It’s really fast, that fast-fear fandango. More like a run than a dance. And the first step, yeah, it’s that first step they say is the real bitch.
Phillips and Rubin had traveled two hours to Clark Air Base from Subic. There, they hooked up with the civilian parachute school that was teaching active duty sailors a weekend sky diving course.
Both had jumped static line before, being with the Navy’s Special Warfare Group. They had taken the course at Fort Benning, on the east coast; three weeks of training where they: ran, practiced on the jump towers while learning how to beat their boots and finally were pushed out of a B-24, a medium sized cargo plane. They were lined up, back to belly, and when the ready light turned green an instructor started pushing from the rear of the line as one in front yelled, “Go.“ One by one they jumped or were pushed out the open door. They were told to jump hard out the door. If someone didn’t give his jump into the wind sufficient energy, you could hear his body banging against the outside of the plane. The instructors really didn’t like jumpers denting their planes.
But now they were taking a course to learn the art of flying through the air, hitting speeds of one hundred twenty miles in a stable spread-eagle posture or one hundred eighty to two hundred miles per hour in a head-first dive straight towards the earth.
It was the adrenaline rush that did it for them. Standing just inside the aircraft, with the wind rushing by at over a hundred miles an hour or falling through the air with the wind whistling inside their helmet, it could make the toughest guy break a grin.
The course at Clark was held in a classic green military bungalow. It had two long tables well suited for folding and packing parachutes. They made you pack your own, that way no one could blame someone else if it didn’t open. It made most of the students real careful tucking that canopy into the pack, no one really wanted to burn in, that wasn’t even thought about; although it was a distinct possibility.
The jump class started at noon on Saturday, it consisted of four hours of didactic instruction. Later, they went outside where they practiced their parachute landing foot commonly known as the PLF. It was important to keep your two feet together as you hit the ground. They learned their legs support each other when impacting the ground, otherwise one might break; not a good thing.
They learned how to roll on their side and then the back after hitting the ground. Don’t want to plant one of those shoulders in the ground. Too easy to break or dislocate it. That really would take the fun out of jumping.
On the ground they practiced flying with their hands and feet stretched out equally in front and behind them. Balance was important. If the body didn’t fall in a symmetrical pattern, spin would come into play which could be dangerous.
They practiced pulling their ripcord, flying stable and symmetrical reaching in quickly with the right hand, grabbing the handle and pulling, being reminded to hold onto that aluminum handle, unless they wanted to pay for it. Not to mention it could fall from twenty five hundred feet and hit someone on the head. Not a pretty thought.
The next morning dawned bright. The boys were up early. They had breakfast and headed over to the jump club’s classroom. They practiced their freefall position, they did some PLFs. They rolled on their backs after hitting the ground, legs together as they were taught by the instructor.
They were ready, excited to get into the air. Freefall! Their muscles tensed with the thought, saliva ran soothingly over the taught length of their dry throats. A wry smile appeared on their faces. They picked up their parachutes, reserves, goggles and helmets.
The jumpers loaded up with their gear and headed for the airfield. It was a grass runway where the Cessna landed and picked up three jumpers at a time, in the middle of nowhere. They needed room for the jumpers to land, the Cessna too.
The parachutes were bulky, military issue. They must have weighed thirty-five pounds in their heavy green canvas packs. Then the reserve clipped onto their chests with heavy steel buckles. They felt safe, they were strong, the gear was solid.
They packed three jumpers into the plane with the pilot. The seats had been removed to make room for the equipment that the jumpers wore. Still, it was like being stuffed into a Volkswagen with all your ski gear on. Not terribly comfortable. And hot.
It seemed to take the plane forever to reach jump altitude. They circled around in loops trying to reach higher into the sky on each turn. The small plane’s engine strained with the weight of the three jumpers and their gear. It would be much easier once the plane was lighter. Once the plane had divested itself of the jumpers and their gear it would be more nimble in the air. The pilot would fly around the jumpers making sure they were O.K. and then he would land his plane after all three were safely on the ground.
As the plane moved higher with each circle it flew around the drop zone, the jumpers felt some relief from the cooling air. Clark was inland on a tropical island fifteen degrees north of the Equator. It was hot on the ground. The air cooled as they rose into the cloudless tropical sky.
One jumper, a pilot stationed at Cubi Point, sat next to the Cessna pilot on the floor. He had a great view of everything on the ground. He watched as the plane gained altitude, as the ground cover became smaller. Soon, it looked like everything on the ground was a toy. Tiny cars could be seen crawling along the roads below. The lakes looked like puddles and the trees seemed painted on a light green canvas.
Finally, they had reached five thousand feet. The pilot steered the Cessna out away from the drop zone and then made a U-turn back towards the spot where he would tell the jumpers to stand out on the plane’s step. The step was about three inches by five inches long. You could put one foot on the step and tuck the other behind it.
The pilot gave the order to the first jumper. He swung his legs out the door and sat on the sill looking at the scenery. It was really beautiful up there, sitting in the doorway. The pilot told Rogers to stand on the step on top of the wheel housing; he throttled back the engine in preparation for the jumper to leap into the sky.
Rogers swung out onto the step. He held onto the strut that supported the wing like he didn’t want to let go. You could see his white knuckles firmly wrapped around the tubular aluminum. You could see the fear in his face. He was sweating and he looked very uncomfortable.
As the plane arrived over the drop zone, the pilot yelled, “GO.” Rogers was supposed to let go of the strut and raise his arms into the freefall position. But he didn’t want to. He held onto the strut even harder, if that was possible. His teeth clenched, he looked like he wanted to get back inside the plane, but the pilot told Phillips to block his way. Again, the pilot yelled, “GO.” Rogers hesitated, but could see there was no way out. He had to jump. Any escape from his fear back into the cockpit was blocked. There was only one way to go.
Rogers closed his eyes as he released his grip from the plane; a heart wrenching death rattle emanated from the depths of his soul. His body slowly began to fall away from the Cessna as his inner self told him to, “Get back into that plane!“ Was he completely crazy? He was a pilot for God’s sake, what was he doing jumping out of an airplane?
Rogers began to run. With all his God-given strength his legs flailed at the thin air but found no traction to catapult him back to the safety of the slowly departing Cessna. His hands clenched into fists to better focus his energy to run up to that plane and vault back onto the jump platform where he belonged. He knew he had no business flying through the air without a cockpit around him.
And so, Phillips and Rubin were allowed to see a rare sight. The fast-fear fandango, the air dance that began as Rogers took that first step off the Cessna and made his best effort to re-enter it in mid flight. But no, this was to be a one way trip.
Unfortunately, for Roger’s there was no catching the Cessna, it flew on without any thoughts about him. He would be fine, hopefully. He would gain his senses and pull his ripcord. That’s what the training was about. It had to be rote; no thought was needed to pull that handle.
But the dance, the fast-fear fandango, it was a sight!