How Army Paratroopers Train to Parachute at Airborne School

  • Army paratroopers must graduate from Airborne School, a three-week training course at Fort Benning.
  • The school is broken into three phases: ground week, tower week, and jump week.
  • Airborne-qualified soldiers on current jump status receive an extra $150 per month.

Following is a transcript of the video. 

Narrator: When this Airborne student collided with a Humvee parked in the drop zone, our camera crew feared she was seriously injured, if not worse.

Producer: Damn!

Instructor: Hey, sir, what are you doing?

Producer: Me?

Instructor: Yeah.

Producer: Filming.

Instructor: You can’t. Uh-uh, no.

Narrator: An instructor ordered us to stop recording while the medics tended to her. A few minutes later, she was back on her feet and walking without assistance. When we caught up to her, she was all smiles, getting ready for her next jump.

Alexandra Davis: The medic checked me out. I didn’t pull anything. I didn’t tear anything. I didn’t break anything. I was very grateful and also very conscious of the fact that I didn’t hear a pop.

Narrator: That may be due to the fact that Davis listened to this instructor’s advice right before she crashed.

Narrator: Keeping the feet and knees together is an essential component of executing a safe landing after a jump.

Instructors: Feet and knees together. Feet and knees together. Feet and knees together. Feet and knees together. Feet and knees together.

Davis: Keep your feet and knees together.

Instructor: Feet and knees together!

Narrator: It’s a phrase heard ad nauseam at Airborne School, a three-week course where the Army trains students to become paratroopers.

Mark Krafcky: Throwing yourself out of an aircraft is not a natural thing, especially at an altitude of 1,250 feet. It is a feeling like nothing you have ever felt before.

Narrator: Insider spent five days at Airborne School, where we observed different classes in the three phases of training.

Isaac Lee Henderson: Ground week is pretty much an introduction. When they land on the ground, what procedures they need to take. And it’s just building that confidence in their equipment.

[soldiers yelling]

Tower week is the second week. Overcoming your fears of jumping. Jump week is the culminating event. You jumping out of aircraft. You successfully make five jumps, and you graduate Airborne School. Overall objective is to provide a capability to put a battalion-size-plus element in a location within 72 hours.

Narrator: On day one, students have to pass two physical assessments.

Instructor: First group, get ready.

Narrator: First …

Instructor: Up!

Narrator: The flex arm hang.

Instructor: Uncross your feet.

Narrator: Where students must perform a pull-up and remain in place for 10 seconds.

Instructor: Up!

Narrator: This exercise requires the same technique and amount of upper-body strength to perform what’s known as a slip, where a paratrooper grabs handles on the harness called risers and pulls down to adjust the parachute’s direction.

Jacob Vantonder: To really pull good slip, you’re pulling, I think, 60% of your body weight.

Instructor: If you cannot hook up to the anchor line cable, you are a reach assessment failure. Do you understand?

Narrator: The second physical test assesses a student’s ability to reach the cable they must connect to before jumping.

Instructor: Extend your arm. Straighten up. Spread your fingers.

Brianna Kostecka: Being a smaller human, I was definitely nervous about that, but when I got there, I stretched my arm out as high as I could and realized, all right, I qualify. And that was a good feeling, ’cause I was a little bit nervous.

Narrator: While most pass with ease, for some students, a failed reach assessment brings an end to their training before it officially begins. About 15,000 students enroll in Airborne School each year, and roughly 13,000 graduate. About 10% of students are female.

Lyla Rausch: I’m 17, and so I joined right out of high school. My friends now, they’re just graduating. They’re just going to college. That’s the new things that they’re starting. And the things I wanted to start right out of high school is, you know, saving people’s lives and jumping out of planes.

Newsreel: The Army wants still more volunteers from its ranks for parachute duty.

Narrator: Since 1940, paratroopers have been trained at the Fort Benning Army installation, which straddles the Alabama-Georgia border about 100 miles southwest of Atlanta.

Newsreel: Stand by for the jump light. That’s it! More and more trips like this one, and the fledgling paratrooper gets his wings. His pay will be $50 a month more than regular soldiers of his rank.

Narrator: Today, paratroopers still get extra pay. Students who graduate from Airborne School get $150 per month added to their paycheck, classified as Hazardous Duty Incentive Pay.

Instructor: All right, you’re going to grab one parachute and one reserve.

Narrator: Students use mock parachutes to learn how to safely don and rig them before a jump.

Instructor: Airborne, walk all the way to the end.

Narrator: Marking the beginning of ground week.

Instructor: Slap, step, kick, count.

Davis: The ground-week phase gives you confidence in your competency.

Instructor: If you’re on the left door, your static line is in the left hand. Davis: You don’t have to be the strongest or the smartest.

Instructor: Recover!

Davis: If you can remember to do very specific things at very specific times, you’ll be fine.

Instructor: These are your equipment rings. Below that, you have your saddle.

Paul Fisher: We teach them how to properly put on what’s called a harness. Teach them how to rig it. The different components of the harness. Airborne, once you are finished and you’re ready for inspection, come to me.

Narrator: After donning and rigging the harness, an instructor inspects the students’ work.

Fisher: Hold. Squat. Turn. Bend. Recover. Recover. Recover.

Producer: Sergeant, what’s up with the little love tap you give the students?

Fisher: That’s basically called the seal of approval. [laughing] Recover. Basically, they have what’s called five points of contact. The balls of the feet, the calves, the thigh, the buttocks, and the pull-up muscle. Recover. The fourth point of contact is the easier, accessible part of the body that doesn’t have anything to interfere as far as the harness itself. Recover. That fourth point of contact is their seal of approval that your equipment is good, I’ve checked it, and you’re good to go. Green light. Go! Step. Kick. Count. Then they’ll move to what’s called the mock doors. So the mock doors is where they’ll learn how to properly do individual exits from the aircraft. Kick, count. Which is basically keeping those elbows tight, feet and knees together, knees slightly bent, and so on and so forth. Green light. Go!

Narrator: The mock door prepares students for what it’s like to jump, but not to land. Paratroopers land at speeds of about 13 miles per hour with a force comparable to jumping from a 9- to 12-foot wall. Which is why they practice the parachute landing fall, or PLF, from a height of roughly 3 feet to develop a safe technique for landing. 

Jacob Taylor: Essentially, it is a choreographed movement of them creating a banana shape or a rocking-chair shape. They do a small bunny hop off the wall, they hit the ground, they tuck their chin down in their chest with their elbows high in front of their face. I like to concentrate on keeping their feet together, so that there’s more surface area for the impact of jumping out of the aircraft to absorb into, so that they can roll, getting them to bleed off the momentum so that they do not get injured.

Fernando Ramirez: It hurt. It was annoying falling over and over and over until you get it right. And even then, you have to fall more and more.

Instructor: Land.

Ramirez: This is my life that’s on the line, so I appreciate that. So.

Instructor: Land.

Narrator: After PLFs …

Instructor: Good.

Narrator: They move to the lateral drift apparatus.

Instructor: Land.

Narrator: A zip line they slide across until they’re ordered to let go and land.

Jacob Taylor: It simulates the lateral drift that will happen in the air due to wind. So then they’ll have more momentum to actually complete the parachute-landing fall and kick it up and over.

Instructor: All right, everyone, remember, you are slipping to the right.

Narrator: Students use the suspended harness to practice pulling a slip.

Vantonder: So, you would pull a slip in the direction that you want to go. So if you want to go to your front and to your left, you’re going to pull a front left slip, as it would be all the way around all four risers.

Narrator: The T-11 parachute is not technically steerable, but executing a slip is the only option for avoiding a collision.

Vantonder: Whether it’s avoiding trees, other jumpers, they do work, and that’s why we teach them here.

Ramirez: Doing it constantly, knowing which way to slip, so in the air I’m confident which direction I’m going to go.

Narrator: Everything taught during ground week is taken to a new height the following week.

Davis: Tower week. You’re 34 feet off the ground. What are you going to do? You know, nobody knows how they’re going to react when they’re staring that door in the face. And I think everyone had that gut check, if you will, when they were up there. But once you send it, once you’re jumping off, you’re good.

Instructor: Go.

Krafcky: The height of the tower is typically where a lot of people are going to show the panic and the fear of heights, and the tower is used to help them control that fear.

Henderson: When you get up in that tower, everybody’s excited. You walking up the stairs, just like anybody else, but then, now reality sets in when I’m standing up here, 34 foot in the air. And now you asking me to jump out.

Instructor: Green light, go.

Student: 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000.

Krafcky: They’re going to kick out, creating the explosive power required for them to exit the aircraft, getting a good up-6-, out-36-inch exit far away from the aircraft. As soon as their foot leaves the platform, they begin to count to 6,000.

Student: 1,000, 2,000, 3,000.

Krafcky: At the end of your 6,000 count, your main canopy will have fully deployed and has begun its inflation process and begun its descent to the ground.

Instructor: You did everything right.

Narrator: Students are observed and evaluated by instructors, who critique them until they have developed an exit worthy of a live jump.

Instructor: All right, do it again.

Rausch: I actually jumped the mock tower 22 times, just ’cause I just had to perfect it and get it right. You got to kick out a certain amount to get far enough away. And that was probably the thing I struggled with the most.

Narrator: The final exercise during tower week is the improved swing landing trainer, an opportunity to practice a parachute-landing fall in a more realistic way.

Nathan Huston: It simulates the oscillation and downward movement that you would experience on a normal parachute jump. They will swing until they get into a good parachute-landing-fall position. In a true parachute-landing fall, you are not looking at the ground, so you don’t know when you’re going to hit. We don’t tell them, “I’m dropping you now.” We just say, “Hold what you got; prepare to land.” That way, they know the ground will be coming soon. They just won’t know when.

Narrator: The instructor pulls a cable that causes the student to fall.

Huston: This is also the most dangerous course when it comes to the actual training. We’ve seen broken bones. We’ve seen concussions result from this training more so than any other training.

Narrator: Training culminates with jump week, where students apply everything they’ve learned in five different jumps from a live aircraft flying 1,250 feet off the ground. Jump week begins with a jog to the airfield.

Davis: Running down here from the barracks, it’s a very slow pace. I found out the purpose of that was to check to see if anyone had any injuries. And then it’s a waiting game until you finally get to jump.

Narrator: Students pick up their main and reserve parachutes, which have been meticulously packed and inspected by riggers. The team uses a 13-step process to pack about 75,000 parachutes a year for Airborne students. If the riggers discover any deficiencies in a parachute, it is removed from circulation.

Officer: What was the deficiency with that guy?

Rigger: A hole in the apex.

Officer: A hole in the apex?

Rigger: Yeah.

Narrator: Students head to the harness shed, where instructors inspect their parachutes.

Cecily Lozano: So, they go through five. Five rounds of inspections by the time they exit the aircraft, just to verify, re-verify, triple verify, make sure that everything is in order.

Marcus Lucas: Everything from checking the helmet and the actual T-11 harness and the parachute for any deficiencies. Any cuts, frays, any twists, anything that could injure the jumper or cause a malfunction.

Narrator: After the inspections, students wait, and wait, and wait, their jumps often delayed for hours by weather and air traffic control.

Kostecka: I will say, the harness shed is not fun. You can’t talk. You can’t go to the bathroom. You just have to sit there in our nice comfy harnesses until you get to jump.

Narrator: Finally, the students get the signal that it’s time to board the C-130 Hercules that will fly them to the drop zone.

Instructor: Say hi to your mom!

Narrator: The C-130 flies toward Fryar Drop Zone, on the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River.

Tristan Arnold: When you’re sitting there waiting, it’s like it’s not real yet. When they open the door, it’s just like, “Oh.” You know, if your heart’s not already beating, that’s when it starts, ’cause you’re just about to go.

Narrator: Before the students jump, two instructors go to assess wind conditions.

Lucas: So, they’ll jump out, not pull a slip, see where the wind’s taking them. And then we’ll send that wind data up to the aircraft.

Narrator: On the ground, a smoke bomb ignited in a barrel provides an additional sense of wind direction and speed. The students hook their static lines to the anchor line cable. This connection will open the chute upon jumping.

Henderson: It’s one of those things that, you don’t know that much about it until you do it. And it’s not as scary as people think it is.

[wind gusting]

Student: 4,000, 5,000, 6,000.

Henderson: We all have fears. A lot of folks are scared of heights. You know, you hear the stories, possible fatalities, and you allow that to get in your head, but once you get here to the school, you will see that it’s nothing like you ever thought it would be. That 18 to 20-something seconds you have falling out of the sky, you’re in your happy place.

Davis: The most surprising thing that I experienced when I exited the aircraft was the calm. It’s like slipping into the void, and there’s absolute silence. And it’s such a cool feeling.

Instructor: Keep your feet together!

Narrator: But accidents can occur.

Davis: I knew I was coming for the Humvee. I tried to calm down as much as I could, keep my slip, cover my face, and just wait for what happened next.

Narrator: Had 1st Lt. Davis landed just a few inches to the left, her face and head could have collided with a metal handle on the side of the Humvee.

Davis: Mentally, I was back in my plebe combative class at West Point. There’s a point in the class where you are going to get hit in the face, and you have to prepare for it. And I thought, “I’m going to get hit, and I have to prepare.”

Lucas: When you jump, you can’t have a clear drop zone. We have to have vehicles out there for emergency purposes. And the best you can do is pull a one-riser slip opposite the direction of the hazard, feet and knees together, try to land.

Davis: Our next jump was the night jump, so you can imagine a somewhat traumatizing experience occurring, and then I was really, really trying to just remind myself that I’m good at this and just have faith in the equipment.

Producer: So, how did that one go?

Davis: It went flawlessly. Flawlessly. It was great.

Instructor: Feet and knees together!

Narrator: Flawless landings are rare during the final jump, when students jump with about 35 pounds of combat gear added to their load.

Kostecka: It was really nice to get it over with on a combat jump, which, that isn’t fun, ’cause you’re carrying all the equipment. But once you get out of the aircraft and you realize that being a smaller person kind of aids in bringing you down to the ground a little bit slower, it all pays off.

[crowd clapping]

Announcer: All right, comes in for a nice target landing!

Narrator: Friends and family gather to see the newest class of Airborne-qualified soldiers graduate after three weeks of training.

Students: Airborne!

Henderson: What you see is a student that comes here, they don’t know what to expect. They chose to do something that probably over one-third of the Army won’t do. It’s something to have this wing on your chest. You have proven that, hey, you jumped out of a moving aircraft. So they confidence just get greater and greater at each phase of the course.

Ramirez: I was afraid of heights but managed to step up to the plate, jump out the plane. And now I can say that I’m Airborne-qualified.

Davis: I’ve definitely grown in confidence in myself. I’m a signal officer, so I work on computers, and it’s very different having a trust that a modem will function versus a parachute opening. I’m the last military member in my immediate family to become Airborne-qualified. So, as my mom would say it, I’m no longer a dirty, nasty leg. So that’s fun.

Producer: What is the “leg” thing?

Henderson: So, a leg is someone who don’t have Airborne wings. You can have everything. You ain’t got Airborne wings, you a leg. So that’s what we call you, a leg. 376 Airborne students that just graduated, no longer legs.

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