Jumping with the Brits, part two
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.