February 26, 2019
On Jumping Out Of Parachutes

February 26 usually comes and goes every year, and I never think about parachuting. But this year was different. You see, my son Ted recently and inadvertently reminded me of that eventful date of my first parachute jump so long ago. Though Ted is still in his 40s, he thinks he’s getting old and is already doing things on what I call is his bucket list. He started by going on a diet and has had great results. Then he bought a motorcycle. And sometime, probably not too far down the road, he wants to make a parachute jump. So, I’m writing this letter to him about my long ago jump experience, just to sooth any anxiety he might encounter (which is just natural). And I'm sharing the letter with you, should you ever have any notion about adding parachuting to your own bucket list.

*****

Dear Ted,

February 26, 1959—60 years ago today—was a cold winter day in New Jersey. I was an 18-year old kid going through the Navy’s Parachute Rigger’s school at Naval Air Station Lakehurst (made famous by the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, and still an airship base). February 26 is significant because it was the day my class made our graduation jump.

The Hindenburg Disaster in 1937 at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board, there were 35 fatalities. One worker on the ground was also killed, raising the death toll to 36. I stood in silence by myself, way out on the distant tarmac, at the very spot where the Hindenburg exploded in flames and crashed. What a solemn, awesome feeling came over me
(U.S. Navy photo by Gus Pasquarella)
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It was called a graduation jump because jumping with parachutes we packed ourselves was the final qualification to become a certified Navy Parachute Rigger.

Jumping with self-packed ’chutes was also a way to automatically eliminate any student who screwed up packing his. That was scuttlebutt—a joke—but none of us laughed. Actually, as of that time at NAS Lakehurse, no student had died from jumping with a wrongly-packed ’chute. However, two students did die when their ’chutes never opened: one of a heart attack, the other by suicide.

All of us took “Lest You Forget” seriously:

The night before our jump, my class met with our instructors for final briefing. We were to make free-fall jumps, unlike Army paratroopers whose ’chutes were automatically opened by long static lines hooked inside the plane and attached to yank open the lock pins of the parachute case to release the ’chute. Nope, none of that. We jumped solo and free-fall.

So, we would jump then pull the metal D-ring attached to a cable with locking pins that, when pulled out of their steel cones, released spring-loaded bungies that opened the flaps of the parachute container to release the small spring-loaded pilot ’chute that, in turn, pulled out the canopy which would quickly fill with air. Whew!

This is a shot of a reserve ’chute that was attached to web harness over the chest. It was to be used in the event the main back ’chute failed to deploy.

Well, back to our final briefing. An instructor reminded us of something that had been haunting us: A jumper the day before pulled his D-ring prematurely and his ’chute got snagged for a moment on the plane’s tail. The guy landed okay, but with a broken back. So, the instructor told us what we had already been telling ourselves over and over: “Jump with a tight grasp on your D-ring, then start counting slowly: one-a-thousand, two-a-thousand, three-a-thousand, then sharply pull your D-ring.”

The three-second count not only would see us clear of the airplane’s tail, it would also space us apart so we would meet in mid-air get tangled. You see, we jumped six at a time, belly to back, a lead instructor followed by four students, and the last jumper, another instructor. The heaviest were at the front because they would free-fall faster than us lighter guys.

Made a lot of sense to me.

My Jump Class in dress uniforms.
I am pictured in the second row, second from the right.
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My Jump Class in jump gear, just before our jump.
I am pictured in the back row, third from the right.
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The morning of February 26, 1959, our class of 5 Marines and 15 Sailors put on our jump suits, which consisted of well-worn civilian sweats and old football helmets. Then we strapped on our back ’chutes and our reserve ’chutes, marched out to our waiting plane—an aging WWII Gooney Bird (Navy R4D version of the twin-engine Douglass C-47 Skytrain)

We boarded and within minutes were at 3,000 feet over the jump zone. My pod of six jumpers shuffled over to the open doorway (I was 5th in line). In moments we heard: “Go, go, go!” and out the door we dived. I started to rotate and caught a glimpse of the underside of the plane as it flew away.

Now, I had to make sure I wouldn’t wrap myself around the tail,so I very slowly counted, “one-a-thousand...two-a-thousand...three-a-thousand...PULL!” Then whoomp! The canopy opened with a jolt. I looked up and saw the fully billowing canopy. Thank God!

I looked around for the other five guys who jumped with me. Where were they! Then I heard some voices—coming from above me. I had been the last to pull my D-ring and flew past the others. No problem. I looked around, taking in as much as I could. I had no sensation of descending.


Pilot ’chutes deploying canopies.
(U.S. Navy photo)
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I heard a voice and looked up just in time to see the Marine, who had jumped ahead of me, land on my canopy. “Get the hell off my canopy,” I yelled.” And he did. His canopy remained blossomed with air. As if in slow motion,he slowly loped over to the edge of my canopy and stepped off. He swing away, then swung back and slipped through my shroud lines. He was like a bird in a cage. Still, his canopy stayed filled with air. He slipped down my shroud lines and stood on my head and shoulders. I don't know how he managed, but he miraculously got untangled and slowly descended past me.

I watched the Marine make a safe landing. But now, the ground was fast coming up at me, and I was slowly swinging, back and forth like a pendulum. We never covered this in class, I remember telling myself. I swung forward, then started backward, then hit the ground—hard, flat on my back.

Remember that instructor who told us to make a slow count to three before pulling the D-ring? Well, he also said that “maybe once in a thousand jumps, two jumpers might get tangled up.” I’ve been wary of probability stats ever since.



Right after my jump. My back was killing me.
(U.S. Navy photo.)

Later, at the Navy hospital, the doctor was studying my Xrays. “Looks like you broke your back before,” he said. “How’d that happen?" What was he talking about: “Before? When...where...?” And then it hit me: The trampoline...two years ago, gymnastics in high school. I was attempting a twisting somersault, got disoriented and made a head-first landing that caused my back to bend—the wrong way. I have never felt such pain before or since! I never knew I had broken my back. Neither did my Dad. Nor the Chiropractor he sent me to. It was pure torture. No Xrays were taken.

No more parachuting for me.

Even so, after the Navy, I was a diver on Denver University’s Conference Championship swim team for four years. A few times my back really bothered me and I had to stay off the boards for a while. One of those times was when I dived at the NCAA Nationals at Yale. It was my worse performance ever.

But back to parachuting.

Way back in the 1960s, when I was Walt Disney's public relations manager for WED Imagineering, one of the young women there, who I was dating, asked me, “What was it like to jump out of a parachute?” Huh? I thought about that for a moment, then answered, “Well, I can tell you this about jumping out of a parachute: The fall would not hurt, but, boy, that sudden stop at the end....” She gave me a quizzical look. I don't remember dating her ever again.

I graduated from Parachute Rigger's school and soon was wearing my Third Class Petty Officer insignia.

 

Well, Ted, I’ll close with this: I thiink it's okay for you to make your parachute jump (even at your advanced age), but remember not to jump from your parachute :)

Love,
Your Dad






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