July 18, 2012
Earlier this month, Air Force sophomore tennis player Grant Taylor participated in the class Airmanship 490, Basic Parachuting, also known as the jump program. Each year, 500 cadets complete five freefall jumps in the basic freefall parachuting course and earn the parachutist badge and rating.
It is a rigorous training schedule with heavy emphasis on safety. Before cadets make their first jump, they are drilled in ground school for more than 33 hours on proper parachuting procedures. The repetition is intended to have the jumper respond automatically and correctly should something unexpected occur during a jump.
Taylor wrote about his experience for goairforcefalcons.com following his first jump on Tuesday, July 10. He completed all five jumps and earned his "wings" the following day.
Well, today was going to be the day we finally got to jump. Our class had been plagued by worries of rain, wind, and smoke, all of which would have meant a no-go for the day. We had already let one day slip away due to bad weather, and it looked like another day would pass without any jumps. Fortunately though, we were cleared to start jumping by 9:00, and the jumpmasters called my group into the staging area.
As we walked in, we picked up our helmets, goggles, altimeters, and radios, and were directed to a station with a parachute rig in a colored box, the color representing the color parachute we were to fly under. We stepped into the leg harnesses and put the packs on. The realization that we were soon going to be falling out of an airplane slowly began to set in. The jumpmasters went over the gear checks and the pre-jump briefing. We would be jumping out of the plane at 4,500 feet and pulling our chutes after five to ten seconds. We filed out, tapping the jump wings on the wall, and waited for the plane to come.
When the plane arrived, my group of ten filed into the back of the fuselage where the only thing that would separate us from 4,500 feet of sky was a thin plastic sliding door. I was fourth to leave the plane which meant I would watch others make the terrifying leap. Anxiety began to gnaw away at my stomach. As we taxied onto the runway, the nervous energy in the cabin was almost tangible. The plane took off and began its climb up to jumping altitude. We cracked jokes and as we laughed an eerie calm began to set in.
When we reached jumping altitude, the plane began its bank to take us over the drop zone. The jumpmaster opened the sliding plastic door and cool air flowed into the cramped cabin. He went over last minute checks with the first two jumpers and finally shouted the words we had been waiting for. "Stand in the door!" The first jumper grabbed the handle over the door and pulled himself into a standing position with his body 90 percent out of the plane. "Go!" One second he was standing there, the next he was gone. The second jumper moved into position. He also made the leap with no hesitation, albeit a little rougher than the first jumper. The plane began a 360 degree turn to make another pass over the drop zone. The next pass would be mine.
The jumpmaster had the third jumper and I leaned forward to ensure our parachutes were all set. He gave us the thumbs up and told the third jumper to stand in the door. My heart began to beat faster as the gravity (no pun intended) of the situation hit me. The third jumper fell away. "Stand in the door!" I grabbed the bar over the door and stuck my head and body out into the hurricane-force wind. I was standing right behind the engine and the noise was so loud I could barely hear myself think. I arched my back and took a deep breath. Two fingers pointed out in front of my face, the signal for me to go. I looked up, released my grip on the bar, and stepped out into empty space.
In that millisecond, a rush of almost every emotion from excitement to fear, elation to despair, pride to remorse rushed through me and as quickly as it came, disappeared. Instead, an overwhelming sense of peace enveloped me. When I returned to reality, I found myself rushing through the air towards the ground so I steered myself into a good free-fall position with my body arched and my hands by my head. I had lost count in the blur of the exit, so I guesstimated where ten seconds would have been and pulled my ripcord. A moment later, I felt the jerk of the parachute opening and looked up to see a full canopy with good shape and no issues. I released the brakes and checked my altitude. I took a moment to look around at the scenery. Beneath me was the stadium so I did a 180 degree turn to find the airfield. I did some sharp turns and drained some altitude to get myself down to 1,000 feet.
I followed the jumper in front of me down into the landing zone. Unfortunately the wind shifted as we came down so instead of landing into the wind, we would be landing with it. This meant we would experience a rougher landing and would most likely have to do a PLF, or parachute landing-fall. I steered to the left of the person in front of me and watched as the altitude bled away from my altimeter. 300...200...100. The ground came closer and closer and I flared the brakes to soften the landing. I flared too soon, however, and hit the ground in a not-so-graceful manner which included a couple of rolls in the dirt. Fortunately, I was uninjured and quite happy to be back on solid ground.
I made two more jumps that day, both improving on free-fall form and landing. I was still nervous as I jumped, but nowhere near the mental state of the first jump. Nothing will ever compare to that moment of complete emotion followed by complete peace.