US Army Airborne School: A Veteran Recollects His Journey
In the summer of 2008, I was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. I had just completed sixteen weeks of Basic Training and Infantryman school, and I was five days away from completing Basic Jump School and becoming a US Army Paratrooper.
Me and my fellow soon-to-be-paratroopers had already endured two weeks of grueling heat, breath-stealing humidity, and hundreds of airborne-related drills, but on this day, we were about to perform our first live jump.
A flight manifest was read and, to my surprise, my name was called to be the first soldier out the door. I shuffled up the back ramp of the C-130 prop plane leading the other seventy-or-so airborne students.
Seventy soldiers were on my plane, but there were five planes taking off, so all-in-all there were about three hundred and fifty soldiers in the sky that day.
“Ma’am,” I yelled over the roaring engine, “Are you OK?”
A first lieutenant sat across from me, and when the huge engines turned over I noticed that the lieutenant’s gaze was intensely focused on her boots. We were all terrified, but she looked especially pale.
“Ma’am,” I yelled over the roaring engine, “Are you OK?” She looked up, and the next thing I knew she unzipped the top of her camo blouse and threw up down her shirt.
(For two weeks, we’d been reminded time and time again by the Airborne cadre that whoever throws up in the plane has to scrub down the entire bird.)
Though my stomach turned at the sight of someone puking into their own clothes, I was also in total awe. “Badass, ma’am,” I yelled, and looked towards the front of the plane.
We probably flew for twenty minutes, circling the southern skies, Fort Benning, the city of Columbus and the Chattahoochee River below. Of course, time was irrelevant. The only thing that was going through my mind was, This is a perfectly good airplane. Why don’t we just land?
“Keep looking at the horizon, Private,”
In my later years as a paratrooper, I came to find out that that exact sentiment—almost those exact words—are commonplace in airborne units. The feeling that a paratrooper experiences in the moment leading up to his or her first jump is the definition of pure dread.
Plus, as I mentioned, I was chosen to be the number one man out the door, which made the whole dreaded experience exponentially more terrifying.
A light somewhere above the side hatch that we would be jumping out of was stoplight red when the jumpmaster gave me the command to stand up, hook up, and shuffle to the door.
I unclipped the quick release device from the carrying handle of my reserve parachute, attached it to the steel cable running north-south through the body of the C-130, and waited for my next command. “Check equipment!”
As the number one man, I didn’t have anyone’s gear to check, but I felt the lieutenant—the one with puke drying in her cammies—run her hand over my main chute, static line, and harness.
The light turned yellow, and the jumpmaster swung a flat-palmed hand towards my face. “Stand by.” On legs that didn’t feel exactly stable, I turned ninety degrees to the right and faced the door.
He rotated the lever and the sound of air rushing by at 120 knots took my dreaded state and multiplied it by 1000.
I looked straight down. Fields, forests, roads, whole neighborhoods—the bird’s eye view was surreal. I thought I might throw up my breakfast over it all.
A pair of hands jerked my head and eyes upward. “Keep looking at the horizon, Private,” the jumpmaster yelled. “Yes, Sergeant Airborne,” I replied, though as soon as he let go, my head dropped and I was again staring straight down.
He jerked my head up for the second time and when he let go, again my eyes and skull and helmet and whole fear-struck expression plummeted down to the earth’s surface. Him and I went through this process three or four times before he gave up.
“Go Go Go!”
All in all, I was standing in the doorway for less than a minute before the light turned green. Proper execution of an airborne exit calls for an exaggerated kick out into the open skies rather than an actual jump.
However, when my world went green and the jumpmaster yelled “Go Go Go,” my lead leg did more of a knee-jerk shiver, like something you do during a checkup at a doctor’s office in reaction to a rubber hammer.
I have no idea if I closed my eyes or not, but I do know that I screamed my four second count—the amount of time a paratrooper actually free falls before his or her chute opens—in a high-cry that could’ve landed me a spot as a soprano in an Italian opera.
(A commonplace airborne joke goes like so: “Every jump I’ve ever done was at night and into water. By which I mean, my eyes were closed and I pissed my pants.”)
Somewhere between seconds three and four I felt an immense surge of energy pass through my risers, my harness, and the two legs straps that so conveniently run between my legs. If my voice wasn’t high when I first jumped, when my chute pulled, it definitely jumped a handful of octaves.
Though by the time I got out of the Army, almost four years to the day of my first jump, my record would show over twenty airborne operations, the immediate contrast between jumping/falling and floating never ceased to amaze.
Fort Benning isn’t known for its breathtaking views, but from twelve hundred feet in the air with a full range of motion to look in any direction, it might as well be paradise.
Not to mention the other hundreds of paratroopers falling down around me.
I really got the feeling that we were invading. Suspended in the air, I felt that I was part of something much bigger than myself.
The Army’s T-10 parachute isn’t designed to give a soldier much room in the way of direction control, so for the few minutes that I floated down, I really was just a passenger.
The descent feels slow, and there are moments when a gust of wind catches the chute and it feels like I actually started to go back up.
My training took over when I was eye level with the tall trees bordering the drop zone. I looked down and judged which direction I was falling (because, unless you’re in a vacuum, you never just fall straight down).
I decided more or less that I was heading to the right, so I reached up as I high as I could up my two left risers, pulled them to my chest, and attempted to level myself.
It worked, but only temporarily, because right before I hit the ground, my grip slipped and I let go of the risers causing me and my parachute to perform a very violent oscillation.
I went from watching the ground to staring up at the sun without turning my head.
Then I hit the ground, thigh, ribs, shoulder, and head all at once. But, I was alive, and I was overwhelmed with pride that I had successfully, though not prettily, fallen out of my first airplane.
$5 For A Slice, Shot, And PBR
Jumping out of airplanes was only part of my experience in the Army’s Basic Jump School, and really a small part at that.
Though the school had its moments of difficulty, for me, a soldier fresh out of basic training, the three-week course was a vacation.
I went from having zero freedom and every minute of my life dictated, to regular hours, nights and weekends off, and the option to go off base and enjoy the company of civilian minds over a few (or a few dozen) beers.
A group of guys from my platoon in basic training went through airborne school at the same time as I did, and we soon developed a weekly routine during our stay.
Thursday nights were for wings at the local Hooters. Fridays, five or six of us would split the price of a single motel room, usually at the Howard Johnson or a Motel 6, before making our way to a corner pizza joint that had a daily special I’ll never forget: five dollars for a slice, a shot, and a PBR; and if that’s not a paratrooper’s last meal, I don’t know what is.
From there, we stumbled our way between any number of downtown bars and clubs where we would do our best to make up for lost time during sixteen sober weeks of basic training, until either no one was standing or every bar closed, and we could find a soft grassy spot to lie down and watch the calm waters of the Chattahoochee.
Columbus may not be most people’s idea of fun, but for me, at that time in my life, it was exactly what I needed.
“Balls of your feet! Calf! Thigh! Hip! Back!”
When not engaged in general tomfoolery or jumping out of planes, my days in airborne school were focused on drills specific to one aspect of how to properly and safely jump out of a plane.
See, each week of jump school correlates to a certain phase. Phase one, ground week, where the highest altitude an airborne cadet gets to fall from is about five-or-so feet off the ground.
The point of ground week is to incessantly drill the infamous PLF, or Parachute Landing Fall (the Army’s capacity for coming up with creative names never ceases to amaze me).
Day after day, hour after hour, me and my fellow soldiers repeated the commands of the airborne cadre while touching the respective points of contact. “Balls of your feet! Calf! Thigh! Hip! Back!”
When done correctly, a PLF should look kind of like a cartwheel, only without hands. It is meant to absorb impact and reduce injury. While the method is surprisingly effective, it is also unsurprisingly difficult to do right after a live jump.
“Die Hard with a Vengeance!”
Phase one culminates in a jumping out of a thirty-five-foot tower and zip lining over a sand pit, which, trust me, is absolutely nothing like jumping out of a plane.
Phase two of Jump School is called Tower Week. In this phase, soldiers work up to jumping out of a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot tower and riding an impossibly steep zip line meant to mimic an actual jump.
In the summer of 2008, Fort Benning’s towers were out of commission for a reason that was beyond my pay grade’s worth of knowing, but I’ve heard they’re quite effective.
So, instead of tower week, my class simply repeated ground week, while adding in a few extra thirty-five foot tower visits for good measure.
I could tell the airborne cadre were a little restless at the process of having to repeat week one, because by the time of our tenth or jump low tower zip line, they were making us yell our favorite movie and name before zipping off. “Die Hard with a Vengeance!” I yelled, adding, “Private Piha!”
I waited for the customary pat on the rear end to signify my release from the tower, but it didn’t come. Reluctantly, I turned around. The cadre was smiling. “What in the hell kind of name is Piha, Private?”
“It’s Greek and Jewish, and also, I think, a little Spanish, Sergeant Airborne.”
The staff sergeant whose name I’ll never remember but who’s mischievous grin I’ll never forget reached up and grabbed a rafter under the ceiling. “Yippie-Ki-Yay, Piha!” he yelled, before ingesting a swinging kick into my rear end and sending me flying out the tower and speeding down the steel cable.
Becoming A US Army Paratrooper
When I landed (“landed”) my first airborne jump, I realized with pride that I was well on my to becoming a US Army Paratrooper.
During Week three/Phase three, I would go on to jump four more times, thankfully not having to suffer the terror of once again being the first man out the door.
I don’t think I ever did a correct PLF, but I did get dragged across the ground when my parachute decided that it wasn’t finished catching a little wind, I got a mouth full of Georgia red clay when I came up with my own PLF routine: Balls of your feet! Knees! Face!
Still, at the end of the week, we marched to a parade field for our graduation ceremony, a little bruised up, but happily wearing our matte black jump wings pinned to our uniform.
But not everyone would make it. Jumping out of planes doesn’t come without a certain degree of risk.
On our fourth jump, a good friend of mine from basic training landed in a sitting down position, shattering his tailbone.
He wasn’t allowed to recycle into another class, nor graduate with ours though he was only one jump short, and before I knew it he received orders for a regular infantry unit at Fort Worth, Texas.
So, How Hard Is Army Airborne School?
I kind of hate to break it to anyone, but as far as Army Schools go, Airborne School is fairly easy.
Pass the physical fitness test and don’t get hurt, and the three weeks will fly by (no pun intended).
However, just passing Airborne School isn’t the end-all-be-all of becoming a paratrooper.
I found that the real challenge of being a paratrooper was living up the high standards of living and working in an Airborne unit.
These units, such as the infamous 82nd Airborne, the 173rd in Italy, or the 4-25 in Alaska (my unit), are very proud that they are not simply the regular infantry.
Airborne units may not conduct military jumps as much as the Army did in the past, but they still practice and maintain their airborne skills on a monthly basis, all so that, if the opportunity comes to jump into combat, every paratrooper will be prepared.