5 Things I Learned Jumping Out of Planes

It seems super appropriate to do this on July 4.

All this week I have shared 5 things that I learned jumping out of planes with the subscribers to my daily update. This is the list consolidated into one post that is being shared with all my subscribers. If you want to get this kind of stuff in your inbox every day (along with so much more) then consider becoming a paid subscriber.

This is a public post. If it moves you, feel free to share it with anyone you wish.

Have a safe and happy 4th everyone.

21 years ago this week I was at Fort Benning, GA at the Army’s Basic Airborne Course. Over 3 weeks under the hot Georgia sun, I did 3 things. I ran literally everywhere I went (we weren’t allowed to walk), I saw the movie The Matrix at the on post theater (which was free) 20 times (literally every showing I could make), and I learned how to safely participate in a static line jump from a high performance military aircraft. That last thing would change my life.

Over the next 9 years (until I left the military in 2007), I would remain on airborne status a majority of the time, only taking breaks for deployments and Army schools. Being on airborne status meant that I was assigned to an airborne unit and I was expected to make a jump at least once a month. Which I did. At the end of my career I had successfully completed 77 jumps. The actual number was greater, but you only get official credit for one a month, no matter how many you actually do.

Jumping in the military isn’t like you see on YouTube. Static line jumping involves large groups of paratroopers lining up, hooking up to a hardwired line in the airplane, and then jumping from an open door. The static line pulls your parachute open and then you float to the ground. It looks something like this:

It is simultaneously one of the most exciting and scary things I have ever done. Definitely the most exciting and scary thing that I have ever done 77 times.

There is a lot that can go wrong on an airborne operation. There are, as the saying goes, a lot of moving parts. The jump on the video was small, with only a handful troops exiting. Most of mine were large - 20 to 25 troopers per stick (group that exits the aircraft). Many of my jumps were at night. Some included heavy equipment drops that were pushed out before or after troops. Imagine jumping out of a plane, at night, not knowing if you might land on a vehicle, and knowing that other vehicles would soon be dropped overhead. It’s nerve wracking. On the best of days.

And it is inherently dangerous. Just a couple of weeks ago a young Marine died at Fort Benning at the Basic Airborne Course. It is a deadly serious undertaking.

So why do it? There has not been a large scale military airborne operation since World War II. In many ways, airborne units are an anachronism. There are very few use cases for an entire airborne division. While it makes sense for some highly specialized soldier to maintain the skill (for example special operations forces), there isn’t any military need for cooks and clerks to ever exit a high performance aircraft. So why does the Army do it? Simple. It creates what one of my battalion commanders called “a soldier’s heart.”

It takes a lot of courage (some would call it reckless self-regard) to hurl oneself out of an aircraft 1000 feet above the ground. Everything in your body tells you that this is a bad idea. There is a natural cringe at the door and a fear of falling. Everyone gets scared. And the troopers that are the scariest are the ones who won’t admit their fear. 

And paratroopers confront this fear, this natural reluctance to avoid danger, process it, and move ahead anyway. Jumping is an act of courage. Jumping is being willing to do what most won’t. This impulse is, at its best, beautiful. And at its worst, it is toxic. 

Nothing is ever one thing.

I learned a lot jumping out of planes. These are the 5 things that stand out the most.

#1 - Pre-jump matters.

Long before you exit heroically from the aircraft, you have gone through a long and drawn out process of preparation. Let’s say that TOT (time on target - the expected time that you will safely land on the drop zone) is 1800 (6pm). The first assembly for that jump will be held 10-12 hours before then. You will use the hours leading up to your jump doing all sorts of preparatory activities - sustained airborne training, mock door exercises, jump master personal inspection, and the manifest for the jump will be confirmed no less than 4 times. All of these steps are meant to prepare the troops and make sure that every possible safety precaution has been taken for an inherently unsafe act.

Consider sustained airborne training. Over the course of about an hour you rehash all the basics of airborne school. They go over everything, Including how to properly fall (and yes, there is a “right” way to fall). You even practice falling under the watchful eyes of peers and leaders and receive critiques on your form if needed. It is 3 weeks of school crammed into 60 minutes or so. Imagine getting ready to do a defense of your PhD dissertation, and before you start the committee asks you to recite your ABCs. By my 77th jump, I could give sustained airborne training in my sleep.

The point of going over the most basic facts and the simplest procedures is to make sure that troops are reminded of what to do when. Much of Army training is really subconscious. It is about doing something so much that it becomes second nature. Because when danger comes and stress spikes, your brain shuts down and your body will do what it knows how to do. What it has been trained to do.

There aren’t a lot of tasks or activities that don’t require at least some preparation, and there are even fewer that don’t benefit from preparation. Practicing the basics of even familiar tasks makes us better at them. It’s like the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall (with apologies to Allen Iverson) - practice, man. It’s about practice.

Preparation matters. Pre-jump matters.

#2 - Green Light Go.

There are three lights in the aircraft - red, green, and yellow. Just like a stoplight.

Red means no go. Don’t jump. Stop. Yellow means stand-by. Be ready. We are almost there.

When you are over the drop zone and the drop zone is clear, then the green light is lit and it is time to exit. The jump master says as loudly as possible “GREEN LIGHT GO” and paratroopers begin exiting. While jumping, the light could be turned to red at any time. It may mean that you are out of drop zone. It may mean that conditions on the ground have changed. It may mean that there is an issue on the aircraft. But if the light is red, you exit at your own peril. 

It is important to note that there are people in the aircraft - Army jumpmasters and Air Force load masters - who are supervising and observing all this happen. It is equally important to note that while they can call attention to the lights and help remind you what they mean, they can not make you jump when the light is green and they will not physically stop you when the light is red. If you want to jump on a red light, you can. 

Every day presents us with windows of opportunities to do the things that are important to us. Every day we face a challenge, or have a chance to do something amazing, or an obligation to do something significant. How do we respond to these windows of opportunity?

When the light is green, jump. When you have a chance, seize it. The red light can come on at any time. You don’t want to do all the work of packing your gear, hours of prejump preparation, and riding on a hot bumpy aircraft just to end up sitting back down without jumping. 

Just like on the plane, in light there are people that surround us that can point out what the light is showing, and what the light means. We have guides and people who can give us advice and encouragement. In the end, however, these people do not control whether or not we jump. WE do. We have to make the decision to seize the opportunities we are given. We have to take responsibility for our actions, stand in the door, and jump. The light is green only so long.

When you get the green light, go.

#3 - Pull a slip and land it.

Once you have exited the aircraft and have your “knees in the breeze” as the old airborne saying goes, you have a wonderful few moments of floating. Your canopy is above you. You can see for miles. And you just gently float, somewhere between earth and sky. Take a minute. Enjoy that feeling. 

Because the ground is coming.

One of the things that you have to do is figure out which way the wind is blowing, and which direction you are heading in. There are 4 risers that connect you to the parachute above you. Risers are thick canvas straps that lead to cords that lead to the silk canopy. These risers are the only means that you have to control the parachute above you. There are two at the front of your body, and two behind your shoulders. Two on the right, two on the left.

What you have to do now is pull a slip. This means that you have to select one or two of your risers and pull them as far down into your chest as you can. The goal is to turn your body and parachute into the wind. The reason why is fairly simple. Assuming that there is no wind, landing on the ground creates a force on the body equivalent to running a car into a brick wall at 15 miles per hour. It is hard and abrupt, but also easily manageable if you know what you are doing. However, you add in some wind and that speed goes up. Suddenly you are in a car crash at 25 or 35 miles per hour. Pulling a slip helps you mitigate some of that. You can turn yourself into the wind and slow yourself considerably.

You must choose your slip wisely. It is trickier than it sounds. You have to pull the slip opposite the wind. If the wind is blowing from right to left, you want to grab the two risers on the right side of your body and turn into the wind. If the wind is blowing from behind, you have to reach behind you to grab the two risers at the rear to drift toward the wind.

Whichever risers you pull, you must remember one key thing. Whatever slip you pull, you have to land it. Even if you choose wrong, you will cause more problems trying to change directions at the last second. Once you have made a decision and pulled the slip, the best thing you can do is hold it until you land, and deal with what happens then.

#4 - Focus on the horizon, not the ground.

You have done your prejump. You have jumped when the green light came on. And you pulled a slip and prepared to land. Now comes the fun part.

Landing.

Landing sounds easy. And in some ways, it is. Gravity does most of the work. One of my airborne instructors said that one way or another, everyone lands. It is the one guarantee you have when you jump out of a plane. What that landing is like is a function of everything that has come before - preparation and action - and one final step.

The very best thing you can do to ensure as comfortable a landing as possible (given that you have just fallen hundreds of feet) is one that is counter intuitive. To land well, you need to focus on the horizon, not the ground.

There is an understandable desire to look down. We want to know where we are gonna land. And you should glance down to make sure there aren’t any major obstacles or other troopers or anything else that could cause a bad day. Although, honestly, when you are that close to landing there isn’t a lot you can do. You just have to prepare the best you can. 

Focusing on the ground however, will make you do two things. One, it makes you instinctively reach for the ground. You will extend your legs to land. This seems like a good thing (which is why our body does it), but it isn’t. You want your legs slightly bent, relaxed and ready to absorb contact. If you extend your legs they will become rigid. Instead of a shock absorber, they become a solid 2 x 4. And 2 x 4s break. So do legs if you land with them extended. The other thing that happens when you focus on the ground is that your mind starts to imagine the landing rather than waiting to feel the landing. And your mind will almost always imagine the worst case scenario. I looked down a few times. And I remember them because the landings were uniquely awful.

If you focus on the horizon, your legs stay relaxed and springy. Your mind adjusts to what is, rather than reacting to what it expects. You will have a better landing by not thinking about it. It is a very Buddhist concept. We can not gain that which we seek. The only way to find what we are looking for is to stop looking. 

So it is when we land after jumping from a plane too.

5 - Landing doesn’t mean you’re done.

Once you hit the ground, the work starts. And it starts as soon as you are down.

The first thing you have to do is release your parachute. You don’t want to stay hooked to that thing on the ground. A strong gust of wind could come along and start dragging you all over the drop zone. After you release your parachute, you have to remove your weapon from the protective cover it was in when you jumped. You don’t want to be sitting on a hostile drop zone with your weapon in a case where it doesn’t do you any good. Go get it!

Got your weapon? Awesome. Now, about that parachute you released. You better go get it. It belongs to the United States Army. Grab the parachute and stuff it in the bag you brought to store your gear. Now get your ruck sack. Now you need to orient yourself on the drop zone. Where did you land? Where is the rally point? How do you get there? Do you know where you are going? Great. Move out. Carrying all your gear (120 pounds every time I jumped). Run, don’t walk, to the rally point. Drop off your parachute and weapons case for accountability. Check in with the chalk leader and get your assignment. Then move to the perimeter to establish a guard around the rally point. Now you wait for everyone to make it back. It may be a while. If there are injuries you will need to find out who it is and what their disposition is. Are they ambulatory? Do they need medevac? If you are a leader you will be organizing all this, so you better be first to the rally point, with your notebook and pen ready to go.

Sound like a lot? It is. In many ways the real work of an airborne operation is done AFTER you land. And if you have a follow on mission, this is literally true. Sometimes you jump and then do a 25K ruck march, or mock assault, or other training event. The jumping is only one part. And the landing is just the beginning.

Fun fact - the majority of people who die while climbing Mount Everest die on their way *down* the mountain. 

It makes sense when you think about it. We become so focused on achieving a goal, we often don’t think through what will happen if we achieve our goal. We hope for success, and don’t think about what success looks like. When I was a kid, my grandpa had a crazy border collie who was an amazing cow dog, and who also liked to bark like hell and chase passing trucks. “Shouldn’t we stop Buddy from chasing trucks,” I asked? “What the hell for?” my grandfather said in his raspy Texas drawl, “if he caught one he wouldn’t know what the hell to do with it.”

It is important to set goals. You don’t get on the plane unless you want to land. But what then? What are you gonna do once your butt hits the drop zone? What will you do with the truck when you catch it? 

The time to think about that is before it happens.

Okay Airborne. I think you are ready.

Who’s ready to go jump?

Grab your chute. Follow me. All the way.

Happy 4th of July y’all.