Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Falling...With Style

One of the greatest things I get to do is jump out of various aircraft. I absolutely love it! The moments leading up to actually stepping out into the open sky are tense and exciting. Then the green light comes on, the Jump Master says “Go!” and everyone shuffles toward the door and in an instant you are airborne! The next 6 or 7 seconds are somewhat violent as the wind races past you and your chute opens causing you to decelerate from 90 knots (103.7 MPH) to zero knots (0 MPH). Then just as quickly, searing pain and mental anxiety give way to peace and calm and the “slow” decent to terra firma begins. The rate of descent is a bit deceiving at 1000 feet above ground level. You think you’re just kind of hanging motionlessly under your canopy, while in reality you are dropping at about 17 feet per second. It’s not the speed of sound, but it’s moving pretty fast. So you begin looking for a nice soft place to land and attempt to “steer” toward that spot. After “floating” earthward for a few moments the ground begins to appear to accelerate toward you. “Don’t look down! Don’t look down!” you repeat to yourself. Suddenly, you hit the ground with the violence of Hurricane Vito Corleone, you roll, release your canopy to avoid being dragged by the wind over your nice soft landing site, and it’s essentially over. That’s how it’s supposed to go.

Early in my Army career one of my Executive Officers told me, "Training is everything, and everything is training." Today I did some real training. I trained in the fine art of what can go wrong and the roll I play in the demise of the perfect jump.

Everything mentioned above went as it should, right up to the point where I steer toward a nice soft landing spot. The wind had other ideas. The location of our jump today was a small “mom and pop” airport in rural Georgia. The runway is surrounded by nice soft, just harvested peanut fields and we all wanted to land in that soft dirt. And we all did. Except me! The universe conspired to move me to the place where I would be most likely to get hurt. So as I descended and attempted to hit the dirt, I simply drifted toward the concrete landing strip and kept saying to myself, “This is gonna hurt!” And guess what? It did! It hurt a lot! I hit the edge of the concrete strip drifting backwards and instead of doing a proper parachute landing fall (or PLF) I hit my feet, my fanny, and my head.

Recently, the Army began issuing a new kind of ballistic helmet. It’s known as the ACH – Advanced Combat Helmet. But most guys call it the Mitch Helmet (I have no idea why or even who Mitch is). One of the nice things about the ACH versus the old style helmet is that it has very soft gel filled pads that can be moved inside the helmet to make it fit better and remain more comfortable while maintaining maximum protection for the wearer. Unless I’m the wearer. See, those nice gel filled pads need to be positioned properly. I neglected to do this. As a result, when I landed and smacked my head on the runway with approximately one million PSI my head received only partial protection. The not so partial part was that one of the pads (being improperly placed by me) did not cover one of four large bolts that connect the chin strap to the helmet. The bolt in question is about 1-2 inches behind and a little above my right ear. So when I hit, that lovely bolt sank into my head instead of the pad I should have covered it with and cut me like a pig being slaughtered.

The next few moments were kind of confusing as my noggin had been rattled quite severely. I remember warm blood running down my face and dripping all over the ground. I also remember releasing one side of my canopy but not the other (which I did). And I remember removing my helmet and grabbing my head only to find my hand baptized in my own blood. What I don’t clearly remember is being dragged across the runway by my chute (although the huge “raspberry” on my shoulder indicates that I was). Everything else is kind of in a haze.

So the afternoon went something like this…Take off, jump, enjoy the scenery, notice runway approaching fast, smack said runway with improperly set up helmet, bleed, bleed, and bleed some more, try to remember who I was and where I was, attempt silly things thinking they were the right thing to do (onlookers clued me in later) and then discover I was in an ambulance enroute to the hospital.

It bears mention that once at the hospital my doctor / torturer for the day scrubbed my wound with hydrogen peroxide and what felt like a large wire brush, then proceeded to give me 4 staples without using any anesthetic…at all. And just for grins, removing one of the four because it wasn’t in the right place after all.

I can’t wait to jump next month!