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.

11 Comments:

Blogger Simon Peter said...

Great stuff. I love your blog and your writing, but this is one of your best posts yet. The fact that I'm a Brit over here in the USofA might bias me slightly though.

(Hey der to Lennie, I didn't know you read this one as well. Small world in the Blogsphere. :-)

3:18 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Good one.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Lennie Briscoe said...

You don't think I do any work do you?

The British Forces are notorious for using old and outdated equipment. When I was in pre 2001 we were using a radio system from the 60s that was proved to be crap in the falklands. I remember having to lug a massive (UKPRC320) AM radio round the training area (Dartmoor). Unfortunately the radio and spare batteries were so large they consumed all the space in my bergen. Sleeping bag had to go. So there I was in the pouring rain with the CO (Commanding Officer) asking me to put BBC World service on which I did begrudgingly. No one else on the training area had another radio like mine so it was a waste of time, although I swear I could hear Russian sometimes. No sleeping bag and only A Bivi Bag to keep me dry in Dartmoor...never again.

Did you do the climbing frame to get your British wings aswell?

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Kristy said...

Loved the first paragraph, and loved all the detail in the rest of the post. It's so interesting to know how this stuff works. Except...maybe it's just me, but I don't think I'd want anything to eat right before exiting a plane in mid-air. I felt a little queasy just reading about your shortbread treat.

There's a question I've always wondered about. When people are being trained to jump, and they make the first one, does anyone ever balk and refuse to go out? And if someone does, does that mess it up for everyone else, or can that person be taken out of the rotation? Purely a theoretical question, of course. I'm sure I'd never dream of irritating everyone behind me by getting to the door, looking at the ground from cloud level, and leaping backwards into the safety of the plane.

Oh, also: If you earn multiple pairs of jump wings, do you pin them all on your uniform?

12:08 AM  
Blogger Snake Eater said...

I'd heard about the balloon jumps many times, but your description put me there. Great writing.

Ah, "the dial of death". I remember well one February at Camp Ripley, MN. We jumped with no gloves because the reserves hadn't been winterized, my hands were too frozen to deal with the old "two-shot" capewells, and there was way too much wind on the DZ. So there I was screaming across the drop zone, vainly beating the hell out of that round buckle. Must have been quite a sight to see.

Still remember the name of the nurse at the VA hospital, too. Good Norse stock, she was.

12:22 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Great post SFAlphaGeek. I gotta ask, what's it like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane?

4:14 AM  
Blogger GoldFalcon said...

Great Post,

Though, by the time I got my Brit wings in '96 the equipment was far superior to our T-10's in Division. Their main had a small drogue sort of chute inside the main canopy that allowed the chute to be jumped from as low as 250' AGL. Their reserves and harnesses were also top-shelf stuff...

Of course, my memory could be a bit hazy from all fo the beer I drank afterward. I do seem to remember trading a beret for a Ghurka knife and waking up with neither.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous SSgt Mullen said...

WTF! You can't leave us hanging' like that!

Nice to know that the Marine Corps is not the only service to use old outdated equipment though..


Great post though SF, keep 'em comin'

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I god 6 minutes! You are an old jumper! Though it was 6 minutes in BAS in 84 by the time I got to the 82nd it had gone to 10 minutes. Though the dial of death was present at BAS. But maybe only during the skid plate/drag-ex. I disremember.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Blob said...

Great post! I used to work with a Beret who always bugged me to go jumping with him. It's not that I was afraid, it's just that he was a certified nutball who wanted me to go to Bragg with him for a currency jump wearing one of his spare uniforms!

I'm partial to staying inside "perfectly good airplanes" but I got a taste of the experience in Survival School. Funny, I'm not afraid of altitude, but heights with no support terrify me (on the jump tower, I had to stand on my toes at the edge while they connected the risers). Once I was hooked up, I calmed down.

10:49 PM  
Anonymous jumping stilts said...

Great and good post on jumping.

5:21 AM  

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