Flights of passage

Flights of passage


Staff Writer

Army parachute rigger students are required to complete five jumps in airborne school prior to enrollment in Fort Lee’s rigger course.

But ask any rigger student to put those five jumps up against their first student jump in the rigger course. They’ll tell you that the rigger jump is the most important jump they’ll ever make because for the first time, they’re directly responsible for the jump’s success — or failure.

“It’s a wonderful feeling because you get to jump in the parachute that you pack,” said Pfc. Channing Bartley, assigned to Company C, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion. “You wake up in the morning wanting to do it.”

Bartley and 60 or so of his fellow rigger students awoke the morning of Sept. 7, some with a measure of uneasiness, but most with anticipation, of their first and second jumps as riggers at the McLaney Drop Zone. Those jumps serve as a rite of passage for each Soldier-rigger, validating his or her skill at the craft of packing parachutes.

“It’s significant in the fact that the students build confidence in the equipment they’re rigging,” said Staff Sgt. Kenneth Baricuatro, rigger instructor. “In airborne school they are jumping someone else’s equipment. At Fort Lee, they are getting hands on (experience) with the equipment they’re actually packing.”

The day at McLaney began with a thick layer of fog that blanketed the weedy, dew-soaked fields. The students and instructors were discouraged by the sight, because when visibility is poor, the jump is sure to be postponed for safety reasons. Students, who were juiced with adrenaline in anticipation of the jump, were suddenly sunk by the dreary weather.

“It kind of gets you a little irritated,” said Pvt. Chelsea Raduziner of C Co., “but once it (the helicopter) shows up…it pumps you right back up in two seconds.”

The fog soon burned off, the jump pushed back 90 minutes and the students readied themselves, falling into their flight orders and checking each other’s equipment. When the sound of rotary blades could be faintly heard in the distance, the students assumed a posture of seriousness.

“Being their sixth jump, most of them are scared,” said Master Sgt. Kenneth Hamm, Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department instructor. “If they aren’t, they wouldn’t be normal.”

Being “scared” added Hamm doesn’t mean being paralyzed with fear.

“Once the first one jumps, they’ll all do it and meet the challenge because they are airborne Soldiers,” he said.

Eight-five airborne Soldiers in all — mostly students, but some instructors and others — filed on the CH-47 Chinook helicopter for several flights over McLaney at about 1,300 feet. This particular airborne operation was a tailgate jump, one in which the jumpers exit the aircraft via the large door opening from the rear, rather than the small door exit on the side of the aircraft. The students definitely prefer the tailgate jumps.

“This is the best jump I had,” said Bartley, after the jump, “because when you jump tailgate, you get the best exit….”

Like most of his fellow students, Bartley said he felt the rush of adrenaline just before and during the jump with an underlying feeling of fear.

“I was scared out of my mind,” he said. “If you don’t get scared or at least nervous before you jump, something’s wrong with you. It’s just human nature not to know what’s about to take place, but once you gain control of the situation, once that chute kicks in and everything is all right, you get that feeling that you know what you’re doing.”

The mood after the jump was more relaxed than before the operation. The fact that all students were able to jump and that there were no injuries all contributed to the ambiance.

“Aside from the delay, everything went smoothly,” said Hamm. “It was a successful jump.”

Most of the students who jumped Sept. 7 still have several weeks of schooling that remain. It will include a “Heavy Drop” in which they will pack cargo or equipment for the jump and subsequently jump behind it. The remaining students have about two weeks until graduation. Upon graduation, they will be awarded the red distinctive baseball-style caps that symbolize the career field and that represent the trust others have in their competence.

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