At a 125-mile-per-hour free fall, wind rips at your eardrums. There’s a constant signal of television white noise cranking through your skull.
Even in mid-July, 9,500 feet above Arizona topsoil, the temperature is quasi-fall weather. Its cold sting bleeds into your jumpsuit. Beneath your goggles, tears of marble cut across your frozen cheeks.
Down below, the endless Yuma Proving Grounds are a mountainous quilted earth of brown and rusted green, each stalk of foothill bounces toward the morning sky, and you barely have time to breathe. If all goes according to plan, this will be over in just forty-two eternal seconds.
Or much, much sooner.
See, in the military everything’s measured in the amount of time needed to complete each task. That is to say everything’s measured. Time is an important military philosophy. They teach you this from week zero in BMT. Lights out at 2100. Meals are no more than ten minutes apiece. Three meals a day. Five minute showers. Sunday’s a personal day – with an itinerary. From week zero you’re a machine. They’re building you this way. A warrior airman.
The short, chiseled wingman sitting next to you on the ride up, his hands clasped together as if in prayer, recites the Airman’s Creed. It takes twenty-seven nautical minutes from lift-off for an MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft to reach the drop zone of the first jump. In twenty-seven minutes, you can recite the Airman’s Creed to yourself at least fifty times—I am an American Airman; I am a Warrior; I have answered my nation’s call.
But in your mind, during those twenty-seven minutes, all you can think about is what Benny told you last night in the dorm room while you were supposed to be sleeping.
What the recruiters don’t say when you start the Pipeline is how most of you won’t graduate from the program. It’s a two-year commitment. After nineteen weeks under intense evaluation by military physiologists in Texas, you’re barely halfway through the Pipe. Then they send you to the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Florida. Spend six agonizing weeks with hundreds of Swabby’s leering down your shoulders, and you’ve about had enough of the entire process.
Though no matter how torturous it was in Panama, those six weeks pale in comparison to Survival School. They do things to you there to prove just how machine-like you really are. They starve you of sleep for seventy-two hours, as you chant enthusiastically: I am an American Airman, my mission is to fly, fight, and win. Underwater simulations nearly drown you: I am faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor and a legacy of valor.
The Pipeline is a bucket of melted metal, and they’re drizzling it down your spine.
You went into Survival School with forty other wingmen, and only ten of you made it through to the next stage: five defining weeks of HALO school. Supposedly, it’s here at Fort Bragg where your balls get their wings. Thirty free fall parachuting exercises in a month and a half. Last year alone saw an attrition rate of virtually eighty percent. Out of the ten people in your flight, then, maybe two of you will advance from Fort Bragg to Kirtland. Maybe two.
And during those twenty-seven minutes leading up to your first jump—the aircraft’s heavy motor vibrating through your bones, the worms squirming loosely in your gut, the bulging wingman on the bench beside you whispering, I am an American Airman, Guardian of freedom and justice—you start to think about Benny and about how these TIs don’t really tell you a lot of things. Life and death things.
Like how, three weeks ago, before your flight arrived here at the Army Military Parachutist School, a trainee fell out of formation during his first night jump. You have to understand, though, Benny says, the boy’s father is retired Air Force. Put in seven years as a serviceman in Ohio and another year doing a tour in South Korea. The son’s thinking this is his chance to make his father proud, to stoke the family name: a PJ in the United States Air Force.
Last night in the dorm, Benny’s plucking his socks off his feet and throwing them in the hamper in the corner of the room and saying, Here it is the second to last jump, see, and the boy falls out of formation. Up until now, he’s maintained pristine evals. Daddy’s Golden Boy. So when his left leg slips out of form and his body starts to spin, this trainee gets paranoid. Starts to think about his one blemish on his scorecard, about how few trainees ever get to call themselves pararescuemen. Made it this far, but one minor hiccup and you’re useless. That’s the difference between Daddy’s adoration and Daddy’s shame.
During your brief stint at Fort Benning, Georgia, you learned that terminal velocity is the highest velocity attainable by an object in free fall, that once the sum of the drag force and buoyancy are equal to the pull of gravity, you’ve reached terminal velocity. In the event that you fall out of formation and lose sight of the group, the TIs instruct you to proceed as a solo jumper. Not to attempt to fall back into the group. At a 125-mile-per-hour free fall, every added calculation is an added risk. One blunt mistake and the penalty is death.
This boy, says Benny, opening his mouth to let out a yawn, starts to freak. He has to fall back into formation so he can get a perfect score on the jump. Otherwise it’s hidy-ho, sayonara. Spazy thinks he’s spotted the group a couple hundred feet below him. But by this time, he’s all but lost his mind. Forgets everything they taught him in class about air sense and stability. All the boy sees are six dots falling in the shape of a V. What he doesn’t know is those six dots are actually one, but his head’s bouncing around like a rocket and he can’t get control of himself, Benny tells you. And nothing’s making a lick of sense anymore.
Because all he can think about is what’ll happen if he doesn’t get himself back into formation his air sense has vanquished, and at 4,000 feet he never pulls the cord.
Away and away he goes, Benny tells you with a stoic grin, nosediving it.
Benny’s reaching for the desk lamp to turn off the light and he says, Twelve seconds later a switch goes off in the boy’s head. But it’s too late. That tiny dot, it’s a semi-trailer driving down Hwy 95. The boy’s a pile of buzzard food before the truck even catches up to him. A gooey mess of reverberated velocity. The paramedics found the boy’s toenails inside his own brain. How’s that for a legacy?
The TIs are under strict orders not to let the story get out. Media catches a scent and suddenly this two-year “Pipeline” training process isn’t worth a tax dime. There goes another bill of funding here, another there, and before you know it, the Air Force can’t afford to standard-issued parachutes.
Another thing you learn from week zero is they don’t make it easy to procure facial hair in the Air Force. Sideburns must be cut off mid-ear level. Cheeks should be bald, soft as a baby’s bottom. Nothing rounding or below the lips. That leaves that single sliver of skin directly between the top lip and bottom of the nose. This is where TSgt. Michaelson salvages an identity.
This morning, 0500, all ten of the wingmen in your flight gather around the aircraft for a last minute pep talk. You’re standing next to Benny when Technical Sergeant says with a southern drawl, “Today’s the day your balls get their wings.”
He pauses, scratches the hair above his lip with an index finger. “Boys call your mothers last night? Tell her what brave men you’ve become?”
Always reply as a group. Yes, Sir! Never as an individual. They don’t need any free-thinkers in the United States military. Not at this stage. You’re the workings of a machine now. The higher ranks do the button-pushing.
TSgt. Michaelson sucks in his left cheek, cranes his neck at the ten of you, and then spits a burst of air, saying, “Brave or stupid. We’ll see soon enough.”
Twenty-seven minutes later and you can see how sharply the troposphere curves over the Arizona mountain range. Somewhere a light purple blends into an even blue. TSgt. Michaelson’s standing by the threshold and beckoning you to jump first. You don’t look down the bench, but you can feel all nine of the other trainees’ faces glaring from down the aisle. A soft voice declares, My nation’s sword and shield, it’s sentry and avenger. Each one of these trainees are thinking the same thing. Only two of you are making it through this stage of the Pipeline. Only two. Probably.
Technical Sergeant continues to wave you onward, but you stay seated. Transfixed on the vast nothingness outside the jump threshold. All that blue.
The TIs check your gear before boarding the aircraft. You check it yourself. Once. Twice. Four times. But it’s not the gear you’re worried about. The gear is state of the art—who knows how many accidents were covered up to keep it that way. No, you’re worried about how you’re going to react. At terminal velocity, there’s no room for free-thinking. That’s how people get lost in their own heads. That’s how your toenails stab into your brain.
“Last chance,” TSgt. Michaelson shouts above the roar of the motor. He’s stopped flailing his arms out the door, already written you off as a wingless deserter. The sun casts a thick yellow hue over his gleaning top lip.
What TSgt. Michaelson couldn’t possibly know, on the phone last night, mom and dad never doubted you. They said they couldn’t be happier. Their son, a pararescueman. Now that’s something a parent can brag about.
Grandpa, rest his soul, would be so proud.
TSgt. Michaelson doesn’t know that you’re supposed to be third-generation Air Force. Wingman. Leader. Warrior.
This is all dad’s been talking about, lately, mom said. The neighbor’s kid works at Kroger, and every time dad goes into the store, he’s glad that’s not you behind the deli counter, slicing chicken bacon ranch and Colby Jack cheese for his work buddies’ lunches.
You have to jump.
TSgt. Michaelson doesn’t know that you have to jump. Or maybe he does. Maybe he’s seen that white-hot look in your eyes before.
The oxygen mask is over your face by the time you approach the threshold. In your lower peripheral is a dead wasteland. Everywhere else, blue sky. Technical Sergeant’s hand is on your back, nudging you forward. A subtle pull of wind is sucking you even closer to the edge. This is where you close your eyes. Fingers flex tightly around the small of your back and then you’re falling into gravity at 125 miles-per-hour.
In an instant, the blood in your body is a sweaty ice-pack. Relentless noise claws its way inside your head. Your tear glands harden. A mild stream of tears form at the corners of your sockets, and you open your eyes. The ground spreads like pancake batter.
And then, sometime between six and five thousand feet, it hits you hard in the gut. Suddenly you’re the boy from Benny’s story, toenails and all. The Pipeline is supposed to be unbeatable. Mom and dad don’t realize how unlikely it is their son will ever graduate. They don’t care how terrified you are of this jump. And deep down, neither do you. An American Airman will never lose. He will never falter.
Right now, as the ground charges toward your frail body, they are crafting you into the machine they need you to be. That liquid metal has already seeped in through your pores. That’s what the Pipeline is, really. A metal-bashing-metal race against odds. If you survive long enough, you’ll become dead to yourself. You’ll become the machine you volunteered to become. One way or another, you’re not making it through the program.
Even if you make it to the ground in one piece, there’s still twenty-nine more jumps after this one.
Photo by Wojciech Kielar (Wojciech Kielar) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons