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The aircraft hums gently through the crisp air of early spring, as the sunrise spills over the horizon beyond. The sun has set the mountains ablaze with a golden glow fit for a postcard, but no one seems overly concerned with taking in the view.
Seated across from me, seven of the world’s most elite special operations forces (SOF) personnel prepare for the ride of their lives. But the uniform of the day is hardly tactical—lined up in their bright orange jumpsuits, these covert operators look more like a row of traffic cones about to be thrown out on the freeway at 120 mph.
The call from the jumpmaster brings the aircraft to life. Casual joking gives way to nervous knees and nervous smiles. Eyes locked on their instructors, each student readily absorbs the last words of wisdom they will receive before stepping out into the unknown.
The ramp opens. The smell of jet fuel and open air flood the cramped fuselage of the CASA 212. A flurry of final safety checks follows, each perfectly orchestrated, perfectly performed.
The students wait. Among them stands roster number 47, so assigned by virtue of his expected rate of fall (typically 120 to 150 mph)—mostly a calculation between height and weight. For this Green Beret from Galveston, TX, this ride is just one of many since he embarked on this journey nearly 22 years ago.
47 “grew up” in Hawaii’s 25th Infantry Division, but after an eight-year break in service, this infantryman-turned-scout traded his M249 for a Long-Range Surveillance System in the Texas National Guard’s 143rd Infantry Regiment. There he met his current team sergeant, who encouraged him to attend Special Forces Assessment and Selection, four grueling weeks of pain and perseverance put to the test. He went and he won a coveted slot in the Special Forces Qualification Course, eventually earning his green beret and the right to call himself one of America’s best. As the students inch toward the edge of the ramp, the jumpmaster gives his final signal—GO.
Sergeant First Class Davis looks 47 in the eye. “I’ve got you,” his instructor shouts against the near-deafening wind. Then with a pat on the back and those final words of assurance, 47 bursts into a rush of wind and sky as he abandons the safety of the aircraft. Then he disappears.
Swallowed by the blue and the expanse of the Sonoran Desert 12,000 feet below, this 41-year-old Soldier has just been baptized in the brotherhood of military free fall. Now he has the next three weeks to prove he deserves a place among its ranks.
A rush of coffee cups and backpacks file into the waiting bus. Count off. Fifty-two of America’s elite cram themselves into whatever space they can find. It’s 0400, dark and cold. Black sweatshirts clad with logos akin to “SOFs-R-Us” seem to be this morning’s choice of attire.
The bus winds around a stark landscape—sand, rocks, bramble bushes, an occasional cactus. Not much to speak of. But this seemingly endless expanse of desert, better known as U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, or YPG, has become an oasis for SOF operators from nearly every military service around the world.
Nestled in Arizona’s southwest corner between the borders of California and Mexico, the massive military testing site is home to the U.S. Army Special Operations Military Free Fall School. Here, the world’s most elite fighters come to earn their wings, a badge of honor so obscure that it doesn’t even grace the standard table of military awards and badges with its presence.
The Military Free Fall Parachutist Badge is reserved for SOF personnel who have qualified in what Army regulation itself calls “one of the military’s most demanding and hazardous skills, military free fall parachuting.”
Otherwise known as HALO, high altitude low opening military free fall (MFF) operations are designed for covert tactical infiltration from altitudes as extreme as 35,000 feet. But referring to all MFF operations as HALO is a misnomer. HALO is actually a form of free fall in which a jumper exits the aircraft at an altitude of at least 6,000 feet AGL (above ground level), and deploys his parachute below 6,000 feet AGL.
MFF parachutists also perform HAHOs, or high altitude high opening jumps, during which the jumper also exits the aircraft above an altitude of 6,000 feet AGL but deploys his parachute above 6,000 feet AGL—6,000 feet being the determining factor between HALO and HAHO. Regardless of the category, though, they’re jumping at altitudes reaching as high as 6½ miles above the Earth. That’s higher than the cruising altitude of most commercial jetliners.
Students spill out of the bus as it reaches its destination. A large open building waits, lined with lockers and the lifesaving equipment within. Students filter into one end of the room, coffee still in hand.
Sergeant First Class Mathews stands in front of the class. He holds a green foam replica of a deployed parachute, jumper in tow. The little green man looks like a foam finger you would buy in the stands of a sporting event rather than a serious training aid.
In the back of the class, number 34 sits with his notebook open, hurriedly recording the facts at hand. A carpentry foreman by trade, this West Virginia Guard Soldier is no stranger to detail.
Mathews discusses a slew of calculations and figures. The foam chute and jumper visually echo each concept. If you do X, [insert visual of little green man crashing to the ground]. There are several of these examples. Enough to make most students shift in their seats. 34 takes notes. So do I.
Don’t get target-fixated. Be symmetrical with your arms and legs. Speed generates lift. Make cutaway decision at 2,500 feet. Burn altitude in the holding area until 1,500 feet. Brake and turn into the wind at 500 feet. Half brakes and PLF at 10 feet. Land on target.
After 10 minutes, 34 stops writing. So do I. Despite my self-styled journalistic chicken scratch, even I can’t scribble fast enough to annotate even a small fraction of the information essential to these men’s survival.
Facts and figures spew forth for over an hour, while 34’s notebook lays abandoned in the seat beside him. When all is said and done, I look down at my own as one phrase jumps out in big bold letters.
NO ONE DIES DURING FREE FALL. NO ONE DIES WALKING OUT TO THE PLANE. ALL OF YOUR MISTAKES ARE MADE ONCE THAT CANOPY OPENS … OR DOESN’T.
Before MFF students set out on their first flights, they get the chance to try their hands at something a little more down to earth—almost: a 75-foot free fall simulator known as the Master Sergeant George A. Bannar Jr. Vertical Wind Tunnel. One of the largest and most sophisticated of its kind in the world, the newly christened tunnel stands out against the stark desert landscape like a box of MREs dumped out onto a sandbox.
Inside stands one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery known to man: four 500-horsepower turbine fans capable of producing wind speeds of up to 170 mph. Its 16½-by-48-foot interior flight chamber can accommodate eight SOF operators adorned with every tactical accoutrement Uncle Sam has bestowed upon them.
Tunnel Week allows the students here a chance to familiarize themselves with the sensations of free fall and, more important, the way their own bodies must react before they ever step off the ramp. By the time they leave this chamber, these special operators will have accumulated as much free fall time as they will experience in their next three weeks of actual jumping.
Tunnel time is not without its expense. The school’s facility, which was completed late last year, came at a price of more than $16 million. But with a cost of around $1,000 an hour for flight time in a comparable chamber, the savings that have resulted from the construction of the school’s own state-of-the-art facility have been exponential.
Regardless of the savings, the benefit of having one of skydiving’s most sought-after assets on-site is nothing short of priceless. Student and instructor alike will tell you that their ability to make corrections in the wind tunnel that they would otherwise have to make while plummeting to the ground at terminal velocity is advantageous indeed, not to mention far less life-threatening.
After high winds grounded the class one morning, I had the opportunity to try this vertical giant out for myself. After watching all 52 students fly within its confines for the majority of the day, I assumed I was more than ready to master the task at hand. But as with all militaristic endeavors, assumptions rarely lead to their intended results.
I soon discovered that taking on the tunnel was far more challenging than cascading through the open air. Entering the chamber, I found myself sandwiched between what felt like an arctic blast going head-to-head with a supercharged blow dryer. My instructor did his best to stabilize me before releasing me into the wind. So much for that.
I repeatedly backslid into the wall, crashing and bouncing off the glass like a pinball. After watching the instructors make their corrections for hours, I knew I needed to arch my body and lengthen my legs to eliminate the problem, but knowing and doing are two entirely different things. My instructor did his best to correct my every move with hand signals that quickly evolved into a highly abridged form of rapid-fire sign language. Arch. De-arch. More positive legs. Check your arms. Drop your shoulder. Turn left. Slow things down. Breathe. Focus.
As I struggled to maintain my form—and my composure—in the 48-foot vertical vortex, I was oblivious to the fact that I had just become the first female service member in the world to fly within its confines. As I started to reflect on the fortuitous situation in which I found myself, something amazing happened: My body did what my brain could not. I began to react to the wind, adjusting my body position like a sail to carry me wherever I needed to go, which at this point was anywhere that didn’t involve slamming backward into the tunnel wall.
After 15 minutes, I emerged with aching arms, exhausted and thankful that I had skipped my P90X workout earlier that morning. But more important, I left with an understanding of how to shape my body to the wind and with as much free fall time as if I had just traveled over 250,000 feet straight down through the sunny skies over YPG.
A MONTH OF FALLING
The Military Free Fall Parachutist Course takes students through four weeks of highly specialized training that’s painstakingly tailored to the special operations forces personnel who make up its ranks. Here’s the progression:
WEEK 1 — TUNNEL WEEK
Before students ever step foot onto an aircraft, they learn to fly in a marvel of engineering known as the Master Sergeant George A. Bannar Jr. Vertical Wind Tunnel. Add classes on free fall theory, body stabilization and parachute packing, and students leave with a solid foundation as they enter the next three harrowing weeks.
WEEK 2 – SLICK WEEK
The fire hose is set to full blast as students are bombarded with a flood of information preparing them for their first fateful steps off the ramp a mere two hours after they strap on their equipment for the first time. Slick Week, so named because students jump with little more than their chutes, takes these elite Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen through a crash course in Skydiving 101. With 14 jumps this week alone, students enter the next stage of training having descended more than 33 miles through the open air.
WEEK 3 – COMBAT EQUIPMENT
“You’ve got the basics. Now strap on a ruck.” The second week of jumping is when military free fall training actually begins. After having mastered the basic principles of skydiving, students strap a ruck between their legs and perform the same maneuvers required during Week 2, now adorned with oxygen masks and the entire contents of their wall lockers. More weight results in an increased rate of descent and, in turn, a significantly reduced amount of time to react to the task at hand.
WEEK 4 – GROUPING
During their final week of training, students permanently shed their bright orange exteriors in favor of their own duty uniforms. During this phase, the men begin to function as a team, just as they would in an actual war-fighting environment. Individual jumps give way to groups of eight or more as students perfect their canopy control techniques, enhancing their ability to land in close proximity to one another. The course culminates with a team jump in the pitch-black darkness of a cold desert night. In extremely close proximity, they descend as one, able to see each other only by the few ChemLights hooked to their rigs and a single strobe. No NVGs allowed.
The Military Free Fall Parachutist Course is reserved for members of the special operations community, which includes National Guard Special Forces Soldiers, U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, Air Force Combat Controllers and Pararescue Jumpers, as well as the parachute riggers who specifically support these groups. After volunteering and being accepted for the Special Forces mission, most warriors will have endured over three years of intense training and a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice before they ever earn the opportunity to attend Military Free Fall School.
To learn more about joining the Guard’s Special Forces community, go to NationalGuardSF.com and www.NATIONALGUARD.com/careers/career-fields/special-forces
Photos from U.S. Army Special Operations Military Free Fall School and SSG Melissa Wood