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Airborne troops at MacDill remain ready

by Airman Jose Climaco
Thunderbolt staff writer

A parachutist from the Joint Communications Support Element braces himself for a static line jump from an Army UH-60 Blackhawk.

Airborne warriors get hooked onto the static line for a training jump.

Photos by Airman Jose Climaco

A group of paratroopers eagerly board the chopper. Three on each side of a Blackhawk walk and enter. They sit on the edge of the door and are strapped to the static line by the jumpmaster. After the bird takes off, the jumpmaster periodically shouts time warnings and scans the landing zone. The bird is in place and on the jumpmaster's command, the first airborne warrior disappears into the sky, the other five do so within a matter of seconds. Their parachutes pop open as they fall toward MacDill's airfield.

It is a common scenario as Airborne Planners from Special Operations Command Central, U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Communications Support Element are responsible for scheduling and carrying out jumps for their airborne troops stationed at MacDill.

The purpose of carrying out such training is "to maintain proficiency in anticipation of a follow-on assignment, where they may be called upon to perform their duties as parachutists in real-world airborne missions," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Williams, SOCCENT air NCO. Airborne warriors are required to jump at least once every 90 days. The only two exceptions are deployments and lack of jump equipment or aircraft.

There are two ways jumps are scheduled at MacDill, said Sergeant Williams. The primary means is by scheduling Air Force aircraft at the Joint Airborne/Air Transportability Training conference, which takes place about every two months. It's where unit air operations planners coordinate jumps with other Air Force wing operations schedulers.

The other option is to coordinate for the use of non-standard aircraft. One example is the coordination between SOCCENT and the Florida Army National Guard Aviation Support Facility 2 in Brooksville, which is very helpful and always has assisted SOCCENT when JA/ATT platforms had to cancel abruptly, said Sergeant Williams.

At least one monthly jump at MacDill is scheduled at the JA/ATT conference, but two is the ideal number, said Sergeant Williams.

Scheduling jumps involves how much and what type of training aircrews and jumpers can offer each other. The more training we can offer each other, the better, said Sergeant Williams.

There's more to each jump than just heading out to the aircraft and taking off. Air field requests, logistics and reconfirmation of the mission are done 30 days prior to a jump. An airborne refresher, which takes place two days prior, is for parachutists who have not performed a parachute exit within the past 180 days. It familiarizes troops with the basic procedures they're responsible for before, during and after a parachute drop. The day before, jumpmasters rehearse their actions in the aircraft, such as issuing jump commands, time warnings, control of parachutists as they exit the aircraft and on-board emergency procedures.

Sustained airborne training follows the jumpmasters' rehearsals, which is to go over all the actions a parachutist will execute during the jump. The actions are designed to reinforce proper procedures to prevent mishaps and must typically be done no later than 24 hours prior to every airborne operation, said Sergeant Williams. Finally, jumps are conducted as rehearsed.

Air operations planners have some hurdles to deal with at MacDill. Military freefall jumps have to be performed in a timely manner. Jumpers have until 10 a.m. to complete their training due to Tampa International Airport's air space restrictions and traffic flow, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jamie Charlton, SOCCENT air NCO.

Troops under parachutes are the obvious participants of airborne drops but the jumpmasters should not be forgotten. They control all aspects of the operation, accept overall responsibility, make all safety decisions, instill confidence in jumpers and are the primary leaders of the mission regardless of rank. Jumpmasters in the Army are E-5 or higher and E-4 or higher in the Marine Corps, said Sergeant Charlton.

Jumpmasters load, seat, inspect jumpers, give time warnings and assume command of an aircraft's doors before a jump. They perform a 360-degree visual check outside the doors, visually check and identify the landing zone and issue the command to jump, said Sergeant Williams.

A minimum of five jumpmasters are involved during these training missions. Two control the paratroops and the paratroop doors; two are primarily responsible for the safety of the jumpers on the aircraft and one jumpmaster controls the drop zone. At the landing zone, a drop zone safety team leader is present to measure winds, communicate with the air traffic control tower and the pilots, take accountability of troops exiting the aircraft and remain in constant control of the air space during the operation, said Sergeant Williams.

There are about 500 airborne warriors from U.S. Special Operations Command, SOCCENT and the Joint Communications Support Element for whom jumpmaster are responsible. Training jumps involve an average of 70 jumpers, with as many as 120, depending on the aircraft used, said Sergeant Charlton.

Jumps here are generally performed more smoothly than other locations because many jumpers have a great deal of experience, especially SOCOM troops, said Sergeant Charlton.

Jumpers don't deal with many cancellations here because the typically fair weather allows flexibility. Winds are usually predictable and storms pass quickly enough to continue jumps after some minor delays, said Sergeant Williams.

Some troops here have been jumping since the Vietnam era, some Navy SEALs have more than 500 jumps while others have more than 1000 jumps, said Sergeant Williams.

C-130's are the most commonly used aircraft for such training jumps. However, highly-specialized troops prefer non-standard birds such as Army UH-60 Blackhawks, said Sergeant Williams.

Training missions for airborne troops involve plenty of work behind the scenes as well. Sergeant Charlton said SOCCENT receives a great deal of support from the 6th Air Mobility Wing coordinating with airfield operations and the 6th Logistics Readiness Squadron to make things happen smoothly. He also said support from the parachute riggers is paramount because the airborne mission couldn't be accomplished without their hard work and dedication.

Sergeant Williams said parachutists belong to the largest brotherhood in the world, that of the airborne. They share a common bond and relationship, which are basically the same no matter what country they're from. They are volunteers, who perform their jobs because they love it.

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