Training (Airborne School, Door Gunner)

By Charles D. Stokes

An excerpt from Soldier’s Reverie: Vietnam, 2018 Xlibris

Charles D. Stokes is a decorated Special Forces Soldier who spent 7 years in Southeast Asia. He served on classified assignments in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. He is a graduate of the United States Institute for Military Assistance, Operations and Intelligence Course; US/Foreign Weapons Course; Static Line Jumpmaster Course; and Honor Graduate of the US Army Ranger School and graduate of the US State Department Laotian Language School.

Door Gunner had earlier attended Airborne School where he completed four of the five jumps needed to qualify as a paratrooper. On the fourth jump he sustained an injury that almost cost him his Army career. The weather had been marginal as the winds gusted over 15 miles per hour, the maximum limit for training parachute jumps. In anticipation that the winds would become more favorable, the jumpmasters had had the trainees chute up and wait. The assigned jumpmaster for each aircraft went through his checks for each of his 64 paratroopers.  The checks were tedious for reasons of safety.  He started with the helmet and worked his way to the trooper’s parachute, then on to the equipment strapped to his body. The jumpmaster searched for anything that might be fouled and could possibly cause a malfunction as the paratroopers loaded onto or exited the aircraft in flight.

Jumpmasters were fondly called “master blasters.” Many of the jumpmasters had made several hundred jumps and had over the 20 years of service that was required for retirement. The jumpmasters wore the hallowed silver parachutist badge topped with a star surrounded with a wreath that identified them as Master Parachutists. Some of these veterans had made combat jumps in both Korea and World War II.

After volunteering to be jumpmasters, the soldiers attended a three-week jumpmaster course where they were drilled in the science of inspecting every item of equipment that a paratrooper might have strapped to his body. Each jumpmaster was responsible for the safe ground loading on to the aircraft and the off-loading that usually occurred by jumping the paratroopers from the aircraft while it was in flight.

The jumpmasters received training on the several different models of US Air Force aircraft and Army helicopters from which the troopers would jump. The jumpmasters were drilled relentlessly on jump commands, communications with the pilots, emergency procedures, and drop zone identification until it became second nature.

Once the aircraft was aloft, the pilots flew a designated route to a drop zone. When the aircraft was within 10 minutes of the drop zone the pilots notified the jumpmasters through a headset. When the jumpmasters were notified they opened the doors and prepared for the jump. Grasping the inside frame of the aircraft door the jumpmaster leaned out of the aircraft and visually inspected the sides of the airplane. He also made visual recognition to identify the drop zone.

For hours the troopers sat on the airfield ramp beside the waiting C-130 aircraft. The troopers had been sitting with their parachutes, weapons, and 90 pounds of equipment strapped to their bodies when the jumpmaster shouted, “Saddle up!”

It was late in the afternoon when the winds died down. The all clear was given and shortly thereafter the aircrafts started their engines. Door Gunner and the other potential paratroopers, stiff from the hours of sitting, stood up and followed their stick leaders to board the aircraft. Most troopers referred to the C-130 as “the Big Herc.” The hulking C-130 was almost 100 feet long with a wingspan of 132 feet that rose to the towering height of a three-story building. The aircraft was designed as a combat transport with a rear-loading ramp allowing ground level access at the rear of the fuselage.

Four Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines powered the aircraft. Each of the engines generated 4,300 horsepower. The aircraft could haul 64 fully equipped paratroopers in its 41-foot cargo compartment and carry an additional 42,000 pounds of cargo. The Big Hercules had a crew of five:  two pilots, a navigator, flight engineer, and loadmaster. For this mission there were two Army master parachutists who would serve as jumpmasters once the paratroopers boarded the aircraft. Each trooper, waiting patiently, had strapped on his back a T-10 parachute and on his front upper torso he wore his load bearing harness called web gear. Attached to his load bearing equipment were two ammunition pouches with four M-16 magazines each, two water canteens, a gas mask, and a first aid kit.  Strapped to the front of the trooper’s body was an emergency parachute that attached to the main parachute harness. Also attached to the main harness were a forty pound rucksack and a weapons carrier bag that held his rifle. The rucksack and weapons bag were carefully attached so that at 250 feet above the ground the trooper could release both pieces of equipment by pulling a quick release lever. This allowed the rucksack to drop free and swing from the harness on a 15 foot rope called a lowering line, lessening the weight against his body. Then the paratrooper could safely execute a parachute landing fall on contact with the ground, lessening the chance of injury.

As Door Gunner waddled up the tail ramp moving as fast as his bulky equipment allowed, he felt an extra sense of excitement because this jump was his fourth and it was an equipment jump. Only one more jump and he would be airborne qualified. He followed the stick leader at the front of his line into the gaping aft end of the big C-130. Door Gunner’s side of the cargo bay filled with equipment laden troopers from front to rear. The forward movement of his stick stopped and Gunner seated himself on an inboard seat facing his fellow student troopers who sat opposite him with their backs against the outer skin of the aircraft. The troopers sat on nylon seats as the rest of the troopers boarded and sat down. The troopers loaded quickly and the tail ramp was closed by the crew chief. Then the pilots were given an “all clear” over the headset. Before long, the big turbo engines started their high pitched whine and the airplane started to roll.

All four of the Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines began to whine more loudly as they picked up speed. The aircraft slowly moved from the parking ramp onto the runway. Door Gunner could smell the aviation fumes from the exhaust and felt the gravitational forces push him sideways in his seat as the big C-130 moved faster and faster down the runway. As they became airborne, Door Gunner was only aware of the steady vibration and hum of the big engines as they cruised at 3,000 feet. After a 20 minute ride the crew chief spoke into his headset, looked at the two jumpmasters, and nodded. They moved in turn to each of the doors, turned the locking handle, and slid the doors smoothly upward. The cool fresh air rushed in much to the relief of Door Gunner who was beginning to feel sick from the smell of the engine fumes.

The senior jumpmaster went to the door on his side of the aircraft, grasped the inside door wells, and leaned out into the roaring wind. He was inspecting the sides and underbelly to ensure that there were no protuberances that would impede the troopers or the deployment of their parachutes. Door Gunner watched as the 180 knot per hour wind pushed the skin on the jumpmaster’s face back into a skeletal smile as he leaned out the door looking for something below. The jumpmaster, confirming that the aircraft was indeed intact, pulled himself back inside. He turned and moved to the center of the cargo bay and shouted, “Get ready!”

In unison 64 paratroopers stomped their combat boots on the floor sending a resounding “WROOMPH” throughout the aircraft. Door Gunner felt the adrenaline as he was instantly alert and moving without having to think as the jump commands started. The many hours of ground training, practicing how to perform parachute landing falls, how to don his parachute, and how to load and exit the aircraft were now automatic. The jumpmaster shouted, “Outboard personnel, stand up!”  On this command all troopers nearest the outside frame of the aircraft stood up and faced aft toward the open doors. Next, the jumpmaster shouted, “Inboard personnel, stand up!” Before the words were out of the jumpmaster’s mouth, Door Gunner was on his feet facing toward the open doors and the hollowing wind rushing by at 180 knots.  Finally the jumpmaster shouted, “Hook-up!” Each trooper grabbed the metal sliding “D” snap fastener at the end of his static line and snapped its open end onto the steel anchor cable overhead. The ½ inch steel cable ran from the bulkhead to the aft of the aircraft and served as the anchor that would pull the trooper’s parachute from his deployment bag on exit from the aircraft.

After pulling down on the fastener and hearing an audible click as the spring loaded release button popped into place, each trooper then inserted an aluminum safety wire through a small hole and bent it to eliminate any possibility of an accidental opening of the snap fastener. The jumpmaster in an all too familiar voice shouted, “Check static lines!” On this command, each trooper yanked down on his static line to make sure that it was secured to the anchor cable. Again, the jumpmaster yelled, “Check equipment!” Door Gunner and his cohorts methodically rechecked their equipment for the one-hundredth time. Starting with the helmet and its chinstrap, the troopers quickly checked all equipment to make sure that nothing was loose or unsecure. After checking the front of their own equipment, they checked the parachute on the back of the man in front of them searching for anything out of place that might cause a malfunction. Once the paratroopers started to exit the aircraft 1,200 feet above the ground it would be too late for corrections. The jumpmaster shouted the next command, “Sound off for equipment check!” On this command, the last trooper forward in the aircraft verified that all of his equipment was in place and that he was hooked up by shouting, “Okay!” and slapping the man in front of him on the shoulder. Door Gunner felt a deeper adrenaline rush as the man behind him slapped his shoulder and shouted, “Okay!” Door Gunner loudly repeated the command and the count rolled up the stick until the first man standing nearest the door shouted, “All okay!” to the jumpmaster.

The jumpmaster, holding on to the inside of the door superstructure, leaned out again into the howling wind and looked down as it tried to wrench him from his doorway perch. He looked forward and saw that the first flight of three Hercs had jumped their troopers and the sky was dotted with blossoming parachutes floating toward the ground. As the jumpmaster looked to his rear he saw the last flight of three aircrafts trailing behind. The jumpmaster knew that he had to jump his troopers quickly as there would be parachutes below and above his jumpers.

As the jumpmaster straightened up he looked at a set of lights mounted slightly above the door. The red light that was glowing brightly had gone out and a green light had switched on in its place. That was the cue from the pilots that the aircraft was over the drop zone. The jumpmaster, without hesitation, again moved to the center of the aircraft where he quickly looked left and right at the first two troopers. Once the troopers made eye contact the jumpmaster pointed downward toward the open door and shouted, “Stand in the door!” The lead paratrooper on each side of the aircraft stutter stepped by placing the foot closest to the skin of the aircraft in front and shuffled three distinctive steps before turning 90 degrees and standing in the door. The trooper slapped his palms flat on the outside of the aircraft. He had his feet slightly staggered as he stood there, crouched, staring straight ahead into the empty void of the howling wind. The C-130 had slowed to 120 knots at an altitude of 1200 feet and the jumpmaster shouted, “Go!” On that command the troopers in the doorways leapt into a jet stream of air that swept them away. In unison the remaining chain of 31 troopers on each side of the aircraft repeated the same steps as the first two troopers before leaping into the sky.

 In trained reflex Door Gunner shuffled to the door, turned 90 degrees, slapped the outside skin of the aircraft door with both hands, and pushed with his crouched legs to propel him out of the door and into the air stream that surrounded the C-130. His body was tucked into a tight position, legs and feet together, arms tucked into his sides, and hands spread with fingers tightly clutching the ends of his reserve parachute. Door Gunner had his head down with his chin tight against his chest and was slightly bent at the waist. He was determined not to be a “night jumper” as some of his friends were because they closed their eyes when they jumped. He watched the trooper’s parachute in front of him deploy and blossom into a beautiful oval. He was counting out loud, “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three.” As he started to say one thousand four, he felt a strong tug as his own canopy deployed. He had been taught that if his main parachute was not open by the count of one thousand five he was to deploy his reserve parachute. Feeling his canopy deploying he went back to the business at hand. Door Gunner looked up, checking that his canopy had fully deployed.  Quickly looking around he also saw the third aircraft was overhead discharging its cargo of paratroopers. Door Gunner paused, watching for a few seconds. A trooper exiting the aircraft directly overhead attracted his attention. Instead of holding a tight body position as trained, he exited with his legs spread apart and his arms flailing. The jet stream of air from the big turboprops caught his arms and legs and spun him like a top. As the parachute was pulled from its deployment bag and started to fill with air the spinning trooper caused the suspension lines that connected the parachute to the jumper’s harness to twist tightly.

Door Gunner watched as the spinning trooper’s canopy floundered. The canopy inflated, then deflated again, gulping air and trying to open. The panicked trooper was kicking his legs as he frantically tried to unwind his tangled suspension lines. Watching, Door Gunner felt a sick feeling rise in his stomach. He continued to watch as the trooper frantically pulled his reserve parachute. The reserve parachute was of a smaller diameter canopy, but was sufficient to safely lower a trooper to the ground. The reserve was strapped to the trooper’s midsection and held closed with steel pins attached to a “D” ring handle. The trooper pulled the “D” ring, grabbed the canopy, and threw it out in an attempt to let the canopy catch air so that it could inflate. Door Gunner had now lost sight of the trooper because he was directly above his canopy. Just as the stricken trooper’s reserve canopy started to inflate, he hit the top of Door Gunner’s canopy. Hitting Door Gunner’s canopy caused both the trooper’s main and reserve canopies to lose air and he slowly began to slide off Gunner’s fully inflated canopy.

As the terrified trooper slid off the side of Door Gunner’s parachute, he started screaming, “Catch me! Catch me!” The trooper desperately grabbed onto Door Gunner’s suspension lines trying to hold on as he slid. Door Gunner attempted to grab the trooper’s hand as he went by, but with the weight of his gear the trooper fell quickly leaving red streaks of blood as the nylon suspension line burned and cut into his hands.  In the next instant Door Gunner saw the deflated reserve canopy flutter by. In that instant Door Gunner threw out his arms and grabbed the canopy. Holding on to the distressed trooper’s parachute, Door Gunner felt his own canopy tilt perilously, spilling air. Door Gunner quickly looked at the ground and estimated that they only had another few hundred feet before they would touch the ground. But with Door Gunner’s canopy spilling air there was a good possibility that his canopy would fail similarly to the trooper’s he was attempting to save. With only seconds to make a decision Door Gunner quickly looked up and checked his canopy. He let loose of his grip on the falling trooper’s reserve chute. The trooper dangling below felt the sudden drop and acceleration. The trooper let out a scream as he fell toward the ground. Door Gunner’s chute immediately captured air again and re-inflated to its full size. A second later Door Gunner saw the suspension lines of the stricken trooper’s main parachute flash by. Door Gunner threw out his arms again just as the deflated main canopy came tumbling off the top of his chute. As it went by still trying to bellow air,

Door Gunner grabbed the parachute and felt a great tug that almost wrenched his arms from their sockets as he took on the weight of the falling trooper and his equipment. Door Gunner’s parachute tilted so far over to one side that it collapsed just as the stricken trooper hit the ground. Door Gunner let go of the dangling canopy and looked up. His canopy gulped air and blossomed as he hit the ground.

Door Gunner landed, felt his right leg twist, and heard an audible pop as it broke. The winds gusted and blew his canopy forward as he tried in vain to release himself from his harness as he was dragged across the drop zone. Reacting instinctively to his training that the black hats (all airborne instructors wore distinctive black hats) had drilled into all of them as trainees, Door Gunner reached up and tried to squeeze the compression quick release fasteners on the risers of his parachute. This action would release the canopy from the harness of the parachute, but the extra equipment he had strapped on prevented him from being able to reach it. Door Gunner’s second action came automatically. He reached to the center of his chest and found and turned his quick release to his main harness. He pulled the safety snap and hit it with the heel of his hand, threw up his arms, and the wind filled parachute dragged the harness from his body. Door Gunner spent the next eight weeks in the hospital recovering from his broken leg. The doctor profiled Door Gunner’s medical record to reflect that he was “disqualified for airborne training.” Disappointed, but determined to be airborne in some manner, Door Gunner volunteered to be sent to Vietnam with an aviation unit as a door gunner.

© 2019 Charles Stokes, All Rights Reserved

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