Sunday, April 11, 2010


I spent the majority of my time in Special Forces as a Military Freefall (MFF) Parachutist. Military Freefall is also called HALO for High Altitude Low Opening and is a specialty infiltration tactic taught at the Special Warfare Center and School. Some people say “oh you’re a skydiver?” Military Freefall parachuting is not skydiving. Although the concept is the same skydivers have minimal gear and normally jump from altitudes less than 10,000 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) so there is no need for supplemental oxygen. MFF parachutists routinely jump from higher altitudes up to 25,000 AGL with weapons, supplemental oxygen, 90 pounds of gear strapped to their bodies and generally at night. The military can make anything fun into a chore. Skydiving is also a means to an end whereas MFF is merely an infiltration method and is generally only the beginning of the mission.

I was on three different MFF teams 083, 014, and 074. Additionally I was an instructor at the Military Freefall School for 3 years. I have made over a 1200 MFF jumps most in a tactical scenario of one kind or another. I have made tandem jumps and jumps as a videographer as well and in all that time I had one malfunction. This is statistically very good as I believe the average is 3 malfunctions for every 1000 jumps. But like Clint Eastwood said in “Unforgiven” “I was always lucky in the order of things.” Lucky and as most people will tell you I am pretty anal when it comes to things that effect me. Actually the one and only malfunction I had wasn’t even my fault.

I was attending the MFF Jumpmaster course in 1993 at Ft. Bragg N.C.; this course produces subject matter experts in the art of Military Freefall. Graduates of the MFF Jumpmaster course must pass a rigorous academic and physically demanding program of instruction to earn the Jumpmaster wreath and star. Week one primarily instructs students in the conduct of the Jumpmaster Personnel Inspection (JMPI). The JMPI is how a MFF Jumpmaster ensures that all parachutists are properly rigged and safe to jump. The JMPI consists of hundreds of memorized points of inspection and experienced Jumpmasters seem to be performing a martial arts “kata” as they flow from one point to the next. Students are taught that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” during training as they seek to commit this kata to memory. The culmination of the first week is the JMPI test which consists of the student jumpmaster inspecting three jumpers rigged in different configurations.

The configurations are “Hollywood” or a jumper with a parachute only, combat equipped with a parachute, weapon and rucksack, and finally a jumper rigged with a parachute and supplemental oxygen. The time standards for all three configurations are added together and the jumpmaster candidate has 6 minutes to conduct the inspections without missing any major discrepancies and less than 3 minor discrepancies. Minor discrepancies are defined as incorrect rigging that can cause pain and discomfort to the parachutist whereas major discrepancies could result in death. The stress placed on the students by themselves and the instructors is incredible and less than 30% of students pass the JMPI test. This test and the stress involved weeds out those that cannot function under the pressure and responsibility that is commonplace during MFF Jumpmaster operations.

Week two and three consists of teaching the jumpmaster student how to determine Automatic Activation Device opening altitudes in the case of a jumper malfunction, wind drift calculations, map reading, static spotting exercises and finally live spots out of a variety of military aircraft both prop driven such as a C130 and Casa 212 and jets like the C141 and C5. Spotting is the MFF Jumpmasters bread and butter; this is how jumpmasters maneuver the aircraft to precisely intersect that point on the ground which will result in the parachutists landing safely at the designated drop zone. This is done from thousands of feet above ground level, often at night and due to wind conditions the release point is often miles from the drop zone. Jumpmaster students are required to pass 10 live spots both day and night to graduate from the course.

All this information was necessary to put my malfunction in the proper context. My class or what was left of it was in the back of a C141 aircraft conducting our final round of night spots at the time of the incident. We routinely started our night spots in the early morning hours so as to finish as day was breaking. Jumpmaster students did not land with the aircraft as we were parachutists first and students second so at the end of every block of instruction we jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft. This was done in hours of daylight so as to make it easier to find injured and lost students, the military is very efficient and pragmatic even in training.

I had finished my final spot early and for all intents and purposes I was a graduate, so I spent the rest of the training flight dozing in the front of the aircraft as we did endless racetracks in the sky allowing the other students to finish their assigned spots. As dawn approached the MFF instructor that had been sitting next to me motioned for me to don the rucksack we had been using as a training aid. Great, I thought three freak’n rucksacks and I have to jump one while all the other guys get to jump Hollywood. At the time I had less than 100 MFF jumps and whenever I jumped combat equipment I was on the ragged edge of instability. Jumping combat equipment would certainly turn the pleasant skydive I had anticipated into another onerous chore. The three of us that had “volunteered” were put in the front of our group due to the fact we were heavier and would fall faster than the other students. As I waited on the edge of the ramp looking out and down at the terra firma 12500 feet below I constantly fidgeted and adjusted my equipment like I was Nomar Garciaparra stepping to the plate.

As the Jumpmaster extended his arm in the signal to exit the aircraft the MFF instructor grabbed my chest strap and leapt from the ramp. We formed a two way as we rode the “hill” of transition and leveled out to belly to earth freefall. The instructor released my chest strap and instructed me to do some left and right turns, continuing to instruct and keep my skills sharp even as the course drew to a close. I was ecstatic, I was rock solid in freefall and I knew when I landed I would be an MFF Jumpmaster course graduate. At 6000 feet AGL I looked up, down, left, and right clearing my airspace in preparation to pull my ripcord. At 5000 feet I waved my hands above my head in a jumping jack motion signaling to those parachutists above me that I was about to deploy my canopy. At 4000 feet I firmly grasped my ripcord and pulled vigorously, I saw the MFF instructor seemingly disappear as I decelerated from terminal velocity. My spring loaded pilot chute caught the rushing air and swiftly pulled the rest of my main canopy from its deployment bag. As the rapidly expanding canopy forced my slider down my suspension lines to its position above my head, I grabbed my steering toggles and looked forward. This entire process took approximately 3-5 seconds.

While I was still attempting to gain control of my canopy I saw a brown and green blur flash in front of my eyes, this was followed by a sickening sight. Parachutists are instructed to turn right to avoid collision in the event of a high altitude entanglement unfortunately I had not fully gained control of my canopy and the forward motion of my parachute drove me straight into my classmates blooming canopy. His MC4 parachute main canopy engulfed me, entangling me in his suspension lines and blinding me. In the event that an entanglement occurs, and we were definitely entangled, the higher parachutist should cutaway from the lower parachutist to avoid the possibility of further entanglement. To this day I have no idea who cut away first or who was higher; I was in a frantic struggle against time and altitude as I attempted to clear his canopy from myself and my equipment. Suddenly as clear as a bell I heard someone yell “Cutaway!!!” Looking up I saw my partially inflated canopy surging in and out in obvious distress. Figuring by this point I had nothing to lose I grasped my red cutaway handle with my right hand and my reserve ripcord with my left. “Arch, pull cutaway pillow, pull ripcord, clear burble, check canopy!!”

Once satisfied I had a working canopy again, I checked my altimeter and saw I was below 500 feet and better attempt to turn into the wind for landing. Unfortunately I had no way of knowing which way the wind was blowing as in all the excitement I had totally lost sight of the on ground wind indicator. I desperately flared my canopy and amazingly did a stand up landing in the sand and short, scrubby pine trees on the edge of the drop zone. Cadre members and the drop zone medic rushed to my location asking me if I was ok and if I was hurt. Other than being at a high state of alertness I was fine. As I gathered my wits about me I discovered I had neglected to lower my rucksack for landing and it was still dangling in its original jump configuration between my legs. I also discovered that my classmate’s main canopy was still tangled in the equipment attaching points at my waist. After assisting me in removing my equipment myself and the other student were hustled back to the school administration building to write our statements while they were still fresh in our minds.

After we wrote our statements we were released back to our barracks to await a summons by the school Safety Officer. I was sweating bullets, had I come all this way only to be failed due to a safety violation? I didn’t think I had done anything wrong but my self doubt was increasing with every passing moment. Once I entered the office of the Safety Officer I was subjected to a cross examination, the kind I had imagined was reserved for the most hardened criminal. The Safety Officer, Company Commander and Sergeant Major did everything in their power to put a chink in my story, to trip me up and cause me to make a verbal error.

Finally after what seemed like hours the Sergeant Major looked at me and told me I was dismissed. I said “Dismissed as in failed or dismissed as in free to leave?” He said “You’re free to leave now get the hell out.” As I walked down the hallway towards the exit I saw one of the instructors and asked him what my status was. He told me to shut up and get out, that I would be ok and I best make myself scarce. You didn’t have to tell me twice, well maybe you did but you didn’t have to tell me three times. I later learned the other student was dropped from the course for failure to clear his airspace below and for causing a high altitude entanglement. I was sad that it had to end that way, but in the dog eat dog world of Special Operations mistakes get people killed and he had violated several safety protocols during our incident. Bottom line was, I left Ft. Bragg sporting a brand new shiny MFF Jumpmaster Badge and in the end that is all I cared about.

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