Tech & Kit

The Sky's the Limit: The Future of Military Free Fall Equipment

The Special Forces operating environment is continuing to change, as our enemies look for new methods of detecting our movement and of disrupting our abilities to effectively engage them. SF does have one skill, however, that offers us the ability to infiltrate quickly and undetected — military free fall, or MFF. MFF teams have the tools to perform the task, but better tools are coming, and to be effective and current, we must acquire and maintain state-of-the-art MFF equipment.

Two important features of the new generation of MFF equipment are commercial procurement and modular design. Commercial-equipment designers are listening to user input, and the resulting products are a better match to the force requirements.

Has the round canopy outlived its usefulness for SF? As it stands now, static-line parachuting is an archaic technique that has little tactical application for SF teams. Apparently, there are commanders who have recognized the benefits of the square canopy, and perhaps all teams should be outfitted with a static-line, square parachute instead.

This article will inform readers about some of the new MFF equipment that is now or will soon be available to the force. The equipment outlined herein represents items that are being testing by the U.S. Army Program Executive Office, Soldier and Program Manager Clothing and Individual Equipment, Natick, Mass. The bulk of the information came from retired Sergeant Major Al Lamb at Natick. The fielding dates provided are general in nature and will depend upon unit requirements and the success of testing.

Evolution of free fall
Let’s start with the operational history of free fall. It was an American, Leslie Irvin, who made the first free-fall parachute jump in 1919, using a hand-deployed ripcord instead of a static line. His contribution revolutionized parachuting, and free fall had begun.

Free fall seemed predestined to have a military application. In 1960, Captain Joe Kittinger jumped from a balloon 19 miles above the earth. He fell for four minutes and 36 seconds and set a world record. Kittinger experimented with the effects of high-altitude bailouts on the body as part of Project Excelsior. He used free-fall lessons learned to improve safety for military pilots during high-altitude bailouts.

A decade later, June 22, 1971, SOF used free fall for surreptitious entry when four Soldiers — Sergeant Major Waugh, Staff Sergeant Bath, Staff Sergeant Strohlein and Sergeant Campbell — from the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observation Group, or MACV-SOG, jumped into enemy territory. With their high-altitude, low-opening, or HALO, parachute jump, MFF began. Shortly after that, SF started the Military Free-Fall School at Fort Bragg, N.C., using lessons learned from MACV-SOG. More recently, SF troops have used MFF in support of the war on terror.

The uses of MFF will become more prevalent as we continue to look for more innovative methods to enter restricted or denied areas undetected. The use of commercially available items offer the operator the ability to perform extreme stand-off operations with a precision guidance system that allows operators to exit , fly and land together on unmarked, restrictive landing areas.

Until now, the MC-4 Ram Air Personnel Parachute has been the standard MFF system used by SF. Designed from a previous MT1-XX model, the MC-4 was built around a 375 square-foot canopy used for both the main and reserve parachutes. It has been an effective parachute assembly, but it has limitations.

The Advanced Ram Air Parachute System, or ARAPS, is being developed because of the MC-4’s limitations. ARAPS will increase team-infiltration capabilities through improvements in performance, safety, modularity, design, versatility and comfort. It offers users a system capable of being deployed in both free-fall and static-line configurations, giving commanders the ability to use the system for both MFF and non-MFF personnel.

ARAPS was designed with jumpers’ safety in mind. First, the ripcords are easier to see because of the position of the main lift web. Searching for the ripcord will no longer be a problem, even during night oxygen jumps. Second, clear Mylar pouches have been sewn onto the ARAPS, allowing the insertion of chemlites and giving jumpers the ability to see the ripcord pins without lifting the flap. That feature alone should reduce the number of inadvertent reserve deployments aboard the aircraft.

Third and most significant of the new safety features on the ARAPS is the addition of the Automatic Riser Release Lanyard, or the Collins Lanyard. The Collins Lanyard is designed to automatically release the left-side riser on the main parachute once the reserve ripcord has been pulled. That minimizes the risk of a two-canopy entanglement. With nothing to get in the way, the reserve canopy can do what it’s supposed to do — save lives.

The harness adjustment system is another unique design feature of the ARAPS. An improperly adjusted harness can cause a jumper serious problems. The MC-4 sizing system is awkward, and most jumpers have a hard time getting it right. The ARAPS uses a color-coded sizing system, so jumpers don’t have to struggle with six different adjustment straps anymore. The color coding allows users to fit their harness the correct way every time.

The ARAPS is also comfortable to wear, with padding in the container and the back, shoulder and lumbar areas of the harness. Even when they wear combat equipment, jumpers will be less fatigued wearing the ARAPS. Despite the fact that the ARAPS weighs the same as the MC-4, the increased comfort makes the load easier to bear.

The ARAPS can be adjusted as the mission changes. The modular features of the ARAPS include detachable pouches that zip on and off as necessary. If you need to communicate under canopy, attach the radio pouch. When jumping the portable oxygen bailout system, zip on the O2 pouch. During high-altitude, high-opening, or HAHO, operations, the ARAPS has integrated toggle extensions built right in. These are just a few indications of the thought and planning that went into the requirements for the ARAPS design. The projected fielding date for the ARAPS is 2010.

Canopies to come
We’ve already said that the ARAPS is ready for two different deployment methods: MFF and static-line. But the ARAPS container can also take two different types of canopies. The first is a 375 square-foot “hybrid” canopy. Even though this canopy looks similar to the MC-4, it is much improved. The differences lie in the canopy design and the fabric of the top skin. The hybrid canopy has a semi-elliptical design that provides better canopy stability and stand-off performance. The canopy’s top-skin material is a zero-porosity, or ZP, fabric instead of the usual F-111 material. The ZP top skin seals air inside the inflated wing. The increased air makes the wing more rigid and gives it better handling capability. The rest of the canopy is still made with F-111 fabric — that’s why the canopy is called a hybrid.

To the user, the hybrid canopy means improved performance, better stability and softer openings. It is also tougher and can withstand higher deployment altitudes during HAHO operations. In addition, the ARAPS hybrid canopy can support a total rigged weight of up to 450 pounds, compared to the MC-4’s 360-pound TRW. The ability to infil with more supplies and equipment will increase teams’ capability.

The second ARAPS canopy option is the fully elliptical, 17-cell high-glide canopy. Designed to have twice the forward glide of a square canopy, the high-glide is capable of a 6:1 glide ratio. That means that for every foot of
descent, the jumper travels forward six feet. The tactical possibilities of the canopy will double, as well. MFF teams will be able to conduct stand-off operations from greater distances, reducing aircraft exposure to enemy fire and detection.

New jump helmets
Current MFF jump helmets are either too expensive, have limited communications or have no use after the jump. Some teams jump with one helmet but wear another helmet during the mission, which makes the jump helmet just an air item. Other teams resort to inexpensive commercial helmets to keep the cost low, but those helmets have limitations, too. Teams need something more practical.

Gentex offers one such helmet at half the cost, called the Paramaster High Altitude Low Opening Helmet, or PM HALO. An evolution of the Gentex parachutist helmet, the PM HALO is a completely modular system — each jumper can customize his helmet to the specific mission or to his specific needs. The PM HALO has a completely integrated communications system: The sound-attenuating ear cups are adjustable for comfort, and the boom microphone is attached to the helmet on a flexible rod that can be tucked away when not in use. The padding is also adjustable, and the helmet offers a visor-and-goggle system that snaps on for eye protection.

Gentex identified the problem that the oxygen-mask bayonet connectors on either side of the Gentex parachutist helmet extended beyond the receivers and could snag on the risers when under canopy. The PM HALO improved the oxygen-mask bayonet connectors to cover the ends and eliminate snags.

There is one drawback to the PM HALO helmet: It is useful only for the jump. That’s where the Advanced Combat Helmet, or ACH, outperforms the PM HALO. The ACH, which is already used for ballistic protection in combat, was paired with communications-ready hearing protection to create the newest jump helmet. The battery-operated hearing-protection system, with its integrated boom microphone, is similar to other noise-reduction systems SOF are already using.

If jumpers require oxygen equipment with the ACH, they can use the MBU-12 or the new Parachutist Oxygen Mask. Both masks attach to the ACH by an additional strap equipped with bayonet connectors. Now, the ACH will protect jumpers in the air and on the ground, while providing tactical communications throughout the mission. Because the ACH is effective during and after the jump, using it makes much more sense.

New oxygen mask
The new Parachutist Oxygen Mask, or POM, was designed with free-fall parachutists in mind. The POM provides oxygen only when the jumper needs it. Using a diluter-demand process, the POM provides oxygen when the jumper inhales through the mask, instead of supplying a constant flow of oxygen, as the MBU-12 system does. The POM is compatible with all American Flight Systems oxygen connections, so attaching to an outside oxygen source is just as easy as before. Now, the operator will plug directly into the manifold on the oxygen bottles.
The hose will no longer be a problem during oxygen jumps. The new, low-profile mask fits closer to the face, making it easier for the jumper to see the ripcords and attached equipment. The low-pressure hose on the previous oxygen mask has been replaced by a medium-pressure hose that is smaller and thicker. The hose is also attached to the left side of the mask, further increasing the jumper’s visibility, and runs over the left shoulder directly to the Twin-53 oxygen bottles. With a smaller hose and a single connection comes increased reliability. In fact, the new system will provide reliable oxygen at altitudes up to 35,000 feet.

In the past, accurate navigation while under canopy has plagued both HAHO and HALO operations. Previously, MFF teams had to be able to see the target to navigate accurately and land successfully. Many MFF missions were impractical because of the unreliability of the navigation systems. The introduction of the global positioning system changed all that. By integrating the latest GPS technology into a mission, teams will be able to land precisely on target during adverse weather conditions such as clouds, fog, rain and snow. Even better, teams will be able to use this technology to operate deliberately within these conditions, further reducing the chance of detection by the enemy.

Beginning in FY 2011, the Military Free Fall Navigational Aid, or NAVAID, is expected to change the way teams plan and execute airborne missions. The NAVAID is basically equivalent to having a GPS, a wireless communication device and a computer mounted on the jumper.

All three are linked to assist navigation, the same way that aircraft instruments aid a pilot to fly in thick fog. In addition to standard GPS information, the NAVAID provides the jumper with the direction to all pre-designated landing areas, information on the closest landing area, the probability of landing at each location and the estimated arrival time on the target.

The MFF NAVAID has two configurations. The first is the heads-up display, or HUD, which is a small screen positioned in front of one eye. Although the screen is in the field of view, it restricts vision only slightly. The second configuration is chest-mounted. This version is the same as the HUD, except that the small screen is located on the unit, which is mounted on the chest, where it can best be seen. The NAVAID is also simple to operate: Jumpers can scroll through menus and navigate options using only two buttons. Both configurations offer the same functions and performance.

The key component of the system is its ability to use the same current-wind profile used by the aircraft’s Joint Precision Airdrop System. The real-time information on winds within 50 km of the target provides the jumper with the most accurate ground weather situation available.

Mission planner
But the NAVAID is only half of the system. The second half is a GPS computer terminal called the Joint Precision Air Delivery System Mission Planner, or JPADS, mounted inside the aircraft. The NAVAIDs on the jumpers and the JPADS on the aircraft wirelessly communicate with each other to pass along updated mission information or unexpected weather changes.
How does the JPADS work to improve MFF operations? Near the target, the jumpmaster drops a small torpedo-shaped radiosonde from the aircraft. As it falls, the radiosonde acquires real-time meteorological data and transmits the information back to the JPADs, which calculates the updates against the mission requirement and transmits the data to the NAVAIDs on the jumpers. The near-real-time weather information will be accurate without any guesswork.

Electronic automatic activation device
The Cybernetic Parachute Release System, or CYPRES, is the most reliable automatic activation device used by skydivers today. The CYPRES has been responsible for saving the lives of more than 1,000 jumpers so far. It was first introduced to the skydiving community by Airtec GmbH in 1991, and it has since become the main automatic activation device used by 42 militaries around the world. Today, there are more than 90,000 CYPRES units in operation worldwide.
The military version of the CYPRES, called the Electronic Automatic Activation Device, or EAAD, is scheduled to replace the AR2 as the SOF automatic-activation device. The EAAD is already in use at the Military Free-Fall School and has been responsible for saving the lives of a number of MFF students.

The EAAD consists of three parts: the processing unit, the release unit and the control unit. The entire system is placed inside the reserve container, with the reserve closing loop passing through the release unit, but only the control unit is visible to the jumper. Because it is inside the reserve container, the EAAD is part of the parachute.

The processing unit, which is the brains of the EAAD, is responsible for gathering data
and comparing it to certain firing criteria. The processing unit can determine whether a jumper is on the ground, ascending to altitude, belly-to-earth in free fall, back-to-earth in free fall, stable or unstable tumbling through free fall. It is always thinking.

The control unit is the input/output device for the user to set, review, self-test and shut down the EAAD. A unique feature on the EAAD is the power shut-off mode. During start- up, if there is not enough battery power to last for 14 consecutive hours of operation, or if the EAAD has any other issue that will prevent it from functioning correctly, the unit will display an error message and shut down immediately. Simply put, if the unit starts without an error message, jumpers are guaranteed 14 hours of problem-free operation.

The release unit, or the “cutter,” is the business end of the EAAD. The cutter receives the firing command from the processing unit and ignites a small charge. The charge pushes a guillotine-like cutting blade that severs the reserve closing loop completely. When the loop is cut free, the reserve parachute deploys. This is a simple but effective system that increases the user’s safety. The civilian CYPRES model has an outstanding record, and the EAAD, still relatively new, is performing just as well.

It is exciting to see the new MFF equipment that is on the horizon. By making it possible to insert operators into restricted and denied areas, MFF offers commanders total control over their respective battlespaces. Through the interaction of end users, combat and materiel developers, trainers and the industrial base, MFF equipment is increasingly safer and more capable, making the MFF option even more relevant and reliable.

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One Comment

  1. chief – need to straighten out some facts…MFF committee, smoke bomb hill, first 6 instructor personnel, was established in late 1957 and was regularly training hand picked classes by 1961…
    BTW – kotelnikov, a russian, was freefalling in 1916….

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