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Skydiving 101 

There are two types of military parachuting Static Line and Military Free Fall more commonly known as HALO High Altitude Low Opening but it also includes HAHO which is High Opening. Everyone in Special Forces is Static Line qualified but less than half are HALO qualified and I wasn’t and neither was Little Sammy Thistle, but he was a skydiving junkie and he took every opportunity to throw himself out of airplanes. He garnered an Instructor rating and was well-respected in the skydiving community around Ft. Lewis. 

One of each six Special Forces teams has HALO as their infiltration specialty and they are required to conduct a certification of all the skills necessary to conduct a HALO operation quarterly. This includes a number of day and night jumps with combat equipment and oxygen and sometimes they will lease civilian aircraft to conduct it. This happened one time and because the aircraft is leased by the hour and it is impractical for 12 guys to keep jumping all day long a notice went out that licensed skydivers could jump in between the certification jumps. Sammy was licensed and the plane was rented from his home DZ so he had free run of the place as he was an instructor. I had no license and hadn’t taken civilian training because I knew I was going to HALO school and could get a license for free. 

The fun began when Sammy couldn’t find anyone else who was off that day to go skydiving with him, so a scheme was hatched. I had about 75 Static Line jumps so it was known that I would jump out of an airplane and could maneuver under canopy well enough to survive. A HALO or skydive jump involves jumping and then being able to fly in a stable body position, maintain altitude awareness and deploy the parachute yourself at the proper altitude, none of which I had ever done. After hanging around with Sammy and the rest of the skydivers and watching their videos for a couple of years, I had a fairly deep understanding of the sport though. I even knew the emergency procedures because some of the coolest videos were of malfunctions. Sammy did some math in his head and when the smoke cleared he announced “Get your shit Jimmy, we’re going skydiving.” I asked whether this was a good idea and he proceeded to step outside and looked up noting “Blue Skies”. He then picked up a rock and dropped it noting again “Gravity still works, Hell yeah it’s a good idea. We’ll just go over actions in the aircraft on the ride to the drop zone and then we’ll put you in the training harness and practice emergency procedures at the DZ.”  For whatever reason that seemed reasonable to me. 

We headed toward the DZ which was about 30 minutes away and the ride sounded something like this. 

“OK we’ll be jumping a Cessna that holds 4 jumpers and we’ll be the first two out. After you are rigged up I will Jump Master you and make sure everything is cool. When we get  to jump run I will yell DOOR! And then open and secure the door.”

He then accelerated to about 90 and hit the power windows yelling “DOOR! This is what it will sound like.”

He rolled them back up and continued “I will then lean out and spot the DZ and the release point. Once the pilot says clear I will point to you and then to the door. You put your right foot on the plate above the wheel and your hands on the strut. Then put your left foot an the plate and let your right foot dangle. I will give you an OK sign you nod to say your ready and I will give you a ready, set, go count. Rock back on Ready, In on Set, and just let go on GO, and remember Go sounds just like No so once we are there we are going. 

Now anyone with any knowledge of skydiving is shuddering at the incredible stupidity of what we were contemplating. Let me add a few more things. Sammy wasn’t just going to let me fall to the planet hoping I could fall stably, read my own altimeter and deploy my chute properly. He instructed a method called Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) where a student exits the aircraft and an instructor on each side holds a grip on the chest strap and leg of the student. This ensures that even if the student goes into complete brain lock the instructors can fly them safely and deploy their chute themselves. We simply decided Sammy was a good enough flyer to be able to do it by himself, plus I promised him that no matter what happened I would pull at 3500 feet period. 

We arrived at the DZ and spent a few minutes on the mockup aircraft practicing the exit ballet, and then got in a hanging harness and ran through all the malfunction procedures. It all went easily and I felt not confident but ignorantly serene. We then practiced actions in freefall which included practice deployments, altitude checks, and landing procedures. Sammy then went off to lie to the DZ owner telling him I was a current licensed jumper and we started gearing up. Sammy checked all my connections and we headed to the plane and the other two jumpers were there. We knew them but they didn’t know I wasn’t licensed so Sammy told them we were going to do some two-way relative work and asked if we could exit first. They were cool and got on first followed by Sammy and me last. The pilot taxied and we were soon in the air on our way to jump altitude 12,500 feet which took about 20 min. The nice thing is we had a birds eye view of Mt. Rainier the whole way and the final jump run gave an awesome view of the peak and glaciers. 

I was nervous the whole way up but it still seemed kinda’ surreal, then I heard Sammy yell “Door” and all of a sudden it got real, real fast. He swung the door up and locked it in place and damn it was loud and I had all too good a look at how far down 12,500 feet is. WOW! It blew my mind and I couldn’t believe I was about to step out into that 90 MPH breeze onto a tiny little step and hold on to the strut. What the hell was I thinking. But training kicked in and I checked my altimeter and Sammy pointed to me and then the door. It was amazing how strong the wind was and I really had to force my body out there and it felt like I was going to be ripped off. I looked back at Sammy and he shot me an OK. I nodded back and he said “Ready” We rocked back “Set” We rocked in and “Go” and I just let go and arched down with my pelvis and let my arms and legs blow up in the breeze. 

I vaguely remember the exit, but almost immediately I felt a strong jerk as Sammy ensured I was belly to ground and in a stable position. The cool thing was when he did this it faced me right at Mt. Rainier eye to eye as I saw 12,000 feet on my altimeter. I will never forget that sight. 

When I looked down it was stunning because of the vivid greens and blues of Washington State and The Cascades. I reached for my pilot chute and did a practice deployment and then looked to my left for Sammy and he gave me a thumbs down sign. I thought he meant my practice pull was no good for a sec but remembered this was the signal to arch more. I pushed my pelvis down toward earth and he responded with a thumbs up, I then checked my altitude and it was 7,500. I was supposed to signal when we hit 5,500 to demonstrate altitude awareness, so I did. The next step was to wave off at 4,000 to alert anyone higher I was going to deploy my chute. Then at 3.500 I tossed the pilot chute and the chute jerked a knot in my tail as it opened. 

I looked up and was exceptionally pleased to see a fully open canopy…YES! Now all I have to do is land this puppy and that was when I noticed just how fast the parachute was flying across the ground. I had the brakes/steering lines in my hands and I pulled the right one down to see how fast it turned and Holy Shit! It whipped me around and scared the crap out of me. I made a much smaller left turn and looked down to find the DZ which I seemed important. I easily found the runway and then figured out where the landing area was and now I needed to determine wind direction. Fortunately I also located the wind sock and so my next task was to make sure I stayed upwind of the landing area. Now Here was Sammy’s advice for landing. 

“OK now when you get to 500 feet you make a turn downwind a 90 degree left and then a 90 degree left back upwind for final approach. You can brake until 100 feet to make sure you don’t overshoot, but no matter what do not brake under 100 feet, and when you start to get really low and you think you are going to crash and die count one thousand one and then bring the brakes all the way down smoothly.”                       

I made the turns and was screaming toward the ground and almost certainly making an Uncle Jimbo-sized crater, but I decide all I can do is trust that idiot. So when I was absolutely sure I was dead I counted one thousand one and pulled the brakes down smoothly…..and shockingly he was right. I made a dainty one foot landing and only took one step. Sammy was right there and he came running over screaming and we jumped around yelling “How cool was that” when we remembered that I was supposed to be a pro and shouldn’t be acting like a cherry. We gathered my gear and hustled off behind a hangar to giggle like a couple of schoolgirls.