YUMA, AZ – Exit an aircraft from up to 17,000 feet in the air. Spend 60 seconds barreling toward the Arizona desert at 120 miles per hour. Then, once you’re about 4,000 feet above the ground, open your own parachute and spend another four or five minutes gliding to a designated landing zone.
If you’re a student at the Military Freefall Parachutist Course, leave your fear of heights at home. It’s not on the packing list.
As the sun rises in the distance over the Arizona mountains, more than 60 of these students are dressed in orange jumpsuits, preparing for their first taste of a high-altitude, low-opening airborne operation. Military freefall instructors – experienced jumpmasters with over 200 freefall jumps – look over the students’ shoulders as they run through body stabilization drills and parachute control procedures in a hangar on the edge of the airfield at Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz.
“Today is the first jump day for the parachutist course,” said Maj. Darryl Carr, the commander of the Military Freefall School, also known as B Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne) – part of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, based out of Fort Bragg, N.C.
“This morning, students start off by packing their parachutes, then we go through ground training and emergency procedures, we hang them in a harness, and we talk canopy control so that when they first jump, they understand how to actually land that parachute,” Carr said. Behind him, some students jump off blocks to practice parachute-landing falls, while others follow their instructors through a scale model of their target drop zone.
Carr’s higher headquarters is responsible for advanced special-operations skills training, which means these students in the jumpsuits aren’t new to the military. Here, fully qualified Army Special Forces and Rangers train alongside Navy Seals and Air Force pararescue and combat control personnel. These special operators have already proven they’re capable of taking on the military’s toughest missions; they’ve come to Yuma to learn how to get to the places where those missions are conducted.
Learning to control their bodies while falling through the open air can be a challenge, so instructors take the training step-by-step. The first few days of the course are spent across the country, on the main campus of SWCS at Fort Bragg, where they use a vertical wind tunnel to learn the physics of freefalling. The eighth day of training is the students’ first full day in Arizona, and the first jump day, but they aren’t yet ready to exit the aircraft on their own.
“It’s all one-on-one instruction up through jump 13,” said Master Sgt. George Bannar, who runs the parachutist course. For each orange jumpsuit exiting an aircraft, there’s a dedicated instructor in a gray jumpsuit right behind him to ensure his safety. “We have one of our instructors within an arm’s length of each student.”
Having a personal freefall supervisor gives students confidence as they get used to the technique of balancing mid-air, he said.
“Guys go out the airplane, and if they’re overwhelmed by all the events going on, or if they’re nervous or anxious, they’ll ball up,” Bannar said. “They’ll start flipping and tumbling through the sky, and the instructors will fly up next to them and stop what they have going on by taking a grip or giving them a signal for what to do.”
“When I’m working with students, the first thing I tell them is to trust that guy in the gray jumpsuit,” said Sgt. Maj. Timothy Norris. “Whatever he tells you to do, that’s what you need to do, because he is going to be there with you every step of the way.”
Norris is the company’s senior NCO and chief instructor, and for good reason: this is third assignment at the Military Freefall School.
He also tells the students to relax and enjoy the experience. “This is something you only get to do every so often in life,” he said.
The instructors try to keep the students’ nerves in check. After all, they’ve been in their shoes before, and they know that too much anxiety in the air could lead to a costly mistake.
“All the instructors try to keep it really light,” Bannar said. Almost on cue, another instructor chimes in with a joke over the hangar’s loudspeaker. Bannar smiles and continues, “we know they’re nervous, we know they’re anxious, so we just try to help them have a good time and relax.”
Instructors fall through the air with their students until all parachutes are properly deployed. Then it’s on the students to navigate safely to the drop zone, while the instructors glide in casually next to the safety officers and medics, landing on their feet with a couple jogging steps before coming to a halt. In the background, the inexperienced students are less graceful; most hit the ground and roll with the same technique used in standard airborne operations.
“Even if a guy’s really good, his first 10 jumps he’s probably still PLFing and landing out here in the desert, where there are cactus and rocks and dirt and dust,” Bannar said. That’s why they wear the jumpsuits; ACUs can get torn up quickly while the students get the hang of landing properly. They’ll throw their duty uniforms back on for their last jump of the course, where the instructors welcome them into the freefall community.
Parachutist course students make at least 22 jumps during their four weeks in Yuma; often more, depending on weather and aircraft availability. As the gain experience, they’ll add oxygen systems, combat equipment and weapons to the equation; and then repeat the entire process with nighttime jumps.
“At this course, the students start as individual trainees,” Carr said, “We’re teaching them initial training. When they graduate this course, they’ll be able to conduct an infiltration at night, with oxygen and combat equipment, landing as a team in a small area so they can move on and do a mission.”
Following graduation, the students will go back to their units as qualified freefall parachutists, and they’ll continue to gain experience as they train and operate alongside the members of their teams.
“We want parachutist course graduates to know that it’s not just the safety of the student or instructor on his left or right; I’m looking out for all my brothers that are there on a team that are doing the job daily,” Norris said.
“Do I trust this student to go back and be able to perform a combat mission or train with those guys?” he said.
That is a standard that we maintain; if he’s not ready to move along, he doesn’t move along.” In a previous assignment, Norris was a team sergeant in 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Each member of his team had either attended the Military Freefall School while he was instructing there, or came back later as a guest instructor himself.
Graduates leave Yuma with another way to get to their job, Bannar said.
“If their job is to do special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare or direct action missions, they’ve got a clandestine way to get to their target as a cohesive fighting unit,” he said. “[They’ll] be able to mitigate early warning detection, and be able to execute their mission to the highest standard.”
Graduating the parachutist course is only the beginning of a Soldier’s military freefall career. Not only will they get more training and operational experience with their special-operations units; they may also return to the Military Freefall School in a couple years to learn to plan and manage these operations.
Not all training happens in the air
At the Military Freefall School, special-operations servicemembers are dropping out of airplanes thousands of feet in the air, many of them for the first time in their life.
More than 25 students, however, are not.
“The Military Freefall Jumpmaster Course is the most boring course these guys will go to,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Schrader, the NCO in charge of the jumpmaster course. “We don’t jump all the time, and they might not jump at all while they’re here.”
Outside the cadre office, experienced freefall-qualified servicemembers in sweatshirts and gym shorts are leaned over oversized maps on large desks, armed with pencils, protractors and calculators. They’re taking a test on high-altitude, high-opening operation planning, where their calculations incorporate wind drift, altitude, equipment load, parachute type and several other factors.
“After this course, they’re going to be in charge,” Schrader said. “When you’re a jumpmaster, you’re not getting paid more, but everything is on you, and you’ve got a hell of a lot more responsibility.”
The first few days of the three-week course is filled with academic testing, not only with mission planning and calculations, but also policies, procedures and equipment memorization. For example, over 100 close-up photos of harnesses, parachute systems and oxygen masks appear one-by-one on a screen in the front of the room. Students must properly identify the equipment in each photo, down to individual buckles, hoses and cords.
“It’s a lot of classroom stuff but it’s the foundation for these guys to build off of,” Schrader said.
Unlike parachutist course students, jumpmaster students have some familiarity with what they’re doing – at least 50 freefall jumps, to be exact. This is a double-edged sword for jumpmaster instructors; familiarity with their equipment lightens the workload, but it can slow a student down if they’ve got to un-learn some bad habits.
Don’t try to learn your own techniques, Schrader warns potential students. Use the techniques taught by the instructors; not only are they building off their own experience, but they’re tapping into the best practices of the entire freefall community.
“We’re always outsourcing to other units to see what they’re doing to try and bring that to the course,” Schrader said.
Halfway through the morning, the academic testing is over and students have moved on to jumpmaster personnel inspection training. Three students stand in line geared up with a parachute system and weapon; one wears additional combat equipment, and another has added combat equipment and an oxygen mask. Of course, one student is conducting the inspection, while another follows with a clipboard and a checklist to keep track of any misses.
The standard: inspect all three men and identify mistakes in their set-ups, in six minutes or less. Two Marine Corps students inspect the multi-mission parachute system, while the remaining Army, Air Force and Navy personnel must qualify on the MC-4 parachute system.
What do students struggle with most during the jumpmaster course?
“Probably self-induced stress,” Schrader said.
To counteract this stress, jumpmaster instructors keep the learning environment relaxed. For now, some instructors are hanging around the classroom, but the students know the inspection process, it’s only a matter of practicing their technique for the next few hours.
“We’re professional, user-friendly and completely open,” Schrader said. “These instructors come in on the weekend and do extra training with [the students].”
“If they have our numbers, they can call us anytime. They can call me in the middle of the night, and I don’t care. That’s what I’m here for.”
As newly qualified jumpmasters, these men will have more to learn when they report back to their units.
“This course just touches the surface for what these guys will do at their unit,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Dave Biddinger, one of the jumpmaster course instructors. “Each unit has its own specific standard operating procedure that they’re going to have to dig into, and they’ll have to interface with range control and airfields.”
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes into planning a jump that we don’t cover here because it’s more unit-specific,” he said.
For students, an instructor is literally an arm’s length away
Advanced special-operations infiltration can be dangerous, even without the threat of immediate enemy contact. The ground is just as hard in a training environment.
Cadre members may often use humor to calm these students’ nerves, but the Military Freefall School’s safety program is never a laughing matter.
“We look at like this: would we want to put our own son or daughter in the air, not able to save their own life?” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Sprouse, the school’s operations and safety officer. “We have a safety program and instructor training program that gives our cadre members every tool they need.”
“If [a student] doesn’t pull their own ripcord or if they’re spinning, our instructors can get in there to stop the spin or pull that ripcord,” Sprouse said. Yes, he means they can do that in the middle of a free fall, at 120 miles per hour.
“We have the best instructors in the world here, and pretty much anybody you can talk to will agree,” he said
Current instructors meet quarterly for school-wide safety council meetings; an open floor for anyone to propose updates to the school’s standard operating procedures.
“We give ownership to the cadre that we have out here,” Sprouse said, “and because of that they are really strict about enforcing [the safety program].”
This mentality, and experience, isn’t automatic for newly assigned cadre members.
“If a guy is a military freefall jumpmaster when he gets here, it takes him six months to complete the Military Freefall Instructor Course, and that’s if he hits every gate perfectly,” Norris said.
To qualify to attend the instructor course, candidates must have conducted at least 100 military freefall jumps. They’ll get about 125 more jumps in their instructor training.
For nine weeks, candidates learn to fly their bodies up close to students in mid-air, stop spins and roll students over.
“Once that’s completed, then you come up to the parachutist course for a shadow phase,” Bannar said. “For two classes, you have a senior instructor with you teaching you, and then in the third class you get evaluated on your instructional capability and your skills.” In the fourth class, candidates run operations from the ground, like the manifest and safety assurance, to see what happens while everyone else is in the air. After passing a final 100-question test, the candidate is a full-fledged instructor.
For the school’s cadre, their safety record speaks for itself.
“We average somewhere between 33,000 and 35,000 jumps a year out here, and with seven or eight reportable injuries, the safety standard is way high,” Norris said. ‘Reportable injuries’ are generally broken lower extremities, Sprouse said.
A military freefall exercise is an inherently high-risk operation, so cadre members constantly reinforce emergency procedures.
“We try to mitigate as many risks as we can through proficiency training, and it’s all hands-on training,” Carr said. “What we teach them here in group prep is what they’re going to have to do in the air.”
That’s not to say everything about military freefall can be taught on the ground. Experience and repetition builds confidence and reinforces instructors’ lessons. As these special operators get more freefall operations under their belt and learn to work together with their team, their tactics can be further refined for more specific situations.
Advanced Tactical Infiltration Course sharpens freefall techniques:
Military freefall is as relevant as ever in operational environments where roads are littered with IEDs and extensive early-warning networks update the bad guys on troop movements.
“We like to be able to knock on an enemy’s back door without them knowing we’re in their yard,” Sprouse said. “Military freefall offers a way to discreetly infiltrate into an enemy’s territory.”
There’s a progression to working your way through all military freefall courses, and at the end of that progression is the Advanced Tactical Infiltration Course, which is only available to those servicemembers who have conducted at least 100 military freefall jumps, and served as a freefall jumpmaster for at least a year.
“This course is the tactical side of freefall infiltration,” Norris said. “Everything is combat equipment, body armor and night-vision.”
Students attending the course spend two weeks conducting high-altitude, high-opening jumps as teams over unfamiliar parts of the Arizona desert ― not the same old drop zones they’ve navigated before in the parachutist course.
Throughout approximately 19 freefall jumps, these students will learn the latest techniques in conducting computer-guided and compass-driven navigation, rigging non-standard combat equipment, grouping and navigating toward unmarked drop zones, and rigging and deploying GPS-guided precision bundles. During the day and night.
“[Students] become subject-matter experts, so they can go back and train their detachment on tactical infiltration the way it should be done on the battlefield in the future,” Norris said.
The freefall school is always trying to push the envelope and meet the operational force’s requests for updated and advanced tactics and techniques. Between classes, the ATIC cadre members research new procedures and equipment.
“We put guys who have actually jumped into combat as cadre in ATIC,” Sprouse said. “We put retired Marines in the cadre, Army Rangers, Special Forces, all bringing their own experience from the force back to that course and making it better.”
The course will continue to grow and develop; cadre members are looking at incorporating rough-terrain landings in the future.
“I haven’t seen one guy who’s been through ATIC and said he could’ve done that at home,” Sprouse said. “Every guy says it’s a great course.”
A grand assignment in the Grand Canyon State
No matter which Military Freefall School course a potential freefaller is at looking at, they know they’re going to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of special-operations personnel from across the Department of Defense.
“We are a joint school, and people from other services lend great experience that the Army guys might not have seen,” Sprouse said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The school not only trains all services; the cadre is made of up them as well.
“It’s a melting pot of everything; we put it together and try to take the best of all of them,” Norris said. “We try to build on that team environment from all four branches.”
Between the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine special-operations communities, the school has visibility on all types of military freefall operations.
Regardless of their branch of service, freefall-qualified personnel interested in becoming a part of the Military Freefall School cadre can start with a recommendation from their unit’s sergeant major, Sprouse said.
“In all services, there’s time where you have to give back to the force or community,” he said. “In Special Forces, we call it ‘SWCS time,’ but the other forces have their own versions of SWCS.”
Why would anyone choose to spend their ‘SWCS time’ at the freefall school? Just ask Norris, who is on his third assignment in Yuma as a member of the school’s cadre.
“Arizona is a beautiful place to live, and a great place to work,” he said.
“Here in Arizona, we have almost 330 sunny days a year,” Sprouse said. “Obviously it’s a lot better [for training] than somewhere on the east coast where it rains a lot, because that inhibits our jump operations.”
“Arizona’s a great place to train, that’s why everyone comes out here,” he said.
Yuma Proving Ground, which is bigger than Rhode Island, is primarily a testing area known for its realistic training facilities; its units conduct a wide variety of military tests, incorporating medium- and long-range artillery, aircraft armament, cargo airdrop systems, unmanned aerial systems, and technology for defeating roadside bombs, to name a few.
Established in 1942, the proving ground hosted training for tens of thousands of World War II infantrymen, as well as tests on bridge designs and boats. Today the proving ground’s workforce includes over 3,000 Soldiers and civilians; the freefall school accounts for about 100 of those personnel.
“At this post, we pretty much get anything we ask for, within reason,” Norris said. “We couldn’t ask for any better working relationship, honestly.”
“I love it here, I love Yuma,” Bannar said. “As you can see, there are mountains you can hike in, and lots of travel points nearby, like San Diego, Tombstone, Vegas and Phoenix. It’s a great place to be.”
“You get to see what goes on with every branch of service, and I’ve yet to see any other classroom where the main teaching point is about 56 seconds of freefall at 120-plus mph,” Norris said. “It’s a dangerous job, but it’s an exciting job and it’s an enjoyable time in your career.”
“This is an awesome place to be assigned.”