The Jump Course

By Tom Hassett

On the training hangar floor, there were two rows of painted squares to simulate our places on the aircraft and on each square was piled a helmet, a reserve and a main parachute. To keep out some of the winter cold of Rivers Manitoba, we were wearing mukluks, wind pants, parkas and balaclavas; a bulky-looking lot. At the jumpmaster’s order, we began to help each other to put on the harness which is attached to the main chute. Arm and leg straps, then tighten the shoulder and back straps until we can hardly straighten up, put on the reserve chute across the chest and finally fasten helmet tightly. For this first jump, there will be no rucksack, rifle or snow shoes, so we are relatively unencumbered. We stand waiting while the jumpmaster checks our equipment, pulls the end ot the static line out of the main chute, hands it to us and watches while we slip the fastener into the top of our reserve. Careful not to twist, turn or snag the static line on neck or shoulder where it might cause injury or foul the chute. And now we wait for the aircraft. Nervous, warm, no loud talking. We are allowed to squat on the seats while the JM gives us a last minute instruction.

“If you get hung up by your static line after you jump and you’re still conscious, put your hands on your head and we’ll cut you loose. Then pull your reserve. If you’re unconscious, don’t do anything and we’ll try to pull you back in.”

If you’re unconscious, don’t do anything, he says. A real joker. And what a “loverly” time to tell us about getting hung up, half on hour before it could happen. Then we wait. Some wishful thinking. Maybe the wind has gone up over 15mph and the jump has been called off, or the pigeons are having trouble with the Herc. Maybe. Then the growing roar as it pulls up outside. The cargo ramp is lowered. We turn and file out, each one in his own place. We are in four sticks of about twelve men each. There will be two passes over the drop zone, dropping one stick from each side of the aircraft on each pass. As the ranking officer in the second stick, I will be the number one man, port side, on the first pass over the DZ. Once on the aircraft we wedge ourselves into place, buckle up, backs to the wall and stare at the man opposite.

So this is it. Weeks of practice in mock-ups, learning to exit, to fall in harness with a little control and to land properly. Hours of PT, trying to strengthen leg and back muscles (unsucessfully), jumping out of a 30 foot tower, dropped from a 200 foot tower and now this; crazy. It’s one thing to share, to identify with people, to help them to relate the priest and the faith he represents to daily life and their moments of crisis, but this is ridiculous. Nobody, but nobody, parachutes into battle these days. What in the name of his holiness am I doing here, now, sitting all crouched up and shivering ? It can’t be that cold. Look slowly around and try to make it look like I’m not watching the others. I think they feel the same way; that this is all rather stupid and a little frightening, but like me, they are too afraid to show it. How’s that for becoming an integral part of my social environment ? We taxi to the end of the runway, the motors are revved up, we take the running jump from the runway.

Made it. Airborne. One man, from Newfoundland, hasn’t flown before so he’s a bit nervous about getting up there, not to mention jumping out when we do get up there. The JM gives the ten minute warning and we re-check static line, reserve and helmet strap. The side doors come off and a deafening roar of sound floods the inside of the aircraft; wind cuts into the tail section, whips the JM’s clothing as he stands on the ramp signaling and shouting completely inaudible instructions at the first 12 men on each side. That’s us. I think he shouts,

“Stand up.” A moment of nausea as the plane lurches. Get up, fix the collapsible bench to the side of the aircraft, take hold of the snap fastener at the end of the static line.

“Hook up.” We hook the fasteners on to the cable which runs the length of the aircraft and test it to make sure it is on to stay. Then we slide it along the cable as we move towards the rear of the aircraft, closer to the two side exits..

“Check your equipment.” The man behind me checks my gear and sees that my line is clear.

“Sound off for equipment check.” From the rear, each man calls out and hits the man ahead of him on the arse, the only clear spot, until finally I hear and feel:

“Two okay.” and then I holler,

“One okay.”

The biggest lie I’ve ever told. Wait, facing the rear of the aircraft, one hand at the side for support, the other on the snap fastener. Two feet ahead of me to my right is the open hatch of the port side and the wind roars by from the prop blast at 180mph. Way down below, fields, fences and clumps of brush all covered with snow. The red light is on, near eye level; wait, perspire, and then the last signal comes.

“Fifteen seconds.” Now move two steps into the open door, face out into emptiness, pause at a slight crouch, gloved hands extended to touch the edge of the door. Can barely get my left hand to move to the front because of the blast of air that’s hitting it. Eyes on the green light, wait for it to go on. Heart just a- pounding, neck all tight, mouth dry. The JM shouts in my ear,

“Wait for the green light !” Always the joker. As if I’d jump before I had to. Noise of the prop blast is incredible. The green light goes on, bring the left foot up and spring out, up, and into emptiness, shouting,

“Go, one thousand,” as wind hits my right side. Feel myself hurled, thrown upside down, sideways, forward, earth and sky are all over, then manage to count to,

“Four thousand” and try to look up to see if my canopy has opened. Can’t at first try and a moment of panic because the risers and lines have so many turns in them they hold my neck and head down. Spin around until they unwind and look up at that big beautiful white blossom of a canopy. The first and most startling thing is the silence. There is absolute stillness without the breath of a breeze. There is the sensation of floating, not falling and not really moving, although the blue skies and sparkling fields tilt a little, and rock gently back and forth, quietly. By some freak gusts of wind, the number two man in each stick is blown under, instead of away from the aircraft. Their canopies open but one man, 10 feet higher, is entangled in the lines of the other, a Brit, who hollers at him with just a trace of outrage,

“That’s my chute you’re into !” Everything and everyone belong to mother Army of course but at times like these, people do tend to be possessive. They fall more quickly as a pair with one chute partially collapsed. They land hard but safely. The rest of the stick is strung out far above because my clerical paunch accelerates my rate of fall. The white fields are moving up to catch me, so feet together, body in a bow position and crunch, I’m flat on my back, being dragged by the wind which catches the canopy like a spinnaker while snow is scooped inside the parka and the canopy release is clogged with snow. Damn. Most undignified and very cold, to be sledding on my backside across a frozen field. One side finally released, the canopy collapses and I lie there hoping the snow in my underwear won’t start to melt. Made it. Men shouting to each other as they fieldpack their parachutes.

“How’d it go? Wasn’t that great! Let’s get another one in this afternoon!” I wonder. Would they really miss me if I went to see a shrink while they made their next jump? I hadn’t nearly enough courage to quit, of course, so after a few more practice jumps, I was off to Edmonchuck and the Airborne’s first year. I went, and eventually, 1200 others. In peace time, there was really no alternative.

In 1968, Tom Hassett was a Captain and the first Roman Catholic Chaplain assigned to the newly formed Airborne Regiment.

2 Responses to “The Jump Course”

  1. on 23 Jan 2010 at 8:49 pmwhitie

    Well done Tom I do remember those days to…..Whitie

  2. on 23 Oct 2011 at 1:58 pmLeonard

    Wow,my jump course was the same but a bit differently,pt was hard the runs in the morning we have a fresh Jump Master at different points, so they ran ran the piss out of us everyday,we had two women on are course,proud to say first 2 women through it,one made it the other did not get through the mock tower. She was tough and pretty but we treated her as one of us she did not not ask for nothing else. Remember the racks, that was torture. they would not let us put are seat harness down for the first week,and when you where tired and spent and your in the racks. Reach up and grab your left riser and your right riser”Hall it in”that,s what they,used to say.A coy1PPCLI we we all together,they had us in the dieing crab,any body wanna quit we we would always say yes,they never found us.

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