Standing on the ramp of the CASA 212 aircraft I couldn’t see anything but the red glow of the jump lights on the ceiling and the full moon as it slid in and out of the wispy clouds. Everything else was blocked out by the 6’3’ 230 pound Navy SEAL Lt I had strapped to the front of my harness like so much luggage. At 5’7” I was standing on my tiptoes to keep him from lifting me off the ground like a rucksack. Even though it was summer in Arizona the temperature at altitude was chilly and the wind swirled through the small two prop aircraft. The glow of the jumplights turned to green and the Jumpmaster gave the thumbs up signal to standby and I placed my googles over my eyes as we awkwardly shuffled to the edge of the ramp.
Our instructor/evaluator grabbed the lip on the edge of the ramp and swung himself out into space, hanging on by one hand like a human meat flag in the relative wind outside the aircraft. The jumpmaster swept his arm pointing out of the aircraft, in the signal to GO. Myself and my passenger rocked once, (he rocked, I was just along for the ride) and we tumbled out of the aircraft into the darkness of the desert night.
I attended the Military Tandem Master course in 1997. It was conducted at the Military Freefall School and was instructed by PO1 (SEAL) Shane H. and current United States Parachute Association President Jay Stokes. At the time Jay was a Special Forces Warrant Officer and the Chief Instructor/Safety Officer at the MFF School. I was an instructor in the Advanced Military Free fall course and was attending this training during a break in classes. Military Tandem was in its infancy and we were some of the first students to undergo the training. The concept was to train special operators to deliver cargo, either animate or inanimate via parachute into areas that may be denied more conventional methods.
We had spent the previous 3 weeks packing, inspecting and jumping the military tandem rigs manufactured by Strong Enterprises. We had started out conducting ground training and then progressed to “Hollywood” jumps with no passenger, passenger jumps, equipment jumps etc… Our last training evolution was to be a night, combat equipment, oxygen, weapon jump. To be more specific I and my passenger would both be equipped with a 60 lb rucksack, oxygen mask and bottles and a M4 rifle to simulate infiltrating a combat environment via High Altitude Low Opening Tandem parachute jump. I had swapped between two partners during my training a 5’2” 130 lb Filipino named Jonny and the aforementioned SEAL LT. Guess who was to be my partner for this jump? Well it wasn’t Jonny.
As we exited the aircraft I kept my head up as I felt the familiar wave where the relative wind coming from under the aircraft attempts to flip you over. Riding the wave is easy if you keep your head and feet up during the transition to stable freefall. If you don’t you can go for a ride ,as the wind will catch your extremities and send you tumbling across the sky. As we transitioned belly to earth something , perhaps part of our equipment, started pushing us over on our side. I panicked slightly as during training the terminal sidespin was the one malfunction that was shown to be the most difficult to recover from. I immediately reached for and deployed my drogue even though we were not entirely stable. I was taking my chances with a drogue malfunction versus the sidespin scenario. Fortunately the drogue deployed as designed, I immediately checked my primary, secondary and tertiary ripcord devices. I also checked my cutaway pillows in the event of a malfunction upon parachute deployment. I then tapped the Lt for him to come out of position one. Basically up until this point he had been in a ball as so much cargo. When I tapped him he went into a freefall arch to assist me in stabilizing our two bodies.
I checked my altimeter and we were approximately 9000 feet above the deck. I tapped the Lt again and we initiated a turn so that we were oriented to face the landing area on the drop zone. As usual the landing area was marked with an opened based triangle or wind arrow made of beanbag lights. From our altitude they looked like softly glowing points of light surrounded by the pitch black of the desert floor. As we turned, we started to rock violently or buffet. This was fairly normal in Tandem operations and signified that basically something was catching the wind unsymmetrically and there is not much you can do about it except for try and relax. As we fell though the buffeting became more violent and it started to push my oxygen mask up over my eyes. I had to keep grabbing it with one hand and push it down while trying to maintain stability.
At 7000 feet I tapped the Lt and he once again assumed position one. I visually cleared the airspace above me in preparation to deploy our canopy and at 6000 feet I waved my arms over my head to signal anyone above they were about to get a face full of F111 fabric. Due to our severe buffeting issue I then located and grabbed my primary ripcord, keeping my eyes glued on the altimeter until we reached 5000 feet. I timed the pulling of the ripcord so we were at the peak of the buffeting, this way our drogue would not entangle with our feet or any equipment when it was released.
The sensation you get from deploying the tandem canopy is different than the one you get from a normal freefall parachute. Normally when you deploy your pilot chute this, small parachute will pull the deployment bag containing your parachute out of the pack tray on your back and as the parachute elongates and fills with air you slow down from terminal velocity quickly and sometimes violently. I always packed a “snivel” into my chute so the opening was a little slower but softer. However during a Tandem deployment you actually speed up prior to canopy deployment. Once you pull the ripcord it releases the drogue that you had been trailing, this drogue acts as your pilot chute and deploys your canopy. When the drogue is released the tandem pair feels a “trapdoor” affect as suddenly for a few seconds you are back up to terminal velocity.
When our canopy deployed I immediately checked it for any holes or discrepencies. I then unhooked the straps at waist level that had been cinching me to my passenger, we were still connected by shoulder straps. I tapped him and he was worked his leg straps farther under his buttocks, so he could sit more comfortably in the harness. As he did this I located and gained possession of the steering toggles. I turned our canopy towards the landing area. I handed my passenger the lower set of toggles so he could assist in steering our huge canopy.
I pulled the googles off my eyes so I could see better, and we executed a number of slow,lazy S-turns upwind of our targeted landing area. Keeping our eyes out for other jumpers we kept our heads on a swivel as we and the other tandem pairs formed a stack up wind of the target. At 1500 feet we headed downwind and past the target landing area, at 1000 feet we turned to the right and went cross wind. At 500 feet we turned back into the wind and headed into the open legs of the wind arrow. At 100-150 feet we released our rucksacks and I felt the old familiar tug as they reached the end of the 15” lowering line and started swinging in the air. As we neared the ground may passenger lifted his legs in almost a sitting postion, approximately 15 feet above ground I heard our rucksacks hit the dirt and I flaired the canopy dynamically to slow our forward progress. Due to the limited visibility and the extreme height differential between myself and my passenger, I had no intention of trying to make a standup landing. When in doubt feet and knees together and execute a Parachute Landing Fall. We hit terra firma in a cloud of dust and basically slid forward into the wind arrow. Our rucksacks came bounding up behind us, hitting me in the back of the legs with their momentum. Members of the drop zone party came out to assist us in untangling ourselves and recovering our equipment. As we walked towards the bus that would take us back to the hanger, I breathed a sigh of relief. One down, one to go, I was to be the passenger next.