went wrong. Jumping out of the balloon was one of the nicest experiences of my life, mostly because of the quiet. Usually when you jump, it's out of a hot, noisy airplane, and you can enjoy the ride, but not the build-up. From the balloon, you could look around and enjoy the surrounding countryside - it was a cool summer day (by the standards of the southern United States, anyway - our hosts thought it was hotter than hell) with a nice breeze blowing and a gorgeous view of the rolling hills of the surrounding farmland and the small village off to our left. We had clear blue skies with only a few fluffy white clouds. When I jumped, it was more like a roller coaster than static line parachuting. A nice, smooth descent with none of the buffeting from the slipstream that makes the first seconds of a jump such a wild ride. I could watch (and feel) the ground rushing up at me, and it was so quiet I could hear the whirring sound of the parachute's suspension lines sliding off the pack tray, and the popping of the rubber bands that held them in place. The only problem was that it was too short. We tried to convince them to go higher for our second jump, but the laws of physics got in our way. The higher the balloon, the more stress on the cable, and the more likely it was to break. So 600 or 700 feet was pretty much it.

My second balloon jump took place right at dusk. It had cooled off to the point it seemed just a bit chilly, and with the sun just down, the lights of the village had come up. As we prepared to jump, I could hear the buzz of conversation and the muted clink of glassware drifting over the fields from the nearby pub. I stepped off the platform and fell through the shadows of the evening until the parachute whuffed open ghostlike above me. A great ride, and the best part was, somebody was paying me to do it.

In fact, only one of us had any trouble that day. One of our team sergeants there had inexplicably flashed back to his C-130 training and done a vigorous jump out of the balloon (up 6 and out 36 (inches) used to be the mantra for jumping out of a C-130, to make sure you cleared the door and didn't get slammed back into the side of the aircraft by the prop wash.) The same dynamic exit out of a balloon led our paratrooper to pitch forward as he jumped, and he ended up doing a complete front-flip through his risers. He didn't hurt himself, but he did become the hero of the British jumpers, who had never seen anything like it before, and urged him to do it again on his second jump.

Many of us, on the other hand, had a "spot of trouble" when we jumped out of the British airplane the next day, but that's a story for another time.