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The first parachute course, consisting of 80 officers and men, was set down for the 29th November. There was great keenness to be selected for the first course; we were all anxious to find out what parachuting was really like, once we knew it was inevitable. I was one of the lucky ones, and went off to Ramid David, near Nazareth, in some trepidation on 28th November.
Parachute training had been cut down from the original three weeks' course to one of nine days. The first four of these days were spent on ground training. The instructors, all members of the R.A.F.,. must have been chosen for their psychological intuition. They were, without exception, magnificent fellows, and they built up our confidence from the very beginning. The pilots too were a cheery crowd and I particularly remember Squadron Leader "Spud" Murphy, A.F.C., Captain of the Rugger side, but they were all most helpful and encouraging.
We spent four very strenuous days learning how to fall and how to jump from successively higher apparatus. On the fourth day we were taken up for air experience. Having flown from the Union I felt that I had a reasonable amount of air experience, but this was something quite different. To travel in an aircraft completely stripped of all its amenities, and with no door is an unnerving experience, especially when the instructor calls you along to sit on the little lavatory seat at the back and stick your hand out to "see what it feels like". The sensation to me, at all events, was perfectly horrible. The instructor chats away cheerfully, pointing out objects on the ground - "see those trees", he says, "well just after you have passed them, you run in over that reservoir and at about this point the red light will go on". You look out fearfully, and gingerly stick out your hand. It is immediately whipped back by the rush of the slip-stream, and you just about save yourself from falling out, or so you think. Actually it is perfectly safe as the instructor is standing by all the time.
The red light is the warning signal switched on by the pilot. It flashes on just next to the door from which you jump. There are generally about 5 to 10 seconds before the pilot switches on his green light, on which signal the first parachutist in the plane jumps, followed immediately by all the rest. During these few seconds the No. 1 crouches at the door, preparing to hurl himself out the moment the green shows. The instructor in these cases, assists by shouting "Action stations, go." If there is any hesitation on the part of the jumper, he gets a boot on his back to assist him on his way. In the excitement of the moment nobody ever feels this boot, and always hotly deny having been assisted.
It is necessary to make a determined effort in the jump to clear the plane. The force of the slip-stream whips the body away in a fraction of a second, and bumping against the plane must be avoided. In theory, as soon as the jumper is out of the plane, he must come to attention, otherwise his legs and arms are thrown all over the place and can foul the rigging lines of the parachute. There is no rip cord pulling to be done in this type of jump. The parachute is contained in a large bag, the outer cover of which is attached by static line to a long iron bar in the plane itself. On jumping out the static line, which is about 12 feet long, suddenly becomes taut, and tears the cover off the parachute. Small strings with which the parachute is attached to the cover, break at a certain pressure, and the parachute opens up.
We knew all this in theory, but had yet to see it work in practice. The night before the first parachute jump is a miserable one for ninety per cent. of the people who go through the course. The air experience we had had that day had not been encouraging; whilst watching the instructors doing a demonstration jump had not greatly added to our confidence. It is a strange psychological fact that it is not the fear of the parachute failing to open, nor the thought of an accident on landing, but the dread that one will not be able to force oneself out of the door at the critical moment. There is no disgrace in refusing at the last minute. Cases of this nature do not happen very often because all parachutists are volunteers. Presumably they would not volunteer unless they thought they could jump. Nevertheless there are those who do not possess the necessary mental make-up to make the jump when the time comes. There are also cases where men pass-out in the plane. All such persons are immediately returned to their units as unsuitable for parachute jumping. It is just bad luck. Once a man has done five jumps, however, it is a court martial offence to refuse. In these circumstances it has been decided by the authorities that a man has proved he has the mental make-up necessary to jump. A refusal, thereafter, is disobedience of an order, and is treated as such.
We were awakened at 05.00 hours on the morning of our first jump. We dressed, and some of us shaved to boost our morale, before moving off to the dismal packing shed to draw our "chutes". These we carried very tenderly to our assembly points. A parachute weighs 36 lb. and at first there seem to be all sorts of strings and straps all over the place. We had learned what all these were meant for during our preliminary training, but dozens of extra bits and pieces seemed to have appeared that first morning. We handled the whole outfit most gingerly, in case of upsetting the works.
Our plane was the third to do the circuit, and we watched with envy the figures of our friends, in the very far distance, as their parachutes opened up over the dropping ground, and we knew that their first jumps were successfully over at last. We fitted on our harness, which attaches the parachute and bag to the person of the jumper. There was much adjusting of straps, with the instructor pulling our legs all the time. As a final test, he walked along the line of the ten men ready for the next plane load, hitting the quick release boxes in the middle of the harness. When turned one way these release boxes hold all the harness in position, and when given a half right turn this is immediately released, and the man drops free. Naturally one is extremely careful of this little box, and no one is allowed near it in case it should turn the wrong way.
Our plane, a Hudson, moved slowly up the run-way and stopped in front of us. We filed in, having drawn for the order in which we were to jump. I had drawn No. 10, the last in the plane, so I, therefore, went in first. The man who is to jump first goes in last. Our initial jump was to be in what is called "slow pairs", that is two men at a time to give each man the feeling of jumping independently. This meant that I had to sit in the aeroplane while we did four complete circuits over the dropping ground before my turn came. It gave me ample opportunity to study the reactions of my companions. Nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves. Most of the men were chewing gum grimly. Beads of perspiration would come out on their foreheads as their turn to jump drew nearer. I furtively wiped my brow, in case I was doing the same. One or two made feeble attempts at jokes, at which we all laughed heartily. The only man who was enjoying himself was the instructor, who kept up a flow of cheery conversation throughout. At last my turn came.
Sergeant Lusted of Durban was to jump just in front of me, and I was due to follow as soon as the instructor shouted "Go". We moved up towards the door as the couple before us leaped out. The instructor attached the static lines of our parachutes to the cord by which it is fastened to the plane, with a most frail looking safety pin. There is no strain on the pin at all, but one of the standing jokes with the instructors is to produce a very rusty looking object saying they think it should be O.K. In your nervous condition you fail to see the joke, tell him to get on with the job, and fasten you up with a decent pin. The instructor succeeded in distracting our attention to such an extent, that before we knew what was happening the red light was on. He bellowed "Action stations", and Lusted immediately crouched down in front of me. A second later the green light was on, and Lusted had left the plane, leaving an awful looking hole in front of me. Before I had a chance to hesitate the green light was on again, and out I went.
My first sensation was a terrific jerk as the slip-stream knocked me flat. I remember trying to get my hands to my side and come attention. My next sensation was one of wonderful peace and quiet, after all the noise of the plane. Never in any of my jumps did I see the tail of the plane as it flashed past, nor did I ever have any particular feelings until I felt the gentle jerk of the harness as the parachute opened above me.
The moment the chute opens, it is necessary to look up and grab the rigging lines which connect the parachute itself with the harness. It often happens that the rigging lines may be fouled; a jumper's legs or arms may have caught in the lines, or one of the lines may have got thrown over the parachute itself. In any of these cases by shaking the rigging lines, the fault can be rectified. Once one has looked up and made all the necessary adjustments, the rest of parachuting is really delightful. The aeroplane, which has just been left, can be seen disappearing in the distance; there is perfect peace and quiet, and the courtyside looks most inviting.
Jumping is nearly always done in the early morning before the wind gets up. Wind is the parachutist's greatest enemy. Even when training with a parachute on the ground, the huge canopy of the shute can drag the pupil for hundreds of yards at a time. Beginners are, therefore, never taken up on a windy day.
The sense of quiet first experienced when the parachute opened, was rudely shattered after a few seconds by a bellow from one of the instructors on the ground below. "Keep your feet and knees together, No. 10," he shouted through a large megaphone. This was a rude awakening. I had thought I was doing everything in copybook style, but I soon discovered that nothing could be perfect in parachuting. Down to about 100 ft. off the ground, it is difficult to realise with what speed one is descending to the earth. During the last hundred feet of the drop, however, the earth suddenly seems to rush up towards the jumper. The natural reaction is to draw up the feet. This is fatal and on the first morning my battery commander broke his back from this very fault. It is essential to land on the feet, and roll over in whichever direction the wind is driving. I was lucky on this first morning, and had a very easy landing, much easier than hundreds of hard tackles I had experienced on the rugger field. Immediately on landing the quick release box is tapped, the harness removed, and the parachute rolled up. The orders were to report back to the truck with the parachute, and back we all went for a second jump within half an hour of the first.
Everyone was full of confidence, and felt as if there was nothing in parachuting after all. This new-born confidence soon dissipated when the list of injuries, mostly minor, began to filter through. There were also one or two "jibbers" (refusals), but we hadn't much time to worry and before long the second jump was a thing of the past, and we were sitting down to a good breakfast.
I think most parachutists will agree that the third jump is the worst. The chief course instructor calls everybody together on the morning after the first two jumps to tell the course just how bad they are, and how lucky any of them are to be alive. This soon knocks the dangerous self-confident attitude out of the students.
That night, having experienced the feeling of a jump, dreams are crowded with thousands of imaginary leaps, and by the morning most of the course is in a state of jitters. It is here that army discipline comes into its own, and we all went through with our next two jumps successfully despite our misgivings.
On this course we did six jumps by day and one by night. Strangely enough the night jump is the easiest and the most pleasant of all. There is not that awful sensation of stepping into nothing which is always there in daylight. The landing, too, is easier. Not knowing when to expect the ground, the body is far more perfectly relaxed than in daylight.
Training jumps done in cold blood in training are much harder than operational jumps done in the excitement of moment.
We went back to camp on the ninth day, a body of very happy and contented men. We must have seemed very up-stage to the rest of the regiment who had yet to do their jumps. What we told them about parachuting was enough to shake even the keenest. But there was a strange reaction noticeable after each course. Before starting we all promised ourselves the most tremendous party on our last night, but the parties never came off. We were all too mentally and physically exhausted. This happened without exception. Presumably parachuting must require the exercise of a considerable amount of will power.
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Next Chapter: Chapter 4
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