Sky Shark By Rick Abasta
Monday, November 02, 2009
Not rated by the Author.
U.S. Army Airborne School in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Adrenaline ripped through my body, numbing my spine and shrinking my scalp. I was breathing fast, taking short, shallow breaths. I tried to concentrate and focus my attention on immortality without hyperventilating. My heart was pounding so fast I thought I was going into cardiac arrest.
The droning roar of the engines was deafening. The smell of JP5 and oil filled the air, which, when combined with the hot exhaust, made you want to puke. The sound of rattling chains was loud and everything seemed on the verge of breaking down. I noticed the same vacant stare peering back at me from the other soldiers. It was the illusion of self-imposed intestinal fortitude as we faced fear.
Uncertainty packed the aircraft, along with the sour stink of sweat and other body odors. Our eyes were dilated with the stark reality of what was about to transpire. Some tried to make their anxieties disappear by closing their eyes. The Oh God, I don’t want to do this expression pulled their faces into a twisted caricature of camouflaged fear.
Everyone pretty much had one or more variations of the “Commando” look: olive drab face with vertical black stripes for Hollywood warrior appeal. Unfortunately, the style lost its appeal on faces that were practically aghast with fear. I tried to think of a fierce Indian war paint design, but I couldn’t think of one. I wondered what the Dine’ warriors of old used to paint their faces before battle.
Crammed into a limited amount of space, I sat uncomfortably and awaited my fate. I was feeling claustrophobic and just chanted my mantra over and over in my mind: you can do it, you can do it, you can do it …
Air whooshed through the aircraft as the doors were opened. My heart began beating faster and I got the chills from the cold prop blast of air. All I could think of was the past two weeks of training and a morbid realization of my mortality. Everybody’s eyes were wide open now. One guy threw up into the barf bag we were handed upon entering the aircraft in reverse manifest order. Some soldiers looked absolutely terrified, but most wore a plastic mask of indifference. The truth of the matter was everyone was scared shitless. Now was the time to see if we had the sac to become paratroopers.
“Outboard personnel, stand up!” The jump master barked out orders for us to begin preparations to exit the aircraft. “Outboard personnel, stand up!” We shouted back, as those sitting near the skin of the aircraft stood up to meet the inevitable. “Inboard personnel, stand up!” This time, the jump master gave the order for everyone else to stand up. We yelled the command and rose to the occasion. We were staggered with the outboard personnel to mesh into one line of jumpers.
“Check equipment!” The Black Hats were now instructing us to check our equipment for any gigs that might foul-up our jump. We yelled back the command and began checking our Kevlar helmets and moved down from there. We ensured everything was strapped tight and secured. We ensured all straps were tucked away and everything was tight and ready to go.
“Hook up!” The jump master gave the order to hookup our static lines. By now, all the Black Hats were smiling sadistically and taunting us. “Hook up!” We yelled back and hooked up our yellow static lines to the inboard personnel cable. Once the nylon strap was hooked in place, I inserted my safety pin. It was my lifeline because it’s what deployed my main parachute.
The jump master barked out, “Check static line!” The Black Hats walked by and double checked our static lines. We checked our lines and the static line of the person in front of us. We inspected for frays and tangles. To jump out of a C-130 Hercules with a tangled static line could mean certain death. The Black Hats continued the taunts: “You Legs are going to get a taste of death from above!” They yanked on each static line during inspection. “I don’t know if you Legs have what it takes!”
The jump master returned to the front of the aircraft to take his spot by the door. “Sound off for equipment check!” We started from the rear and continued our confirmations of readiness all the way to the front of the aircraft. Everyone shouted, “Ok!” Once our stick leader was slapped on the back and told “Ok,” she stomped her foot and extended her arm to the jump master and yelled, “All ok, jump master!”
Our eight-person stick was led by a short African-American woman, First Lieutenant Harris. She worked hard during the two weeks at Ft.Benning’s U.S. Army Airborne School and she was prepared to lead us off the bird for the ultimate cherry blast. Another officer stood behind Lieutenant Harris and I was next in line. I was the third person out the door. My legs were shaking uncontrollably and it was time to see if we had what it took to be Airborne.
The jump master extended his index finger and yelled, “One minute!” We all yelled back the command and prepared ourselves for the jump, while extending our free hand to signal the one minute mark to the troops behind us. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit … My heart was beating frantically, like the pistons of a muscle car and my mind was filled with grisly cinematic scenes of death by gravity.
“Drop zone coming up. Stand in the door!” Lieutenant Harris took position at the door with textbook precision. Her right foot was placed forward and her left foot was to the rear, with both knees slightly bent. Once she was out the door, the rest of us were to shuffle forward into the same position, after handing the jump master our static line. Once achieving perfect door position, we were to “Jump up six and out thirty-six,” blasting our way into airborne stardom.
“Green light, go!” The jump master pointed to our stick leader and she was gone in a blur. The next guy jetted out and then me. The one second interval disappeared so fast there was really no time for hesitation. I extended my left arm to the jump master and he grabbed my static line while I grasped the sides of the door and jumped up and out into a tight body position with my feet and knees together.
We jumped from an altitude of 1,250 feet. Jumping into the prop blast was like being sucked up into shrieking winds of a tornado. My nuts were screaming in pain because I secured my leg straps too loose. I tugged at the straps in vain to bring my boys some comfort from the pain. The gusting winds kept me drifting in the air for several minutes and my stick was the only one to jump day because of the high winds.
After our four-second count, we all felt the sharp jerk of deployment and knew we lived through this Army experience. This was my first “Hollywood” jump (no equipment other than parachute) with Bravo Company, 1/507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army Airborne School, Ft. Benning, Georgia. We lived to tell the tale to our entire company once got back to the barracks. I would later move on to jumping with my permanent unit with the 82nd Airborne Division in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where full combat, mass tactical jumps on C-141s with heavy equipment drops were the norm. But I will never forget my first jump during the third week of jump school, when I finally busted my cherry on Fryar Drop Zone in Alabama.