The harness shed is a large warehouse with rows of benches on which nervous airborne students wait to complete their five jumps. I looked across at the bench directly in front of me; another student shifted awkwardly as he attempted and failed to find a position of comfort with the 36-pound parachute on his back and 14-pound reserve on his front. Unable to touch any of our equipment, the 400 of us sat uncomfortably and waited, and waited some more. Some of us waited for three hours and others for eight, until it was our chalk's turn to go. Our nerves only mounted as the waiting continued.
This was jump week.
For two weeks, we had trained in the Georgia heat and humidity. We jumped out of the 34-foot tower and practiced our parachute landing falls. We jumped and fell, jumped and fell, until both of these actions were hardwired in our brains and became second nature. This is the Army way: repeat a training task until you're proficient and sick of doing it. By the end of the second week of training, we just wanted to jump out of a plane already.
When it was finally our turn to jump, my heart was pumping and my adrenaline was flowing. The engine roared as we walk out onto the runway; we were hit by a blast of hot air from the C-130's engine. We boarded the plane and squeezed into the tiny seats. The ramp closed and the plane took off. Then, the doors opened and the noise was deafening. The jumpmaster shouted commands. My body took over, going through the motions that I had practiced hundreds of times over the past two weeks.
"Thirty seconds!" The jumpmaster said.
I found myself smiling, appreciating the unique experience.
The first trooper stood in the door and stared out at Alabama and the drop zone that was fast approaching. I was fourth.
"Green light, go!"
I moved forward and handed my static line off. My mind went blank. I began to fall, automatically counting "3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000!"
I looked up and was relieved to see my parachute above me. My brain took over again, and I began to scan the horizon for any fellow jumpers coming too close.
When I hit the ground, the landing felt natural, as if I had done it 1,000 times before. I got out of the harness and secured my parachute. I threw the parachute bag on my back and double-timed off the drop zone, ready to do it all over again.
About the author
Karl Ehlert is a member of the Johns Hopkins University Class of 2019. He is a civil engineering major and a member of Army ROTC who completed the United States Army Basic Airborne Course in Fort Benning, Georgia.
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