Although today’s combat doesn’t require mass paratrooper jumps to enter the battle, learning how to get from the sky to the enemy by parachuting continues to be a valuable skill for the military, including Marines.
Many service members who attend the Army’s basic airborne course seek the thrill and adventure of leaping out of an airplane.
Those who get the chance to attend airborne training learn the techniques of static line parachute insertion. In this type of jump, hopeful paratroopers hook a line connected from their chute to a strongpoint in the aircraft and jump from varying altitudes between 800 to 1000 feet. Their “static” line tugs against the aircraft, deploying their canopy and with some help from gravity, they glide down to a controlled landing on ground or water.
Simple or sexy? Based on feedback from a seasoned jumpmaster, the second part may be the deciding factor.
“There’s a certain sexiness that goes along with parachuting,” said Gunnery Sgt. Brad Colbert, special operations chief of the basic airborne course in Fort Benning, Ga. “It has a bit of a mystique to it.”
Although there are plenty of Marines who may want to earn their jump wings by attending the Army’s basic airborne course in Fort Benning, it’s an opportunity afforded to only a few. In fact, Marines with the parachute rigger occupational specialty are the only Marine Corps personnel required to attend the course.
“Riggers are responsible for aerial delivery operations of both personnel and equipment into combat zones,” said Sgt. Jose Cono, an air delivery specialist and instructor for the Marine Corps parachute riggers course in Ft. Lee, Va.
As an early part of their initial training prior to being assigned to a unit, riggers attend the basic course to get an understanding of the static line parachute system. They are required to understand the ins and outs of their parachutes, including packing, repairing and maintenance.
“To be proficient at your job, you should be able to pack and jump your own shoot,” said Cono. “Becoming familiar with the equipment qualifies a Marine to do his job.”
Upon completion of the basic airborne course, riggers continue their school training then are assigned to reconnaissance platoons, combat logistics regiments, or special operations commands. Marines from these same units, who are not parachute riggers, are also regularly afforded the opportunity to complete the basic airborne course. The knowledge they gain can provide a stepping-stone to even more specialized Marine Corps training.
“It’s a basis for an insert platform in the recon community,” said Staff Sgt. Jacob Leask, an airborne instructor and Marine liaison at the BAC. “The real advantage for going to a basic airborne course is that you can then go to a free-fall course.”
Free-fall parachuting, also known as high altitude-high opening or high altitude-low opening parachute insertion, enables Marines to insert into an area of operation from altitudes between 15,000 to 35,000 feet — depending on the needs and danger that may or may not be present. Marines jump from an aircraft and fall to an altitude where they can safely deploy their parachutes and glide in for a safe landing.
Colbert says the capabilities of aerial deployment of troops in tactical combat zones are, and will continue to be, an invaluable asset to the Corps.
“The ability to insert into a particular target area, unbeknown to the enemy, is extremely important for the reconnaissance and Marine special operations community,” Colbert said. “This enables a team to be inserted behind enemy lines without detection — providing the most stealth for the team on its infill.”
The Basic Airborne Course
In order to successfully complete the basic course, Marines must complete three weeks of training aboard Fort Benning. “Ground week” starts off the training with a focus on the parachute
landing fall. PLF techniques teach jumpers how to properly transfer energy from the fall up the sides of their legs and knees to the upper body to prevent injuries. The repetition of body movement and keeping their knees and feet together at all times during training drills builds muscle memory. Students jump from platforms of varying heights, concentrating on proper body positions when they land.
During the second week of training, “tower week,” students get used to being strapped into a parachute harness. They use the mock door trainer, which simulates mass exits from an aircraft in flight. They also learn about “opening shock,” chute deployment, steering their chute, and refining their landing techniques.
The third and final week is jump week. During this most crucial evolution in their training, students complete five static-line jumps in order to graduate. The first jump of the week is arguably the most anticipated event of the course.
“When you’re jumping out, you’re taught to look out at the horizon,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Froio, a team leader with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, and recent honor graduate from the basic airborne course. “As soon as you step out, the blast from the (aircraft propeller) blows you away from the plane. You get pretty disoriented the first couple of times and really have no idea which way is up. Then the chute opens and jars you pretty hard. As soon as you realize you’re not falling anymore, it’s a good thing.”
Jumping with a variety of configurations from no load up to a 30-pound, full-combat load during the week gives the students the opportunity to become comfortable with the knowledge they have obtained during the course.
“The first jump was honestly slightly terrifying and a really big rush,” said Lance Cpl. John-Michael Pauze, a communications systems operator with 1st Radio Reconnaissance Battalion. “I just continued to build confidence from the first jump to the fifth.”
Marines who complete the course return to the fleet and use their knowledge to support the Marine Corps mission.
“I can now move on to do HAHO jumps and fulfill my billet as a team leader,” said Froio. “I have to be able to jump my team. As a Marine, it’s pretty special to complete the course. Not a lot of Marines get to go to jump school and as a reconnaissance Marine, it’s essential.”
Between 350 and 450 students graduate from each class. 15 to 20 of those students are Marines.
“Marine students tend to stand out among the other services, since we generally have a smaller population and come with an innate sense of initiative and leadership.” Colbert said. “Marine students and instructors are very hard working and set a good example for all of the students.”
This leadership quality carries over to the Marine Corps instructors
Currently, there are three Marines on staff as instructors at the BAC. The number of Marine instructors can fluctuate from two to six, depending on how many school seats are allotted for the year. All of the instructors are pulled from the reconnaissance career field, since they are the preponderance of jumpers in the Marine Corps.
Marines who complete the school are awarded basic parachutist wings – which are the Army standard bestowed upon graduation. Marines who serve in a parachuting billet for at least 90 days are issued the Navy-Marine Corps insignia, or gold jump wings, after they complete an additional 5 jumps. Marines are required to jump a minimum of once per quarter to maintain their proficiency (as per Marine Corps order 3120.11.)
“Most units train to a much higher standard than that,” Colbert said. “It’s based on the individual training requirements that a unit has, but the more times you jump, the better capabilities for the Corps there are going to be. Marines need to jump in adverse conditions, including night jumps and full combat equipment, to obtain as close to a realistic profile as possible and maintain proficiency.”
Marines who are interested in attending a basic airborne course must complete an airborne physical exam, perform a physical fitness test meeting army standards within 30 days prior to reporting for the course, and must be recommended by their commanding officer.
On average, the Marine Corps is allotted 750 school seats per year at the airborne school, which is the minimum to satisfy the requirements for Marine Corps parachuting according to Colbert. Marine Corps training and education command determines the school assignments that will be divided between operational units and provides many of the remaining training opportunities as reenlistment incentives for other Marines throughout the fleet.
“For a lot of Marines who may not be able to participate in this kind of training, it is exciting and outside of their normal daily routine,” Colbert said. “Marines tend to really enjoy it and those that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to this type of activity, really get a lot out of it as well.”