Twenty seconds doesn’t seem like a long time. Think about it, what do you do that takes 20 seconds? Microwave some leftovers, read some junk mail, or many other small insignificant things come to mind. During my time as a Military Freefall Instructor twenty seconds was the time it took me to exit an aircraft, target, and chase down another jumper that was unstable and out of control. This was commonly known as the “twenty second drill.” It was a defining test for Military Freefall Instructor candidates and a must pass. Most Special Forces schools I attended had a test like this. These were tests that were tough, difficult, and required you to use all your collective skills. In the 18 Bravo Special Forces Weapons Sergeant Course it was the “pile test” where they would detailed disassemble 5 weapons, one from each sub group (pistol, submachinegun, light machinegun, heavy machinegun and rifle) pile them together and tell you to put them back together and perform a functions check in a specified time period. In the Special Operations Target Interdictions Course it was the final stalk and shot at the sniper range. During the Special Forces Operations and Intelligence Sergeant Course it was the Order of Battle test, I could go on and on but suffice to say that these tests all had an immense amount of stress attached.
The twenty second drill was run like this, a candidate instructor would exit the aircraft using a poised exit (backwards) and as he exited he would click the stopwatch he held in his hand. The instructor candidate (me) would have to slow count to four thousand-one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, and four one thousand. Then it was permissible to exit the aircraft yourself with the intent of getting within arms reach and touch the instructor within twenty seconds on his stopwatch, sound easy right?
Unfortunately by the time we were allowed to exit the instructor literally looked like a microscopic black speck that was continuing to fall away from our fast moving Air Force aircraft. To intersect this small speck within twenty seconds the instructor candidate had to exit the aircraft and immediately put himself in a head down dive. Normal freefall speeds reach 120 mph, I have been told that jumpers in a head down dive reach speeds approaching 180 mph. To achieve the head down dive a jumper must be perfectly aligned and symmetrical. Immediately upon exiting the aircraft you need to bend sharply at the waist pointing the top of your helmet towards the ground, at the same time you need to bring your lower torso and legs up so they are inline with the top half of your body and point your toes, arms are tightly at your sides. When done correctly your body becomes a speeding dart hurtling head first towards terra firma, when done incorrectly the jumper is violently spun across the sky flapping and flopping like a fish out of water.
Once the correct body position is achieved and the head down dive is underway a problem develops, you can’t friggin see the target because you are looking away from it!! Many candidates tried many techniques to overcome this obstacle, some flipped around so that they were facing the target with their back to the aircraft; most employed the technique I used which was to count. I would count to 12 and raise my head to look; the very act of slightly raising the head would terminate your dive and put you in a steep “swoop.” If done correctly this swoop would intersect you directly with your target within the twenty second window. Unfortunately most times everything did not go correctly, my body position was wrong causing me to flip and flop, or I pulled up too early causing an incorrect tangent to my target. I don’t know how many times I touched the instructor at 21,22, or 25 seconds. One time I touched his arm at 20.5!!! However on my 75th attempt (yes, 75 jumps on this drill, don’t judge) I executed it perfect and pulled a time of 18 seconds, mission complete.
So why all this effort on one drill and why so much emphasis? Because learning this technique saves lives. Later on after I had been a Military Freefall Instructor for a year I had occasion to use this technique to save the life of another soldier. This is how it happened. It was during the one on one jump phase in the initial part of the first jump week, this student jumper had progressed past the instructor assisted exits and was doing his first solo exit of the aircraft. I had instructed him to employ a poised exit because it was a more stable exit for the novice and I had told him to give himself a count of “up,down,out.” On his internal “out” he was to jump out of the aircraft.
What happened in reality was when he attempted to exit it was very weak and he hit his face on the ramp of the aircraft, this disoriented him and flipped on his back, putting him in a violent spin. During the exit I had been positioned at his right side or ripcord side as was our SOP, however when he started spinning he kicked me in the face and spun me away from my position. When I regained my composure and located him he was 1500-2000 feet below me on his back and still spinning. I immediately employed the head down dive technique which had become instinctive; counting silently to myself I raised my head and once again located him. Looking at my altimeter I saw we were about 8000 feet AGL, I had to close the distance fast!!! I continued to swoop towards the student and due to my haste I slammed into his side a little rougher than I had intended nevertheless I flipped him belly to earth and stopped his spin. I glanced at my altimeter again and saw we were about to go through the designated pull altitude of 4000 feet AGL, I gave him the pull signal once but he either didn’t see it or was still disoriented. Seeing we were now approaching 3500 feet I grasped his ripcord myself and gave it a vigorous tug. As his pilot chute was deployed it pulled his canopy and suspension lines out of his pack tray. When it caught wind and started to inflate he was pulled violently from my grasp. Now it was time for me to save myself, I tracked away a few seconds so as not to be directly under him and I threw my own pilot chute, my canopy deployed and I breathed a sigh of relief. Looking at my altimeter once again I saw that I had a good canopy at 1500 feet AGL, not much room to spare.
Later after we landed I asked him what had happened, he said he thought when he jumped up the plane would just fly out from under him, another rocket scientist. I told him in my best instructor voice that he was a moron and he better pull his head out of his fourth point of contact. He did end up graduating however becoming a pretty good jumper.
As a side note later on when I was a candidate instructor myself and was conducting the twenty second drill those guys barreling towards me like human missiles used to scare the piss out of me, never knew if they would be able to stop or not. Good times