The Unforgiving Sky

The 2/75th Ranger Battalion was running a low-level night jump during a training mission in Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas, and Sgt. Larry Swenson wasn’t happy that winds were 36 knots at altitude, but being aggravated and complaining were two different things. Rangers jumped in every condition imaginable because training had to reflect real-world scenarios as closely as possible. There was no reason to complain about any task the Rangers were told to perform because they had volunteered to be there. Missions needed to be accomplished, and complaining didn’t do any good anyway.

Still, this would be Larry’s second-to-last jump, his 59th, and he had hoped conditions would have been more favorable. He was leaving the Army once this mission was done and the unit jumped back into Ft. Lewis, Washington. Then he would take a long road trip, settle into whichever community along the way felt right to him, and return to college to study history. He wanted to define his own living conditions again, and lugging his rucksack through every imaginable environment was beginning to make him feel like a turtle.

Everyone had already hooked up their static lines to the overhead cables and shuffled toward the doors of the C130. They would be shotgunning out of the plane from 800 feet, which means when they got the green light, jumpers would be exiting both doors simultaneously. Theoretically, each jump was supposed to be staggered, but this never really happened, and although the jumpers carried reserve parachutes, they were exiting from such a low altitude that the reserves wouldn’t serve much of a purpose if something went wrong so close to the ground.

Larry looked to his left and saw two privates from 1st Battalion straight across from him, newbie jumpers. This was a regimental jump, a coordinated exercise involving three battalions, which meant Larry hadn’t been able to surround himself with his own team leaders, Crandall and Jacobs, the ones he had trained, due to logistical issues. Larry knew as well as anyone that every so often, inexperienced jumpers caused problems in the air with other jumpers due to nervousness and poor technique. Larry pushed this to the back of his mind and concentrated on his own performance.

The light turned green, and each stick of jumpers began blasting out the doors and into the blustery night. Larry excited cleanly, with his chin tucked, elbows in, and feet and knees together. He felt his static line tighten and his T-10 parachute pop open. Then he made a 360-degree check of his canopy, which had deployed perfectly. He pulled a toggle and turned to his right to see if he was clear of other jumpers, but he wasn’t. One of the 1st Battalion privates who had shotgunned the door across from him had gotten twists in his risers. This meant he had no canopy control, he was moving much faster than the descending jumpers whose parachutes had fully deployed, and the wind was blowing him straight at Larry.

Knowing he didn’t have time to evade the private through his own evasive maneuvers, Larry yelled, “Pull your risers and bicycle your legs!” but it was too late. The private’s torso careened into Larry’s chute and collapsed his canopy. In stunned silence, Larry saw the private’s jungle boot hook the lip of his chute, the one last thing suspending Larry in the air. The foot carried both of them along for a second or so, and then “POP!” The private disappeared into the night, and Larry’s chute cigarette rolled, leaving him 80 feet above the ground with no lift capability. Time seemed to stand still for a moment, and in a state of intense clarity, Larry pulled his feet and knees together, tucked his chin in, turned into the wind as best he could, and went limp like a dead man.

He plummeted with lightning velocity and struck the ground in a matter of seconds, but because he had faced into the wind, he landed feet-butt-back and at just enough of an angle as to absorb some of the impact. He bounced through the air like a rag doll and smashed to the ground again. However, the wind, which was over 20 knots on the ground, reinflated his parachute, and Larry was soon bouncing across the drop zone like a flat rock skipping across the water. He turned his head to the side and popped one of his risers, which deflated the chute. Larry had finally come to rest on the rocky drop zone.

The first thing he thought was, “I’m not dead! Unreal.” He took a mental inventory of his body and realized that his femurs, knees, and back were fine, but his ankle was sprained and his tailbone was broken. He would be sitting on one butt cheek for months to come, but for now, he was reveling in his good luck. He put his weapon into action, rolled onto his stomach, and scanned the perimeter for invisible enemies.

Jacobs came running over and said, “Sgt. Swenson! You bounced a good ten feet in the air! That was awesome! Are you OK?”

Larry just shook his head and said, “Yeah, Jacobs, I’m great. Thanks for asking. Now let’s get going.”

He thought about hunting down the private who had nearly killed him but realized how pointless and time consuming that would be. He packed his chute, mobilized his squad at the drop-off point, and they were soon off on a 26-kilometer movement through the forest with the rest of their platoon. It felt good to be walking on the ground again once his body had grown numb from the physical exertion. He was glad that he would be able to surround himself with his own squad on the jump back into Ft. Lewis, and although he knew he really needed to leave the Army, he also realized that things would never be the same once he did.