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Article

A Successful Jump

You’re supposed to be scared.

Published on:
April 13, 2020
Read time:
5 min.
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For a California native, winter in Georgia was cold. I’d spent the summer of 2000 sweating and being yelled at by drill sergeants in the swampy Kentucky heat and had been in Georgia for the last four months. The U.S. Army Airborne school is three weeks of running everywhere (we literally weren’t allowed to walk), doing pull-ups, pushups, and getting ready to fall out of an airplane. We’d logged hours suspended in harnesses meant to mimic a parachute harness so that we could maneuver our parachutes. We spent even more hours learning to perfect the Parachute Landing Fall (PLF) so that we could hit the ground again safely.

The U.S. Army Airborne school is three weeks of running everywhere (we literally weren’t allowed to walk), doing pull-ups, pushups, and getting ready to fall out of an airplane.

And it was cold. The final week we had to jump five times and land four, as they say. It was the morning of my first jump and I sat with the rest of my class on metal bleachers waiting to rig up and load the planes. Breakfast was powdered eggs, undercooked bacon, and cold grits. The school chaplain was making his rounds keeping morale up-ish.

“Jones, you ready to jump this morning?” 

“Hell yes, sir!”

“What about you, White, you looking forward to getting your airborne wings?” 

“Yes, sir, I was born for this!” 

Someone chimed in, “No fear, sir. Death from above!” 

Chap turned to me. “And what about you, Hughes, are you scared?” 

“Shitless, sir.” 

My words might have just slapped everyone within earshot across the face, but in my defense, the kind of twenty-year-old who volunteers to jump out of airplanes and run toward the shooting isn’t the kind of person known for subtlety or nuance. Plus, it was early. I’ve never been a morning person. 

“But you are going to jump today right, Hughes?” 

“Of course, sir, that’s why I’m here.”

I honestly don’t remember anything between that moment freezing on the bleachers and climbing inside the actual aircraft. Time and the sheer terror of my impending act have stolen the details. I do remember the aircraft though. Once we bundled up in about fifty pounds of canvas parachute, we crammed into a C-130 airplane—the loudest most uncomfortable aircraft known to man. We sat in rows facing each other, strapped onto seats of canvas webbing. Jumpmasters—a team of specially trained paratroopers charged with making sure the jump happens safely—shouted across the plane. The roar of the engines hardly cared about our earplugs, but everyone’s nerves and stomachs meant we didn’t notice the turbulence.

Over the last two weeks, we’d learned the series of commands that the jumpmasters would shout to get everyone standing, hooked up, and out the plane safely. Amazingly a few people had even fallen asleep by the time the first one came. 

“Ten minutes!” 

My heart rate picked up but I thought to myself, Dave, this is what you came for. All you gotta do is make out the door. I pictured myself in some war movie about to jump into battle and do something awesome, like seizing an airfield. Right. Airfield seizure. And then I’ll hijack a four-wheeler at some point. It’s excitement Dave, it’s just excitement. 

Someone three or four people down puked into his shirt. The lieutenant across from me was pumping himself up.

You really don’t so much jump out of an airplane the first time, at least I didn’t. I followed the guy in front of me, handed my static line to the jumpmaster, turned, took a step, and got sucked out.

The jumpmasters on either side of the aircraft opened the doors on the sides. The cold air slapped me across the face. Shitless sir. At least the sun was out now.

“Stand up!”

Ok, now it’s fear. It’s absolutely fear.

“Hook up!”

There was a cable running the length of the plane overhead and I snapped my link to it, tracing the nylon strap back to my parachute. 

“Check static lines!”

We echoed each command and inspected the line that would open our parachutes as we left the plane. 

“Check equipment!”

It was the kind of fear that leaves you feeling naked despite having fifty awkward pounds of nylon on you. The view out the door looked like a painting. 

“Sound off for equipment check!”

Calls of “okay” sounded from the front of the aircraft all the way to the rear of where the door and the Jumpmaster waited. My equipment hung like I’d sprouted a new bear gut, and no one could stand straight for how much the plane bounced in the air. This doesn’t happen in the movies, I thought.

“Stand by!”

If you have a heart attack and your heart’s already racing, how will you know it’s a heart attack? 

A red and green light squatted above the door. The red blinked off as the green switched on. 

“Go!” 

It’s definitely a heart attack. Should I tell someone?

The column of soon-to-be paratroopers shuffled forward like a conga line of drunkards trying to make it down the hall. You really don’t so much jump out of an airplane the first time, at least I didn’t. I followed the guy in front of me, handed my static line to the jumpmaster, turned, took a step, and got sucked out.

I snapped my body into the L-like position it was supposed to be in, and counted, “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, fourthous—”

Snap. I was jerked upward, and I looked up to see my open parachute. When there’s nothing between you and the earth but 1,250 feet of air, the world becomes a different place. The silent, majestic sprawl opened itself to my gaze—something special and hidden from the eyes of those who can only see it from the ground. 

Eleven years, four deployments, an overseas tour, and dozens of jumps later, I found myself checking my parachute on St. Mere-Eglise drop zone. It was warm, the kind of North Carolina day perfect for jumping. A small twelve-seater waited to carry us to the skies and I smirked, thinking it looked like a drug-smuggling plane. The jumpmasters made their rounds, checking people’s parachutes. 

You’re supposed to be scared.

My ears caught a nearby soldier’s question. “Do you ever reach a point when you’re not scared at all?” 

“Hell no.” The jumpmaster sounded surprised that someone would even ask. “Falling from the sky ain’t a natural human activity. You’re supposed to be scared. Means you still have a grip on reality.”

I’ve had some rough ones. Once in Korea on an exercise, I landed against the side of a steep incline. It was less of a PLF and more body-slamming a mountain, which I don’t recommend should you ever get the chance. Actual jumps look nothing like the movies. Movies don’t convey emotions, uncertainty, or the face you make while the fifty pounds of parachute and gear hanging off you sway with the plane. Inside our little drug-smuggler, my spiking heart rate felt like a broken-in pair of running shoes. That’s what a successful jump feels like. As a civilian in a new career, as a new parent, facing a new normal, I’ve found myself relearning old lessons: You’re supposed to be scared. This isn’t a movie. And that’s how I know, despite the churning in my gut, I have my feet on the ground.

Dave Hughes
Dave Hughes is a therapist, writer, and speaker in Raleigh, NC where he lives with his wife and son. He teaches resilience and writes and speaks about mental health and the church. You can find Dave at discoveringresiliency.com or on Twitter @daveevanhughes.

Cover image by Tiago B.

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