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Airborne School: What It's Really Like Learning to Jump

June 9, 2016 | BY Katie Lange
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So you're scared of heights, yet somehow you've found yourself in line to jump out of a C-130. Your mind is reeling with all the stuff you've been taught to land safely, but still, if you screw it up, it could mean your life. No big deal, right?

Yeah.  

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But that's the life of a Basic Airborne School recruit at Fort Benning, Georgia. The three-week course, which sees about 14,000 trainees a year, is mostly filled with recruits right out of basic training or AIT who want to be paratroopers, Army Rangers or other special operations forces across the Defense Department. Some of them have chosen to be there, while others have not -- their specialties require it.

I've been told Airborne School is kind of like grade school: Ground Week training is like elementary school, Tower Week is like high school, and Jump Week is college.

During Ground Week, you learn how you're supposed to jump, activate your reserve parachute and recover from "the drag" -- being dragged across the drop zone if the wind catches your chute. During Tower Week, trainees learn about all the bad things that can happen, like landing in trees, water, etc., and how to get out of those situations. You then get to practice what you've learned by jumping off a 250-foot freefall tower -- something that's often harder for students than jumping out of an actual airplane.

Three 250-foot red towers stand in the middle of a large field.
Benning parachute tower
Three of the 250-foot towers that U.S. Army Airborne School recruits practice from during Tower Week.
Photo By: Patrick Albright, Army
VIRIN: 141008-A-YH902-820

Jump Week is the culmination of the training, where the students have to complete five jumps from an airplane at 1,250 feet.

When I visited Fort Benning, I wanted to know the concerns of both the instructors and students, because it has to be nerve-wracking, and there have to be some crazy stories that come out of it, right?

Getting Past The Fear

For a lot of people, fear of heights is a major problem. Gaining the confidence to get over that is the goal of the instructors.

Four service members jump off a low wood platform in a field.
Airborne Ambition
U.S. Army and foreign paratroopers perform parachute landing falls during training as part of Leapfest 2019 in West Kingston, R.I., Aug. 5, 2019. Leapfest is an international static line parachute training event promoting esprit de corps within the airborne community.
Photo By: Army Reserve Sgt. Rafael DiCristina
VIRIN: 190805-A-BF261-0487Y
Airmen learn how to use parachutes.
Pilot Program
Students in a pilot training program simulate being in parachutes as Air Force physiology technicians supervise them at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Jan. 29, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Pedro Tenorio
VIRIN: 190129-F-YT646-0104C

"No matter if it's a 4-foot platform or 30-foot tower, falling for anyone is the big thing," said instructor Army Sgt. 1st Class Lawrence Washington. "So, the biggest challenge is getting over fear, but the other challenge is the mental aspect to get them past everything they've been taught -- to bring it to the forefront and then do it."

"They don't lose their fear of heights, but they get it out of their head," said Army Staff Sgt. Robert Nicoson, another instructor. "I try to tell them that I'm scared to death of heights, and I've been jumping for 10 years. I try to keep it in their mind that we're all scared." 

Acing the Exit

So what's the most important thing to remember? The instructors pretty much agreed it's successfully getting out of the plane.

A soldier jumps out of plane while two other soldiers stand on either side inside the plane.
Leapfest Jump
An Army paratrooper jumps out of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter onto Castle drop zone in West Kingston, R.I., Aug. 5, 2019, during Leapfest, the oldest and largest international static line parachute training event and competition.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Sgt. Rafael DiCristina
VIRIN: 190803-A-BF261-0408C

"The exit can really do some catastrophic damage to you if you do it wrong," said senior master trainer Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Hart, who has jumped more than 100 times during his 22-year Army career.

"I'm really a stickler on their exit and how they land," Nicoson said, who knows from experience.  He hit the side of a plane during one of his early jumps and broke the whole left side of his body. Nicoson was unconscious when he landed and was injured so badly that he was out of commission for about a year.

"It's the only memorable experience I have," he said jokingly. "That's why I get on [recruits about] the exit. I tell them that story on Day One."

Army Pfc. Oliver Larson pulls on a harness strap after landing during a joint forcible entry exercise onto Malemute drop zone during Exercise Spartan Agoge at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Aug. 23, 2016. Larson is a paratrooper assigned to the 25th Infantry Division’s Company H, 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, Alaska. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher
Harness Straps
Army Pfc. Oliver Larson pulls on a harness strap after landing during a joint forcible entry exercise onto Malemute drop zone during Exercise Spartan Agoge at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Aug. 23, 2016. Larson is a paratrooper assigned to the 25th Infantry Division’s Company H, 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, Alaska. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher
Photo By: Justin Connaher
VIRIN: 160823-F-LX370-570A

For Army Pvt. Kelly Allen, a recent recruit, the exit was her last thought before her first jump. She tried to think of it like an amusement park ride -- it'll be scary for a few seconds, then over before you know it. "Just looking out the door and seeing the clouds and how far the ground was -- it was a lot more intense than I thought it would be."

Hitting that Landing

The second toughest part for recruits? The landing.

"If you do it right and you turn into the wind like you're taught, it could be like jumping off the bed onto you floor -- it's nothing. Then there are people that run with the wind and increase their lateral drift and force, and they hit like crap," Hart said. 

A paratrooper conducts a parachute landing fall during airborne operations as part of Exercise Saber Junction 16 near Grafenwoehr, Germany, April 12, 2016. Army photo by Gertrud Zach
Landing Legs
A paratrooper conducts a parachute landing fall during airborne operations as part of Exercise Saber Junction 16 near Grafenwoehr, Germany, April 12, 2016. Army photo by Gertrud Zach
Photo By: Gertrud Zach
VIRIN: 160412-A-HE359-055B
Army Warrant Officer Greg Suchanek drags his parachute toward a rally point during Leapfest 2016, an international parachut training event, in West Kingston, R.I., Aug. 4, 2016. Suchanek is a paratrooper assigned to Special Operations Detachment (NATO). The Rhode Island Army National Guard's 56th Troop Command hosted the event to promote high-level technical training and esprit de corps within the international airborne community. Army photo by Sgt. Brady Pritchett
Parachute Chore
Army Warrant Officer Greg Suchanek drags his parachute toward a rally point during Leapfest 2016, an international parachut training event, in West Kingston, R.I., Aug. 4, 2016. Suchanek is a paratrooper assigned to Special Operations Detachment (NATO). The Rhode Island Army National Guard's 56th Troop Command hosted the event to promote high-level technical training and esprit de corps within the international airborne community. Army photo by Sgt. Brady Pritchett
Photo By: Sgt. Brady Pritchett
VIRIN: 160806-A-GC728-182A

Allen learned that the hard way when she landed in a marsh. "Right when I landed, water shot up 3 feet, all up in my face, and then I got drug through it like 20-30 meters before I could get my canopy releases off. I was soaked." 

For Army Pvt. Samuel Boyd, the most important thing he learned from his instructors was to "keep your knees and feet together when you land."

Another key part: Making sure you have good control of your static line before you take the leap. That's the line that's hooked to an anchor cable and actually pulls your main parachute. If recruits aren't focused on securing it before handing it off to the plane's safety, it could potentially wrap around their arms or head.

A soldier wearing a parachute hands off his static line to another soldier, as a soldier in front of him prepares to step out of the door of an airplane.
airborne school jump
U.S. Army Pfc. Jeffery Harris, with the 982nd Combat Camera Company, East Point, Ga., hands off his static line before he exits a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft during the 75th Anniversary of Airborne School jump, at Fort Benning, Ga., Aug. 15, 2015. The 1-507th Parachute Infantry Regiment(PIR) Battalion celebrates 75 years of the U.S. Army Airborne School and the commemoration of the last qualifying jump of the first airborne test platoon on Aug. 15, 1940.
Photo By: Army Spc. Joshua Talley
VIRIN: 150815-A-XW676-222

"You have to make sure you have good static line control, eye-to-eye contact and safely hand it off, and make sure everything's good and clear. We have a lot of issues with static line injuries," said Army Staff Sgt. Jace Myers, who said many new jumpers often drop the lines in the door.

At the end of the day, most Airborne School recruits are successful because they have faith that they know their instructors know what they're doing.

To learn more about what they do at Basic Airborne School, click here. You can also watch the awesome video above that explains the art of the jump!