Thursday, April 19, 2012

Breaking the landing gear

Regardless of the aircraft, there is some training required. To minimize losses and decrease training time there are a number of techniques employed for the student pilots. First, there's the physical. While I'm not sure how much fun it is for women, for men there are parts of it that are less than enjoyable. My experiences seriously predate both Don't ask don't tell and it's repeal. As I'm out of crayons, I'm not going to draw you a picture. If you know a Sky God (even if they're one of those types that just has to have a motor to hang on to) ask him to explain. Actually, either of my sky brethren or sistren could explain it for you. But I digress. . .

So, physical in hand, you apply. This means going bowl in hand to a number of folks, begging for a slot. If you're on a HALO team, it's a much easier process. You just have to try to get one before the other battalion's HALO team is getting one. When you're already on a HALO team, yours is a fate determined less by if than when you'll go. If you're not on a HALO team, then you should become a serious student of Machiavelli to improve your chances at getting one of these highly coveted slots. If you are stationed at Ft Bragg, where HALO school is held, making nice to one of the instructors is a time honored, though not honorable, way of getting into the school.

The school can process only so many folks a year, each SF Group has three HALO teams (one per battalion, twelve members per team), the Ranger Battalions need some HALO folks, the 82nd Airborne Division needs some, various and sundry other units need some. The need and demand (desire too) outweighs the supply.

And being HALO qualified is cool, so there's that.

These slots require money to pay for food, lodging, transportation costs, etc. So there's an associated monetary component to it as well. Did I mention that being HALO qualified is cool? Unlike Ranger school, there's no suffering, privation, or field duty. Actually, compared to most of the schools that you can go to in Special Forces or Special Operations in general, HALO school is a gentleman's course. It's got its privations and things that are difficult, lots of hard work, bad conditions, early wake ups, late nights, hanging out on a hot DZ without any shade, but for a SpecOps school, it's considered Club Med. Plus you get to jump a lot. Skydiving Military Free Fall (MFF) jumping, which is the fun kind. Mostly.

Did I mention that being HALO is cool? Ah, well, okay then.

So, you show up and the fun begins. That is, they first try to disqualify as many as they can, while their friends fellow SF soldiers standby just in case there's an opening. We would not want a valuable HALO slot to go to waste, for that would be an insult to the American Tax payer that is funding all this. 20+ years and you might have noticed my distaste for the process whereby they tried to get their buddies in that first day at our expense is largely undiminished.

So, they screen records during which I learn that I've previously broken my left leg.

Really? Do tell.

Apparently so, from what the chancre mechanics tell me. But, long ago, in a land far, far away, it was broken and was not just a badly sprained ankle. Who knew?

Training finally begins for us few, us lucky, lucky few. Equipment, theory of falling, theory of canopy deployment and why being fat, dumb and stable is a good thing ( more properly as flat, relaxed, and stable). Why doing your best impression of something hurtling towards the ground like a Cirque du Soleil tumbler is not the best way pass the course or live a long life. Yeah, that's me, Mister Narrowminded, it's an acquired skill. Still, falling face to earth in a stable position allows you to see where you are, check your altitude, and perform a number of other tasks. It takes some work at first for most. Being too stiff will make you wobble a bit like a falling potato chip, typical of novice jumpers. Eventually you learn to relax a bit and it gets easier to stay stable. From this position your parachute will safely and reliably open with a stable flow of air flowing over you, helping to ensure that your parachute (which I keep referring to as the canopy) will come out, unfold, inflate, and finally deploy over your head with all of the material and suspension lines in their proper positions and alignment.

Sometimes, you're too stable and the air flowing around your body forms a quiet spot against your back, which is where the parachute sits and deploys from. Despite the fact that in military free fall parachutes there is a large, spring loaded, pilot chute to get out and grab some air to start pulling the canopy out, sometimes that quiet spot of air mitigates against that process. For times like this they teach you to look over one shoulder to see if anything is happening back there, said process tipping you a bit and providing for some air to slide across your back, catch that pilot chute and the main canopy, and start the entire deployment process. That being getting that bundle of air catching material off of your back, into the air, and slowing your descent.

This is known as a Good Thing.

The parachute unfolds, the suspension lines come out,  and you can look up and watch it happening above you, the final step being that the slider (a square piece of material that slows the opening of the canopy, making the opening more gentle) slides down the risers and stops above your head. Grab the two loops of material that are your brake lines and pull them down out of their stowage pockets, then test the brakes on this beast by pulling them both down to around your waist. Here you're looking to see where the stall point is when pulling them down. This gives you a feel for how the 'chute is handling and what the air conditions are like.

More on stalling later.

Look around and see where the others are in relation to you (hopefully you're not rushing headlong towards one), and how much altitude you have remaining.

And there you are, hanging under a ram air canopy, so called because the air flowing through it (ramming through it) inflates it into a wing shape.

*Training Highlight: The animation on the right side of the page at the link is an example of how the emergency parachute release system works. It consists of three, interlocking rings, that ripple out of their lock, allowing the canopy to detach. For obvious reasons, it is affectionately referred to as a three ring circus. So now you know.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, you fly this sort of parachute to a landing. This parachute is maneuverable. The round types? Not so much.  This parachute can also allow you to land very softly.


This is not a given, however.

During the school you learn a number of things that prepare you to employ this sort of activity as a means of tactical insertion. You learn to exit properly, to fly on heading and grouped with your teammates, to open safely, to fly the canopy, to fly the pattern into the drop zone, and to land safely. All of these are perishable skills that must be acquired and thereafter practiced. Said practicing is fun, a fact not lost on commanders and others who do not believe that fun should be a part of training. This fact keeps them up at all hours of the night gnashing their teeth and distraught over how to eliminate said fun.

And we're under canopy, flying with our friends to where we enter the approach pattern. Enter on the down wind leg, you're flying with the wind at your back. Then to the base leg, turning so that you fly with the wind to one side, and finally, on to final.

The final approach is into the wind. At about 200 to 300 feet above ground you release the brakes (raise your hands above your head) and let the parachute run full bore (those of you who just can't do this without hardware, like wings, engine, systems, etc can go to sleep now) though I will say that doing this sans enclosing systems does get your attention. Nothing like doing 20 or 30 mph knowing that the only thing between you and the ground is your boots and fatigues.

Keep that thought in mind, we'll get back to it in a bit.

We're screaming along at full bore (I'm not going to dignify this speed as "full grunt", it just ain't) headed toward our rendezvous with the earth. The checklist is pretty simple, lower the rucksack that you've had hanging from your toes by letting it slide off. The landing gear for this contraption is already down and "locked" as it were. The only thing left to do is flare and land.

Yeah, that's it. Nothing to it.

Flying is a funny thing, that air that supports you has a mind of it's own, and I don't just mean winds  and stuff. I mean that temperature and humidity play a part in making it thicker or thinner. Much more and much less so, respectively. Enough of a difference so that there is a learning curve where the price is paid in bone and sinew. Like getting your first job, you can't get the experience to keep from getting hurt without jumping first, you can't keep from getting hurt jumping without getting experience first. The first few jumps they tell you to land at half-brake and do a typical parachute landing fall. But, to do a standup landing, you have to learn to flare at the right altitude.

That thickness stuff? Means a lot when you're a big guy, like me. 6'4" at the time, 185 plus equipment, boots, etc. Flaring is hitting the brakes on the 'chute so that it stops going forward. It pretty much stops going downward too at the sweet spot too, for a brief period of time.

Very brief.

You normally flare at about 10 to 15 feet above the ground (20 to 30 feet with combat equipment). This puts the perfect flare/stall point at the ground or just (6 inches) above it. Then you pull one toggle all the way down and the canopy comes down.


If you flare too high, you're suddenly stopped above the ground. That brief period of time is very brief. At this point, you are stalled above the ground. If you rock just your wrists, just a little, you can sink the canopy, a slow descent to the ground and get a soft landing. Rock your wrists too far or pull down with your forearm (too far) and the canopy will rocket backwards toward the ground, a race that you will lose.

This is a Bad Thing.

You then do a very credible imitation of Wiley E. Coyote where the canopy is on the ground behind you while you plummet to the ground in hot pursuit. People have broken their backs doing this, or legs, or just had a really hard landing. Mostly people break things when this happens. This sort of thing can happen when a gust of wind puffs while you're trying to land. Or you seriously misjudge where to flare.

Like when you're a student.

If you flare too low, you run into the ground carrying some speed. The lower you flared, the more speed you carry, the harder you hit. This can happen because the wind that was in your face suddenly dropped off just as you flared to land, robbing you of a necessary amount of lift at a critical moment. Or,  because you misjudged your altitude or the air density caused by the current temperature and humidity. This can happen if you seriously misjudged your flare.

Like when you're a student.

Remember that part about the only thing between you and the ground being your boots and fatigues? That your landing gear is an integral part of you?


About that.

When you flare low and hit hard, there really aren't any shocks, especially if you hit hard enough that you'd bottom out the shocks if you had any. Let alone a system that has none.

My fifth jump in HALO school was like that. I'm a big guy and despite my fourth jump (the first one where I was to perform a flared, or standing, landing) being successful, alas, 'twas not to be this time. It was hot out that day, I flared low, too low, and it hurt when I hit.

Really hurt.

Limping hurt.

Ah shit hurt.

The class leader was a reservist who worked in an emergency room as his day job. He looked at it that evening and gave me the bad news, broken. But, not completely broken. Without an x-ray, his guess was a stress fracture. My options were:

1. Keep jumping until I had enough jumps to graduate.  Suck it up in the meantime. This was number 5, there were 40 scheduled.
2. Keep jumping on it until it broke in which case they'd carry me off the drop zone, I'd be dropped but come back when it healed. 
3. Go on sick call and be dropped from the class and come back when I healed. About a year most likely. Hopefully.

Remember the part at the top of this post where I alluded to how hard it was to get a slot to this school?

Yeah, there's that.

Also, there's the whole part about where us SF guys hate to fail. Not a little bit, a lotta bit.

If you're guessing I picked what was behind Door Number One, you are correct. Every night I packed my leg in ice and stayed off of it. My buds picked up chow for me and brought it back to my room. I watched a lot of TV and got more sleep during that course than I should have, which in hindsight,  was probably a good thing. Mostly because of the money I saved not doing nightly debriefs over glasses of adult beverages in various venues with my buddies.

So, I avoided limping around in front of the instructors and kept jumping. Finally, after our night, oxygen, combat equipment jump, jump number 32, I had enough jumps of the prescribed varieties and quantities to successfully complete the course.

The following morning, after first verifying that I indeed had enough jumps to pass the course,  I presented myself to the HALO committee as having a broken leg. They verified that I was okay to graduate and they inquired as to how I broke it last night.

m.e. - Last night, says I? No, not last night.

HALO God - Then when? with a perplexed look.

m.e. - Ummmm, the fifth jump, says I, somewhat sheepishly.

HALO God - Is that so? says hizzoner. Well, no blood, no foul.

HALO God - Go on sick call and don't do it again.

On sick call, they examine me, x-ray me then send me to a consultation room to await the verdict.

Now, this is the Troop Medical Clinic where the SF guys from all the SF schools there at Ft. Bragg go for medical treatment, so I'm expecting it to be No Big Thing. They see guys like me for a living, they're used to the idiosyncrasies of guys like me. N'est pas?

The Doc comes in, puts the x-ray up on the viewing thingy and comments as to how while it is indeed broken, it appears to have been broken for awhile now and do I remember when it happened?

m.e. - Yes sir, I do. Do you have a calendar by any chance?

Perplexed look.

Doc - Yes, let me go get one.

Returns with calendar. I flip calendar pages back one page to the previous month.

m.e. - There, that's the day I broke it.

Insert "are you effing stupid/crazy?!?!" look here on doctor's face.

I did the explanation of getting into HALO school thing for the Doc and pointed out that I had accomplished my mission. I had successfully completed HALO school.

He was ungracious enough to point out that I would not be jumping for awhile.

Did I mention that being HALO is cool?

marcus erroneous


  1. Hey, but at least you have the shiny to put on your uniform (or the shadowbox) to show the grandkids how cool you were back in the day, right?

    1. Aye, there's that. Funny you should mention shadowbox. Not a big Army tradition and though I had been thinking about building one, hadn't gotten around to it. Enter Number One Son and CinC Home colluding. She took a photo of my uniform hanging in my closet and sent him a copy of my DD214. For Christmas I received the shadowbox from my son. HALO wings one in a descending row of wings, but my Master Parachutist wings are the ones on top.
      Cool? I remind the kids that I've lost more cool than they've yet to get! :D

      Thank you sir!