“Get out!” jumpmaster Ronny Alley shouted at me as I sat crunched down in the so-called hot-seat of a packed Cessna 182 single-engine aircraft now throttling back to about 85 miles-per-hour some 3,500 feet above the surface of the earth.
At least I think that’s what Alley said.
It’s hard to remember his exact words, just my immediate, instinctive exit out of the plane; my feet fighting the wind as they made their way onto the landing-gear cover, my hands grasping the diagonal wing strut.
This was not the first time I had jumped out of an airplane (nor my first time in the hot-seat – first man out the door, this time at my request): I had skydived in the late 1970’s as a civilian – that too was in a Cessna – then military jumps in the 1980’s, leaping out of everything from C-123 and C-130 cargo props to a C-141 transport jet.
But this jump, Saturday, June 19, was different, and frankly a bit more unnerving on the front-end of the jump than any other.
In this jump, I was not only climbing out of the aircraft, but pulling myself far enough up on the strut – away from the fuselage right where the strut connects to the wing – that my feet had to leave the wheel cover.
In other words, I was hanging onto the airplane with my bare hands while my legs where flying behind me: I know it sounds almost like a stuntman move (harkening back to the days of barnstorming and flying circuses), but it was a jump-technique I learned that we would be required to make – with some nervous amusement – about an hour before take-off.
Increasing this sensory overload was the fact that Alley – a former U.S. Army Special Forces operator and current contract-soldier with at least 5,000 military and sport jumps under his belt and literally more bullet holes in his body than one might count on two hands – expected me to now look back into the aircraft where he would either give me a green light to let go of the strut, or a red light to try and make my way back into the plane if he saw something wrong with my rig.
Alley was shouting something.
But between the low-throttling engine and the rush of wind, I had no idea what he was saying, but I saw he was smiling, so I figured it was a green light.
I released my grip, simultaneously arching my body into a perfect freefall position, and plummeted to the earth, shooting past and below the aircraft for what seemed like two to three seconds before the static line began pulling the chute out of the rig.
Within seconds, there was a jerk, and then the familiar flutter of fabric overhead; this time a rectangular ram-air parachute – as opposed to the old round T-10 and MC1-1 Bravo canopies from my past life as a military parachutist.
A quick thanks to God for a good exit from the plane and a perfect canopy above me as I reached for my toggle (steering) lines, pulled them down to my knees, then back above my head, followed by a series of left and right turns to check maneuverability. Then a ground control operator began communicating maneuvering-instructions to me through a radio strapped to my chest next to my altimeter.
The first thing I noticed was how fast this system was; it was far faster in terms of forward speed and more maneuverable than any rig I had ever jumped.
In about three minutes or so – it’s hard to gauge time in that adrenaline-induced environment – I was para-flying into a huge grassy field between two runways at Anderson Regional Airport in Anderson, S.C. near the Georgia border.
Accuracy with this rig was amazing, but I came in a bit too fast, and I didn’t flair the canopy enough prior to impact to keep from landing in a cloud of dust – “crashing and burning” as we used to call it. But for a 51-year-old former U.S. Marine rifleman and an Army trained parachutist, I felt any jump you can walk away from without injury is a successful jump. And my landing on this day – though hot – was hardly a “crash and burn.”
Moments after landing, Maj. Gen. Khambang Sibounheuang, a former Laotian Army commando officer wearing the green beret and emblem of a French Foreign Legionnaire, hustled out to where I was gathering up my canopy, removed the Laotian parachute wings from his own chest and pinned them on me. It was an unexpected honor – even more appreciated since I’ve begun reading his book, “WHITE DRAGON TWO: A Royal Laotian Army Commando’s Escape from Laos” – then he helped me gather my gear for the victory walk back to the hangar.
The Kingdom of Laos – which is where we get “Royal Laotian” – fell to the Pathet Lao communists in 1975. But the free Royal Laotian Diaspora continues to exist worldwide, and the Royal Laotian Airborne continues through the grace of Crown Prince Soulivong Savang and Gen. Khambang, who serves as president of the Royal Laotian Airborne Association in the U.S.
Royal Laotian Airborne wings are among the many foreign jump wings earned and worn by U.S. military forces and state defense forces.
“A rare honor [the General’s pinning his wings on another],” says Col. Amos Hykes, director of training for the S.C. State Guard and a member of the newly formed elite U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team (USCTAT). “I’ve known Gen. KB [Khambang] for over 10 years, and he’ll do anything for you, but that’s the first time I’ve seen him do that.”
The jump itself and the wing-pinning were part of my earning the wings of a Royal Laotian Army parachutist, a unique program that includes fast-track training by some of the most experienced skydivers in the world, followed by five qualifying jumps, and it’s all done either in the U.S. or Canada.
Though I had to go through ground training, I was only required to make one jump – instead of five – because I’m already Airborne qualified. But I plan to make additional jumps (a likelihood I don’t discuss around Mom), because this program reminded me of just how much I’m still wired for jumping.
With everyone safely back on the ground, Alley – the former SF operator – told me both my exit and chute handling were very good. I said to him that I believed the hanging from the strut made the “Laotian” jump a bit “scarier” than my “U.S. Airborne” jumps where paratroopers simply jump out the door.
He thought about it, then said he was glad he attended Army jump school before beginning sport jumping. “That way, the 1,200 and below [extremely low] altitudes we jumped in Airborne school never seemed as scary to me as they might after sport jumping.”
In other words, sport jumps – and, yes, Laotian Airborne jumps – are made at altitudes high enough to afford the parachutist time to cut away from a malfunctioning canopy and deploy his reserve parachute if necessary. Whereas, most U.S. military jumps – the exception being high altitude, low opening (HALO) or high altitude, high opening (HAHO) jumps – are made low enough to keep the paratrooper exposed to enemy fire for as little time as possible, but probably not high enough for the jumper to remedy a major parachute malfunction.
Earning Royal Laotian Airborne wings is special indeed, and it makes the summer of 2010 a summer to remember. But when I consider my buddies like Col. Hykes and Lt. Col. Tom Mullikin serving with me on the USCTAT and the summer they too are enjoying – Laotian Airborne training like me, but also traveling to Europe and jumping with Belgians and Germans, as well as ice diving and bear hunting in Alaska – I realize I simply can’t compete.