A leap into the abyss


I’ve had several people ask me about Airborne school or what it is like to jump out of planes.  In most cases I give them a quick summary and leave it at that because there is so much I could say.  It occurred to me some people might like a more lengthy explanation so I’m going to provide it here.  Hopefully my personal story will entertain you.

Please keep in mind I’m recalling most of this from over a decade ago — back in 1999.  I’ll also try to keep the military terms to a minimum for those who would have a tough time with them, or at least give explanations.

I’ll say first off that the experience of Airborne school for a woman is a bit different than for a man.  Men have a lot of physical advantages compared to women.  There is only one element I can think of where female soldiers are better off.  That one thing is because we don’t have extra parts between our legs where some of the parachute straps go, so we don’t get hurt when they’re pulled tight.  Men have awful experiences with that.  I admit to laughing at their complaints, but I’m evil like that.

From the first day as a female you know the odds are against you.  As I recall, we began the school with over 300 students in my company.  Of those, exactly sixteen were women (from all four branches of service).  The first morning after the school began they give us a physical fitness (PT) test.  Now keep in mind that only people in really good shape who’ve had this test done right before the school are even there.  Yet they will still manage to fail between 20-30 students.  Some guys (and women) who looked to be in good shape did not pass the physical fitness standards.  The whole goal of the school is to drop as many people as they can before reaching jump week.  They would never admit this, but much of the running costs are from that final week since planes are involved.  So it’s a way to cut expenses to get them out before then.

Anyway, I remember this one marine girl who was with us.  She looked tough and in shape.  Despite statistics saying less than half the females would graduate, we figured she was a solid bet on surviving it.  Then the PT test came.  I don’t know what all the marines do, but she started doing her push-ups as diamond push-ups.  Those are much harder than regular ones because you keep your hands closed in instead of shoulder width apart.  The problem with this is Army standards (and that’s who runs the school) require you to at least level your shoulders with the ground.  That is almost impossible to do with diamond push-ups.  They did stop her and explain what she was doing wrong, but it did no good.  She just couldn’t fix her form.  The girl just needed 19 perfect push-ups under female standards.  She must have done over sixty, but not enough counted so they failed her.  She didn’t even get to do the rest of the PT test.  I felt awful for her because it’s very difficult for a female marine to get a slot in Airborne school and she was going to have to go back to her unit and explain why she wasted that slot.  It must have been brutal for her.

The one advantage I had was coming from an Airborne unit — the 82nd Airborne Division (under the assumption I’d go to the school), so they had prepared me ahead of time for this.  The test was easy for me.  I think I got my nineteen in under a minute and only one didn’t count, so technically I did twenty.  Just so you know, I am no star at push-ups compared to many others and always hated them.  The most I ever got in during a two-minute test was forty-five, but my average was closer to forty.  I’m such a girl on this event.

Then came sit-ups.  Now that’s my event as I could usually do at least eighty in two minutes.  Both men and women had to do around fifty-three to pass if I recall correctly.  They get you on that one by saying your back should reach vertical with the ground.  If it’s anything less than a ninety degree angle it doesn’t count.  Bigger guys usually have a tough time with this, so they are often the ones most likely to fail.  Women who’ve had children also find it difficult, especially if they’ve had a cesarean section. I don’t recall if we actually lost any females on that event, but a bunch of guys failed.  They make them all stand in the back of the test area and you can see their disappointed faces.

The run was much more straight forward.  For women, we just had to complete two miles in under 18:54 (very easy) and guys had to do it in under 15:54.  Not many failed this because most people can handle minimum standards, even with the added humidity of Georgia.  I admit that humidity did make things more rough, but I think I still came in around 16:30.

The following video shows the physical fitness test (which is why soldiers are running separately on the track).  It also shows some of the daily training, and there are airborne jumps at the end.  Keep in mind it was made years after I went so it will show them wearing their PT uniforms instead of battle dress uniforms (along with the newer Army uniforms).  I didn’t do the 250 foot tower with the parachutes either because they were closed at the time I went, but I did do the 34 foot tower many times.  I have little fear of heights so that stuff didn’t bother me.

The real trouble with running came the next week.  They made us wear our battle dress uniforms instead of our physical fitness uniforms (that has since changed to PT uniforms).  Wearing pants, t-shirt and jacket  adds weight and they’re not as breathable as the PT uniform.  The only concession was we could wear running shoes.  The runs during the first week were at 2.4 miles with the Friday one being at 3.2 so it seems easy enough.  But that’s not necessarily true.  They must maintain a 8:45 – 9:15 a mile pace but nothing says how they must do it.  They need more failures, of course.  So the first mile is a little rough because it’s like a slinky when you have 300 people running together (even if they are broke up into smaller formations).

Speed up, slow down, and so forth.

Then they turn brutal and go for an all out sprint at a very high-speed for about a quarter of a mile (sometimes less, sometimes more so you can’t predict it).  Of course, they have to hit that nine minute mark, so they slow down eventually, but you have to last until then.  I’m no sprinter, so it sucked for me.  It was far beyond the speed I’d ever normally go at and never for such a distance.

Needless to say, people fell out every time they did this.

You cannot get farther than an arm’s length from the guy in front of you or the instructors will pull you out.  Plus you’re supposed to be singing cadence the whole time (never mind that you’re struggling for breath through that wonderful Georgia humidity).  On the 2.4 mile runs, you can only fall out one time or else you fail the school.  For the Friday 3.2 mile, you can’t fall out at all or you’ll fail.  It really sucks if your shoes come untied because they won’t let you stop to fix them.  I double knotted the heck out of mine, but that’s no guarantee because they still came loose once.

To be honest, if I’d been anywhere else trying to do those runs, I wouldn’t have made most of them.  I’m built for endurance, not speed.  You can run me for eight miles at a moderate speed and I’ll hang in there.  Heck, even twelve-mile road marches aren’t too much of an issue.  It’s the dang sprinting in the midst of running that gets me.  The one thing that kept me going is the last five women my unit sent to Airborne school failed and had to be kicked out to a non-Airborne unit.

Everyone fully expected me not to make it.

All the guys were constantly saying how women had no business being Airborne at all and those females who failed proved their point.  So in this case, I was willing to kill myself — if need be — to prove to all those sorry bastards they were wrong.  I hate all the sexist pigs in the military (but that’s a rant for another day).

They say pride comes before the fall, but for a woman in Airborne school this can be rather literal.

I held on during all the runs in that first week.  Do keep in mind that our days were also filled with other brutal training where we had to jump off all kinds of random objects, bruising our bodies in the process.  They had us doing tons of push-ups and other exercises all the time and we ran everywhere we went.  I must have done thousands of push-ups and flutter kicks during my three-week stay there.  The dang Navy Seals trainees didn’t make it any easier because they kept taunting the instructors asking for more.  They’d already passed their difficult training so Airborne school was a joke for them, but I was extremely tempted to go tape their mouths shut, lol. Some of us went out to eat with them during one weekend we had off.  As it turned out, they weren’t so bad.

Here is a video giving you a quick taste of what the school is like for better visualization.  It’s in a more documentary format, but nice and short:

Back to the point.  Our bodies were a mess from all the training and many people got injured from the various apparatus’ we used to practice jumping so those runs became more and more difficult.  When every inch of you hurts, those all out sprints become pure torture (unless you’re a Navy seal or a guy in really good shape).  Then comes the second week.  We had to do 3.2 mile runs except Friday which was 5 miles.  Same awful deal with the speed up slow down method except they had more distance to do it in.

Still, it wasn’t until the five-mile day that I nearly didn’t make it.

About one mile into the run I suddenly had the overwhelming need to go to the bathroom (and not to pee).  It was bad and took all my control to keep things contained.  My belly was doing that awful gurgle and pain sliced through my abdomen.  I actually forgot about the aches in the rest of my body because it became my sole focus to keep going and not let the “you know what” out.  The whole time I just kept trying to put one foot in front of the other and not get beyond that arm’s length distance from the guy in front of me.

People were falling out too, so if one did in front of you, you had to speed up more to take their place.  It was a mess and I wanted to stop so bad.  I counted down every mile and wondered how I’d get through the next.  It was warm that morning and sweat covered me.  Most of it probably had to do with the physical pressure I was feeling, though.

If this grosses you out, sorry, but I have to tell it like it is.

To be honest, I resolved to keep going no matter what happened.  Even if matters did take a turn south, I wasn’t going to stop because I sure as heck didn’t want to fail after two weeks of the pure hell I’d already been through.  That was the last important run and the next week was jump week.  No way was I going back to my unit without my wings to explain that I’d had to take a crap as the reason for my failure.  God must have been with me that day, though, because by some miracle I finished those five miles, sprints and all without making any messes.  As soon as we came to a stop, I ran over to one of the instructors and told him I had to go to the bathroom NOW (I had little shame at this point except to make it to the toilet in time).

He took one look at me and said “I can see by your face I don’t need to ask if it’s number one or two, just go.”

With those words I was off running again because naturally we had stopped on the opposite end of the track from the restrooms.  I’ll leave out the details from there and only say I felt much better afterward.  All the trainees had gone back to the company area by the time I came out so they had a truck waiting for me outside.  We always ran back in formation so I was thankful for the ride.  They dropped me off at the chow hall so I could eat.  We didn’t get time to shower in the mornings so God knows what the dining facility smelled like for those poor cooks in there.  All we had time for was to eat and change into our boots.  Between the dirt, sand, and sweat we were always a mess by the end of the day since we spent a lot of time rolling on the ground.  The instructors loved to make us roll, ugh.

Jump week itself was both easier and harder.  No more long morning runs except to the airport (which was a little over a mile) and not many push-ups.  They were getting down to business because we were up for the most scary part of the school.  That first day they even sent a chaplain out to give a sermon to those who wanted it.  I opted to join the group listening to him because it never hurts to have God on your side when leaping out of a plane.  I think even a few atheists came to listen, even if they chose to hover in the back.

We spent hours rigging up and hearing endless reminders of what to do if something went wrong.  Seemed like we’d never get to the jumping part, though we were weighed down with the parachute and gear early on.  Part of you is so sick of waiting for that first jump after many hours in the hangar that you pretty much want to jump just to get the weight off you.  The other part of you would rather sit there forever.

I wish I could say I was freaked out, but I really wasn’t.  The night before, most of the barracks was up and pacing nervously, talking about what it was going to be like and what if something went wrong.  Blah, blah.  I got sick of all the nervous jitters and went to sleep.  Not sure most of them ever went to bed.  I’ll tell you a secret about me, though.  When I’m stressed or nervous, I sleep like a log because it is my escape.  It’s only when I’m super excited or happy that my sleep gets ruined.  Call me strange, but I didn’t allow myself to think of the bad things that could happen.  I pretended it was an activity like any other, except the praying, but that came later.

It wasn’t until I was in that plane, standing with my static line (the yellow line you saw in the videos) hooked up and watching the red light that it hit me.

I was about to do something entirely insane.

Then the light turned green and the soldiers in front of me were moving forward.  I could see them disappearing out the door, but couldn’t see what they jumped into until I got right up to it.  By that time, I knew there was no turning back.  You do not want to be the weakling that refuses to jump.  There is harassment galore for pulling that stunt.  As a female, it’s even worse because they won’t say fear did it to you.  No, they’ll say it’s because you’re a woman.  It’s that sexism issue again.

Anyway, I took that first step and was sucked out into the abyss.  For three seconds you’re just falling really fast with the wind rushing past your ears.  The plane can be seen over your head if your eyes are open (I admit mine were closed for that part but I blame it on the wind).  The soaring through the air is crazy.  Then the parachute whips open hard and your fast decent is suddenly brought to a near halt (the plane is going about 138 mph when you come out of it).  I often got whip-lash from that sudden jerk.  Your training kicks in so you check your parachute to make sure it’s nice and fully open (always nice if there are no suspicious holes or other oddities).

But it’s the view that blows you away during all of this.  Holy crap, it’s amazing.

The world is below your feet, the loud engine sounds have passed so it’s quiet and oh so peaceful.  Miles of forests, rivers, and farmland all around and you’re not having to look out a window to see it.  Nope, it’s just you, the birds, and some thin nylon and string.  In that moment, I fell in love with jumping out of planes.  Nothing in this life before that point or after has ever been more incredible or awe-inspiring.  I don’t think there are enough words to describe the experience, but I wouldn’t take it back for anything in this world.

Of course, the instructors had to intrude.

Those dang guys were on the ground with their bullhorns so once we got closer, we could hear them.  Since a lot of people are in a semi-state of shock and forget most of their training on those first jumps, the instructors stand out there shouting reminders.  “Keep your feet and knees together”. “Bend your knees”.  “Chin on chest and pull your elbows tight for the landing”.  The instructions went on and on.  I landed without incident and was quite happy all went well.  It wasn’t even that rough despite coming down at twenty-two feet per second (unlike some later ones I did).  That night I called every family member I could from the pay phone just to tell them all about it (this was before cell phones got more popular).

My Dad and Grandfather were excited for me.  Everyone else seemed to think I needed to be institutionalized, lol.  Yeah, me and the other 220 or so people who had jumped that day (our numbers had dwindled in the couple of weeks before).

We jumped two more times the next day.  Those went fine as well and were just about as exciting.  It was the third day and last two jumps that didn’t go so well.  Keep in mind that the drop zone we used was quite rutted.  Like someone had plowed it, leaving small up and down slopes.  On the fourth jump, during the day, I didn’t land quite right.  My back twisted wrong so I hit a spot close to my left hip hard on impact.  Later I found bruises and to this day the injury flares up and makes many activities painful.  Feels like bones grinding together is the only way to describe it.  X-rays after that didn’t reveal anything, but I swear I did something to it because after that jump I was in extreme pain.

Trouble is I needed one more jump to graduate.

So I gritted my teeth, grabbed all my gear and made my way over those ruts to the rallying point.  Because the injury was just above my left hip, there was an urge to take the weight off that side.  But if the instructors caught you limping AT ALL then they’d pull you and you’d fail.  A friend of mine had been in the class ahead of mine and broke her ankle the week before on her third jump.  She had to go back to our unit as another shameful female failure.  So you can see the dilemma I was in.

I absolutely had to hold my pain inside.

They put us in buses and sent us back to the hanger to get ready for the final jump.  This one was to be our first nighttime jump, but not just that.  It was also full combat — the worst kind of all.  They made us run (we always ran everywhere except inside buildings) so as to test us and make sure we weren’t hurt in any way. Injuries are the most difficult to hide when you have to run.  I grabbed my parachute and reserve when they gave them to me, but let me tell you that running back into the hanger with that stuff in hand really tested my ability to hide the searing pain going through my back.

The next couple hours were spent rigging it all up to our bodies.  We also had our ruck sacks to add.  Hollywood jumps (which is what the other jumps were) only require you have the parachute and reserve (plus helmet).  Full combat requires you to add a ruck sack of at least 35 pounds and your weapon, plus its protective case.

This adds it up to around 100 pounds you’ll be carrying.

Most units have you jump with a LCE/LBE that holds your canteens and ammo pouches as well, which adds more weight depending on what’s attached to it and if the canteens are full of water (figure in at least eight pounds).  Don’t forget the helmet that’s also a few pounds.  Every little bit adds up.  The parachute alone is around thirty-one pounds (estimates vary depending on type) and the reserve is about twelve.  It depends on which weapon you’re assigned as to how much it weighs but figure on at least 7 pounds plus the case protecting it that is another five or so.

They made my chalk (each chalk is a group of soldiers that will board the plane together to jump) go last behind all the others, but we had to rig up at the same time.  One plane had broken down so we were down to two aircraft.  I sat there for a long time with all that gear strapped tightly to me.  With my back hurting, I couldn’t get into a comfortable position.  My fellow soldiers knew I was injured but it’s kind of a code not to tell on each other.  I wasn’t the only one hiding an injury.

Finally we boarded the plane.

More excruciating pain in having to walk to that aircraft from the hanger (I swear it seemed like they parked it as far away as possible).  I somehow managed not to keel over and took my seat inside.  Thank God we were only in the air for about twenty or so minutes before they let us leap out.  I wanted to get the heck out of there because while in the air you hardly feel the weight.  It’s a welcome relief.  Of course, this time it was night and I couldn’t see a damn thing.  Moonlight lit up the ground just enough so you knew it was coming, but not much else could be seen other than distant lights.  My landing wasn’t quite as rough (I’d dropped the ruck sack on a fifteen foot line below me so it landed separately but still attached).

Right after hitting the ground, I was able to pull all that crap off me, but the respite was only for a minute.  Then I had to stumble around in the dark and wind up the parachute into an empty bag I had with me.  It’s a little hard to explain how that’s done, but there’s a method to it.

Remember the ruts and it’s almost too dark to see them while this is all going on.

Eventually I had my gear organized and then had to haul it all off the drop zone by myself.  I connected the thankfully unopened reserve parachute to the handles of the bag holding the big open chute.  Then I slung both over my head so the smaller reserve dug into the back of my neck while the big parachute bag sat in the front with my head in between.  Then I grabbed the rucksack and pulled that onto my back.  The weapon’s case was settled on top of the parachute bag so that I could just see over it.  All of this is the standard way troops are taught to carry their gear after a jump.

There is no easier way.  Trust me, I checked because I have to learn things the hard way.

Of course, by this point my back was about to mutiny, but I told it to shut up.  It didn’t, but I started putting one foot in front of the other.

Remember those damn ruts!

Yep, they get worse once you have all that gear on.  They are evil little things that came up every few feet.  Needless to say, I started tripping on them.  As my back got twisted more and more from doing that, I began to fall a lot.  That caused my weapon’s case to slide off its perch and the other bags to twist around so they no longer sat right.  Over and over this happened while I cursed and “might” have shed a few tears (I’ll deny this if you bring it up).

After about a quarter-mile I hit the road (made of soft sand).  I didn’t get very far down it before the trucks were sent out to find the injured.  They only give you so much time before the figure you must be hurt or in trouble to have not made it back yet.  I did my best to wipe my face (of the dirt) and they let me crawl into the truck so I wouldn’t have to walk anymore.

My chalk was waiting for me at the rally point.  One other guy wasn’t back yet but reports said he was even more injured than me.  Think he went to the hospital.

Everyone was easy on me.  Still had to do chute shake out which is where you hang your parachute from a line and shake any leaves, twigs or other debris that might have caught on it during the landing.  After that we headed back to the barracks.  Despite my injury, I was safe.  With all five jumps complete I could graduate since there was no other training left.

We had graduation that Friday.  It came as no surprise that a whole slew of people went to the clinic on Thursday morning.  They tried to make me go but I refused.  I preferred to wait and go back to Ft. Bragg to see doctors at my own clinic.

I came back to my unit after a break over the weekend limping, but I had my wings on my chest.  Yeah, I made a point of ensuring everybody saw them.  Most people gave me a pat on the back and were happy to see I made it.  My platoon sergeant cursed the fact I’d injured myself and complained because I couldn’t run for a couple of weeks on doctor’s orders.  Whatever, he was always hard on me, trying to make me better.  We had one of those relationships where I tested his patience and he tested mine, but we respected each other.

In case you’re wondering, of the sixteen females who began the course, eight made it to the end.  Good odds actually since another girl I knew had twenty-three in her class and only three passed.  She made it, but that was her third time going through the school.  Usually you don’t get that many chances, but she was a weird case that’s too difficult to explain here.

I went on to be injured multiple other times on jumps (busted up my back again as well as my elbow, ankle, and knee) but never had to get help off the drop zone again.  I didn’t begin to really fear them until around jump twelve.  A guy in another unit burned in (his parachute didn’t open and neither did the reserve).  He left behind a wife and daughter.  I had to jump three days after that.  I actually wrote goodbye letters to my family because I was convinced I would die on the jump.

As you can see, I survived, but each one after that bothered me more.

Funny part is I never felt more alive than while in the air.  That part I never stopped loving and dream about it to this day.  It is the only reason I kept volunteering for Airborne Assignments despite my fear.  Nothing but nothing could replace that rare feeling of being totally free.  In all, I served in three Airborne units and completed thirty-seven jumps.  Three of those were from helicopters, but the rest were planes.  The last one was in April of 2009 just before I got out of the Army.

Sometimes, I still miss it.

Sorry this post was so long, but anything less wouldn’t have been enough to describe the full experience.  Hope I painted enough of a picture and that you all enjoyed it.  As a bonus, here is a pic of me in my barracks room not long after Airborne school.  I was still eighteen at that time.

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~ by Suzie on July 25, 2012.

8 Responses to “A leap into the abyss”

  1. I enjoyed your story, Susan. And I have to say, you’re a braver soul than I am. Thanks for sharing that part of yourself.

    • Thanks for reading all that, PL. Glad you managed to get through the story without getting grossed out by that one part (at least I assume so), lol. Took me hours to write and put together, but I enjoyed getting it all out. I needed a writing excercise that had nothing to do with my normal stuff as I’m about to go cross eyed working on it.

  2. Unbelievable, Susan. I really can’t believe ordinary humans can do all that. I go to the gym (once every other blue moon), I bike, I swim. I’m in decent shape. But when I was 20 that would have killed me. And in those days, I’d walk ten miles for the fun of it. But I’m talking strolling and sightseeing. Not some march carrying tons of equipment. I don’t get it. The best military minds still can’t figure out to hire a bellhop to carry the bags? Even when I was in shape, if somebody wanted me do a push up, they’d have had to shove somebody real cute under me. Othewise no deal. Today I sit up when I get out of bed. And that only works half the time. Usually I don’t so much sit up and crawl and drag. Kudos to you, girl.

    • My sentiments exactly, NyiNya. I’m such a lazy slug, though … I don’t even make it to the gym these days.

    • Lol, NN. One of my commanders used to have this lame saying “The stronger your legs, the softer the landing”. Ha! Tell gravity that. In fact, the more you weighed, the faster you fell so in some ways muscle worked against you. I didn’t weight much so it could have been worse. One time I even got stuck in a hot air pocket about 700 feet up. I was just hanging in the air up there after everyone else had landed. Took me a bit to jerk the parachute enough to get it going again.

      As for bellhops, they would be nice, but it was hard enough getting the pizza guys to deliver in the middle of the woods. Forget trying to get a bellhop out onto a rutted drop zone in the middle of the night (they loved to make us jump at 2am to make it more battle realistic).

      As for excercise, I never liked doing it either. I was the girl who slept during PE classes in high school if that gives you any idea of how motivated I am on my own. My PE teacher was convinced I’d fail basic training, lol. It was easier to have the Army make me do it (plus they paid me and that made it worth my while). If you’re Airborne, they give you an extra $150 a month which was a good incentive.

      • $150 a month? If they gave me that every day I might have considered enlisting. No, make that $150 an hour. I don’t like to sweat. What is this “to make i more battle realistic” nonsense. What pinhead decided you have to battle at ungodly hours? Wouldn’t it still be a battle if you went at 2 in the afternoon. After a nice brunch, some cocktails, a little nap. You could still slaughter the other guy and vice versa, but it would not seem so harsh. And if everybody was out of shape, maybe the slaughter would not be so bad. “Hey, you hit me.” “Yeah, puff puff, almost broke my damn hand, puff puff, and it really winded me.” “What about me, gasp, pant. If you hadn’t chased me I wouldn’t have run.” “Yeah, well, I think we’re done here, I’m gonna need a nap.” “Me too, well see you tomorrow…I think its my turn to buy brunch.”

        Now isnt that civilized?

        NN
        O

        • LOL, NN! Kind of reminds me of Viking mythology. Warriors who died gloriously in battle were taken to Valhalla, where they spent their days drinking and eating, with brief “interruptions” during which they charged out on the battlefield for a day of slaughtering each other. At the end of the battle, they would regather in their halls to eat and drink some more …

  3. Wow… awesome… a truly magnificent achievement. Something you’ll always be able to look back on with pride and pleasure… Thanks for sharing, Susan. I really enjoyed reading it. 🙂

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