Sunday, April 4, 2010

Winter Exercise

Every good war story starts with the phrase “so their I was...”
So their I was at 18,000 feet spinning out of control in the pitch black Canadian sky. About 10 seconds earlier I had been sweating my ass off in the back of a C130 cargo plane as it made it way towards our drop zone. I was sweating because I was dressed for the -75 degree F temperatures I expected to experience in the Canadian wilderness and the Air Force crew chiefs had the heat cranked up because their little feet were chilly!!! They were cold because the tail gate was wide open as my team was about to make a High Altitude Low Altitude (HALO) parachute jump onto a frozen Canadian lake in the province of Quebec.
My battalion, the 3rd Battalion 10th Special Forces Group had deployed from our home base of Fort Devens, Massachusetts to CFB Valcartier, Quebec, Canada to conduct cold weather training in the winter of 1994. We had started out doing downhill and cross country ski training, winter survival, long range movements and cold weather medical training. After 3 weeks the exercise was to culminate with a 10 day field problem in the harsh Canadian winter. So we had done our pre-mission training and conducted our 72 isolation exercise where we had gotten our mission statement from the battalion staff and developed our courses of action. Once we had identified the most viable course of action we hashed out the details and presented our plan of execution in breifback format to the Battalion Commander for his approval.
In brief my team was to infiltrate the operational area by HALO and move up a frozen river bed about 15 kilometers to our objective. Once in the objective area we were to conduct a demolition raid against an “enemy” radio tower and stop its transmissions. After successful silencing the broadcast we were to exfiltrate 200 kilometers by MOST (Mobile Over Snow Transportation) which is an Army acronym for snowmobile. Easy huh?
After our plan was approved, our gear was packed, and all rehearsals were complete, we conducted premission combat inspections (PMCI’s), ate and moved to the airfield to gear up for our infiltration. At the time I was a Staff Sergeant and the junior weapons sergeant on my detachment. My rucksack was packed with a 2 man tent, PRC-104 radio for High Frequency (FM) long range communications ,PRC-126 radio for inter-squad communications, extra batteries for each, 800 rounds of ammunition, 10 days of rations, night vision goggles, 5 quarts of water and in what ever room was left was my personal cold weather gear. My ruck weighed about 90 lbs and no space was wasted. In addition to the rucksack I also had my load bearing or ammunition vest containing all my survival gear, a complete IV administration kit, 4 quarts of water and another 400 rounds of ammunition. To top it off since I was the junior weapons sergeant and my senior weapons sergeant was acting as our second in command for this operation I was also carrying the SAW or squad automatic weapon.
The SAW was fielded by the Army to replace the automatic rifleman position at the squad level. It can fire the standard 5.56 mm NATO round either from links or from an M16 30 round magazine. Someone I love once called it a fifteen pound hunk of worthless metal. So now we were on the airfield gearing up for jump and I didn’t know how to rig the SAW for a HALO jump. Neither did anyone else, the SAW was new enough that it wasn’t something that was jumped routinely. One of the jumpmasters helped me mount my rucksack between my legs and then he decided to rig the SAW as if it were an M16 rifle. So he put it on my left side, barrel down, with the butt stock tied to the equipment loop on the left shoulder of my parachute harness with and the waist band of the harness over the weapon and under the carrying handle. Once rigged up we waddled onto the plane like a bunch of penguins on steroids and took our seats in reverse exit order.
At six minutes out from the drop zone the jump lights lit up bright red to warn us. As the plane continued to fly towards the jump off point we adjusted our gear and did last minute co ordinations with the pilot. All this was done in the complete darkness of the back of the plane and in silence. We had all donned our oxygen masks at the beginning of the flight and had been pre breathing 100% oxygen for the last 2 hours. At 3minutes out the tail gate opened allowing us to view the murky darkness that was punctuated by the few dim lights visible 20,000 feet below. At 2 min out the jumpmaster climbed out on the tailgate and hung almost his entire body out of the plane, exposing himself in an attempt to visually identify the drop zone that was some miles in the distance. He signaled us to stand up and move forward to the edge of the ramp. At one minute the jump lights turned green and my team was poised on the edge of the ramp in nervous anticipation. As we flew towards the release point the jumpmaster gave us the signal to standby and gave a few last minute corrections to the crew so that the plane would intersect the exact point on the ground he had calculated for our release. When that intersection occurred the jumpmaster stood up and pointed out the ramp, before his arm was even extended we were pushing each other out of the plane in a mad bailout into the darkness.
The object for any Military Free Fall Parachutist, skydiver, bomb, cat or anything dropped from a great height is to stay symmetrical. Symmetry equals stability. People jumping out of perfectly good aircraft need to maintain a good clean body position with their head up and each side of their body doing the same as the other side. The slightest conflict or unbalance can cause any numbers of problems, such as buffeting, tumbling or spinning. This brings me to the beginning. As I exited the aircraft I had a good stable exit and transitioned into normal freefall after about 3-5 seconds. Then things started going bad, the genius who had rigged my SAW had rigged it with 80 pound test and the weapon was too heavy for this. As soon as I got stable the tie down on my upper shoulder broke and the weapon canted straight out to my left. You guessed it; I was suddenly unsymmetrical and starting to go into a violent spin. I tried to counter by turning towards the opposite direction of spin as we are taught but all the gear I was wearing restricted my movement to the point where countering wasn’t very effective. I continued to gain speed and the whole time my mind was racing. I was worried that the SAW would fly off into space since the only thing holding it right now was my waist band, I was worried the blood vessels in my eyes would burst from the pressure exerted by the spinning on my extremities, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to pull my ripcord (that was a big one). Since pulling high was almost as dangerous as pulling too low I decided to ignore the spin and firmly grasping my ripcord, I held on to it as my eyes were glued to my altimeter. When the needle approached 4000 feet I pulled as hard as I could and prayed I had packed the parachute with no malfunctions.
Due to the spin my parachute opened very stoutly, which is putting it mildly. I also had twists in the suspension lines all the way up to the bottom of the canopy. I started bicycling out of them and by the time they came out I checked my altimeter and saw I was at about 1500 feet. I frantically searched for the drop zone below, trying to orient myself for landing. I finally spotted the wind arrow on the ground which indicated the way the wind was blowing. Seeing that at least I was still upwind of the arrow I breathed a sigh of relief, being downwind was bad. I set up for my downwind, cross wind and final approaches much as an airplane does when it comes into land. At about 350 feet I was headed into the wind and started to prepare to land, I dropped my rucksack off my legs and released it to dangle on the fifteen foot lowering line that was hooked to my left side equipment attaching point. This caused a pendulum action as I neared the ground. The ideal way to land a square parachute canopy is to face into the wind and pull down on the brakes lines which collapse the back of the canopy just prior to hitting the ground. If executed correctly forward movement will cease and the parachute will start to drop at the precise moment the parachutist feet come into contact with the ground. At night it is a little more difficult, since it is almost impossible to judge distance and depth in the dark parachutists are advised to pull their brakes lines halfway down to slow forward movement and put their feet and knees together so they can execute a parachute landing fall which is basically a controlled collapse onto the ground. Parachutists are taught the five points of contact are feet, calves, knees, buttocks and back muscles. What they learn in reality is the most likely points of contact are feet, ass and head in that order.
Heading into the wind and putting my feet and knees together I was watching the wind arrow on the ground trying to judge my height above the drop zone. When I thought I was going to be about 15 feet above ground I was going to go to half brakes and prepare to land. Good plan but what I didn’t count on was the snow. You see the wind arrow was made up of red railroad flares and having been burning since about 10 minutes before we jumped they had melted their way through about 10 feet of snow and were actually below ground level. I found this out as I was preparing to land, suddenly and unexpectedly there was a violent encounter with the terra firma. I hit the ground so hard it felt like someone had reached in and grabbed my spleen slapped it around a little and put it back. The goggles that were covering my eyes literally disengaged from my face about 2 inches, just enough to gather up some snow and slam back into my eyes as the elastic band holding them on stretched and rebounded. So I lay on the ground for a minute doing a mental inventory of my body and trying to clear the snow pack from under my eyelids. Finally I got up after all body parts and pieces were accounted for, put my weapon into operation, gathered up my parachute and ruck and started double timing towards the linkup point. Man, I was hoping the rest of the mission went better than the first part other wise it was going to be a long two weeks.

No comments:

Post a Comment