A night at the ballet

I’d like to say that it was a dark and stormy night, but then we wouldn’t have been jumping. It was dark though and that was enough. It was back in the hoary mists of time, spring of 1978 specifically and I was in Denmark for my first overseas deployment. As a young, motor-vated paratrooper assigned to a Special Forces unit (though not SF qualified yet) I was thrilled to be deployed overseas for the first time. Especially Denmark! Exotic for a young lad who only the year before had discovered that they listened to the same music on the east coast of the States as they did on the West coast. Imagine!

So, yeah. Young. ‘Ya gotta start somewhere.

We were providing specialized communications support to the SF teams who were there to do their part for the exercise, Flintlock ’78. We had set up our communications gear, run the wire for the field phone network, got the radio teletype vans set up and connected via HF (high frequencies in the 2 – 30 MHz band, aka short wave), and   receiving A team communications from the field once they had infiltrated into their area of operations (AO).

The teams go into what is called the isolation area where they remain once they enter. There is no contact with the outside except via their liaison contact, no phone calls, no visits, nada.

1978. No InnerWebs, no email, no Skype nor chat.

The idea is that once they received their mission they would be unable to accidentally let any details out if there was no external contact. No contact with their family, girlfriend, etc. Not even any contact with any of the other teams in isolation for the same reason.

My team chief came looking for a volunteer to go in with a team. Said volunteer would go into isolation with the team for their last day of isolation then conduct infiltration with the team. My team chief knew me, he knew that going along like this would be irresistible to me. And I like to jump.

Remember that, I like to jump. We’ll revisit this later.

Here in Denmark, the exercise was to test our ability to sneak into the country, aka infiltrate, make contact with the Underground, and conduct guerrilla operations in the enemy’s rear areas without getting caught. This was a graded exercise for us, our raison d’etre.

The mission of the Danish Home Guard was to protect Denmark from invasion by the Godless Communist Hordes foreigners attempting to sneak into their country. They needed to show that they were capable of protecting Denmark from invaders of this type. For them, this was also a graded exercise.

By the time that I was volunteering we had already had a number of teams compromised. As in, the Danes were scooping the teams up right on the Drop Zone (DZ) by surrounding the DZ with vehicles then switching on the headlights while the team was performing the admin task of turning in their parachutes before heading out. Between following the DZ party when they left and some Danish liaison officers spilling the beans to their buddies, the teams were being compromised on the DZ.  While on the DZ the teams were safe, but watching them turn in the parachutes the Danes could see the team as it moved and wait for them at the edge of the DZ. For the Home Guard it was a win. For us, the teams were administratively declared “back in play” so that some training value was gained, but it was chalked up as a “fail” for us.

S2 ID’d the Dane that was spilling the beans and he was kept away, but allowed to “outfox us” and discover the DZ location. So, a plan was hatched to send a team in on the DZ with an administrative jumper (ghost jumper – for the purposes of the exercise he did not exist) whose job it would be to jump in, go with the team a short way off of the DZ where the ‘chutes would be stashed. The ghost jumper would stay with the ‘chutes, wait a half an hour then break a chemlite to mark his position so that the DZ party could find him and recover the parachutes. This would give the team time to get away yet allow for the turn in of the ‘cutes, ’cause they’re not cheap and you can’t go destroying them every time you have an exercise. If for no other reason than you can only sell so many cupcakes and brownies to the same military base before they’re tired of buying them just so you can buy more of the same equipment.

On the night designated we are loaded up in the back of a truck and the sides are all pulled down so that no one can tell what, or who, is inside. We then drive around for awhile to throw off any suspicion before going to the airfield. Once at the airfield the truck is backed up to the tail gate of an awaiting, running, C-130 and we all hustle across, trying not to look suspicious in case someone were to notice.

Masters of stealth are we when the need is upon us.

Then off into the air we go, riding in the back of a Combat Talon, a special breed of C-130 manned by a special breed of AF warrior.

Noble and proud are they. Let’s come back to this point later, shall we?

Off into the dark night we roar with red lights on inside and the curtains down so that we see not the wonders and secrets in the front of the plane and magic thereof. The magic that let’s us infiltrate into denied airspace.

Denied airspace – that portion of the air above a country that said country has decided that people hostile to them shall not fly in. Said country having numerous ways to pull in the Welcome mat like ground to air missiles, air-to-air fighters, anti-aircraft guns, you know, Go Away!

We jink, we twist, we hang on while the aircrew do that voodoo that they do so well. Eh, something like that. In the back it is indistinguishable from the aircrew wildly trying to see how long it will take those dumb Army guys in back to spew. But, it’s our job and we’re being paid to do this, we suck it up and get on with it. So, under these conditions we start the pre-jump drill.

The jumpmaster stands up, hooks up his static line, turns to face us and gives us the first jump command.

“Twenty minutes!” Both arms come up to shoulder level and he flashes his hands and fingers twice so that twenty fingers are flashed at us. Just in case you can’t hear him shouting over the noise. Hey, it happens. Obviously, this is a time warning. Wake up, pull your head out of wherever it’s been so far and start down your own internal checklist.

“Six minutes!” Both arms come up to shoulder level again while all five fingers on one hand are extended and only the forefinger on the other hand is extended. Six fingers. Another time warning, but this one also means time to start the choreographed follies.

“Get ready!” Both hands come up to shoulder level again and then the arms are extended in a pushing like motion towards us. In the dim, red light and noise that is the inside of a tube hanging from a high lift wing with four, strong, turboprop engines, you see people shift and touch those things that are for some reason most important to them. For guys that have lost a helmet, it’s their helmet straps. For guys that have lost a piece of equipment that blew off on a jump, it’s that piece of equipment. For those that have suffered a misrouted leg strap, heh.

Let me put it this way. Misrouted leg strap issues are a guy thing. It’s not a problem for female paratroopers, though they know what the issue is. Ask the paratrooper sitting next to you to explain.

“Outboard personnel, stand up!” Both arms are extended, palms up, pointed down at the ground and away from his body, towards the outside row of seats, then brought up to shoulder level. In this case, there is no one sitting on the outer row of seats against the skin of the aircraft. Had there been, they would have stood up then secured the fold up seats against the wall of the aircraft.

“Inboard personnel, stand up!” Both arms are again extended, palms up, pointed down at the ground and away from his body, this time toward the inner row of seats, then brought up to shoulder level. We stand up and get one behind the other. Two lines, one on each side of the aircraft, matching up with the two doors on the back of the aircraft, one on each side.

“Hook up!” Both of his hands come up with the forefingers of each hand in a hook shape, he moves them up and down several times. We detach the static line of our ‘chutes from the top handle of the reserve where it was snapped when we were safety checked (jumpmaster personnel inspection, JMPI, for you purists out there) on the ground, and attach it to the steel cable above our heads. Once attached we run a wire through it to ensure that it will not come undone on us.

“Check static lines!” Thumb and forefinger on each hand come up to head height and move toward  and away from us in the air. Check your your static line  to make sure it is snapped on the cable, follow it over your back, then trace the static line of the guy in front of you from his shoulder to where it attaches to his parachute. The goal here is to make sure that it is not running under a piece of green webbing or anything else that might hinder it from pulling out the parachute when he exits the aircraft.

“Check equipment!”. Arms out to the side at shoulder height, palms facing us, fingers closed, moves arms to his chest and back out again. He repeats this several times for the benefit of all. It’s noisy, it’s dim, there’s a lot happening, we want to make sure you see the command. You start at your head and check your helmet straps, then move down checking various parts of your harness including the routing of the leg straps.

This is critical for a guy. Make one jump with a misrouted leg strap and two things will happen. If you don’t wear jockey shorts, you’ll change that. Like I did. Second thing is, you’ll never let that happen again.


Get it yet? No? Stay after class and we’ll talk about it.

“Sound off with equipment check!”. Both hands come up with the hands wide open, cupping the ears. Starting at the end of each row, the last man slaps the ass of the man in front of him, if all of his checks were okay, and says “Okay!”. This ripples up to the first man in each line who points at the jumpmaster and says “All okay jumpmaster!”

At this point, the loadmaster on the aircraft has prepped the doors and has opened them. Once the jumpmaster receives the all okay from the jumpers, he turns to the loadmaster who tells him that “the doors are yours”. The jumpmast checks the door pin, which is placed to ensure that the doors don’t come down if a bad bounce or jolt causes the normal latch to release. Then he kicks on the small platform that is in each door. This ensures that it is fully down and latched in place.

You don’t want to slip and fall out of the plane before you jump out do you? (actually, there’s logic to that statement, but let’s just enjoy the moment for now).

The jumpmaster (JM) runs his hand around the opening from one side to the other ensuring that there are no jagged edges to catch on or that could cut a static line and cause an injury. He looks outside for other aircraft, just in case, though we’re flying solo on this one. Then he hangs out of the door, hands gripping the inside lip of the doorway, heels hanging off the edge of the platform. Looking all around, he then looks forward and tries to see the DZ. It is a rush to hang outside of an aircraft in flight like that, exposed to the windstream of a powerful combat lift C-130 with all four engines cranking. At first it’s unnerving. You get used to it. My favorite part of being the JM.

You look out ahead of the aircraft while hanging out, looking for the DZ. Some of my vertically challenged JMs cannot see over the wind shield that extends away from the aircraft while rigged for jumping. This panel is like a flap that comes out from the side of the aircraft and helps to shield the jumpers from some of the prop blast for a more stable exit. It’s about six feet or so tall. Those of us that used our milk money for milk when we were kids can look over it. Those that did not, squat down to look under it. Just sayin’.

At about one minute out the JM should see the DZ and he’ll come back in to give us “One mintue!”. One hand up with the forefinger pointing up. He may bring the jumpers a little closer to the door. Depending on what he sees, or doesn’t see from one side of the bird, he will move across and look out the other door. In this case, he goes back and forth several times looking for the DZ.

We’re going out the door on a Computed Airborne Release Point (CARP). The proud and accomplished air crew, using the latest in technological wizardry and inertial navigation systems has computed our release point. There is a DZ party on the ground and they mark the DZ with angled lights or flares, including the release point. The bird lines up on the flares and the JM releases us when the flanker panel comes up. For us, the CARP is a check in case you are unable to see the DZ for some reason.

Even at night.

With flares.

I maintain that the system is really CRAP – Computed Release of Army Personnel. For reasons that will soon be clear.

The JM steps to the center of the bird, facing us and says, “Stand in the door!” Both hands are raised to his chest, just the forefingers pointing out, then brought out towards the doors, one towards each door. The first jumper on each side steps to the door, the foot closest to the front of the bird on the platform with the toes just over the edge, body slightly lowered, head looking over his shoulder at the JM awaiting the final jump command. There is someone called the safety, in this case two of them, in the back of the aircraft. They are static safeties, they don’t jump, but they take the static line from the first jumper then take and control the static line of each subsequent jumper once the train leaves the station and they all start heading out.

“GO!” The green light has come on and the JM gives the final jump command. The line of paratroopers starts moving towards the doors as each man stands in the door then springs out – up six, out thirty-six, head down on his chest, both hands on the left and right ends of the reserves, the right hand over the reserve ripchord handle to ensure it doesn’t get pulled if it’s not needed, feet and knees together and extended, the whole man slightly bent forward from the waist.

Out into the darkness we spring! Into the roar of the four, fire breathing horses that power this chariot firmly through the dark skies. Out into the blast of their fiery breath which beats at you and roars in your ears, leaving you hanging quietly in the sky and the dark and the silence.




And I feel the jerk of the ‘chute opening. Once it’s open I look around, all is dark below. It’s quiet now and looking down there is no DZ under my feet. I look over my left shoulder and see flares burning on the horizon. Nowhere near us. We’re not even on the same map sheet. We are nowhere near our DZ. Effing Air Force.

I look down and see forest. Nothing but forest at first. Then I see a road, it’s not preferable, but it’s an opening in the trees. I really don’t want to land in a tree if I can help it. I do manage to maneuver myself to the road. Splash! Hit, roll, ow! Shit, my left leg/ankle hurts like hell and I’m soaking wet now too. Not a road, a stream. With rocks and water.

Remember earlier? I like to jump.

Soon we have accounted for everyone but the team leader. We hear gurgling and thrashing in the trees. It’s the team leader, dangling from his equipment which is caught on the parachute harness and now lodged firmly up under his chin. He’s desperately pulling up and trying to get our attention. He’s safely breathing, but has no breath beyond that available to him. They get him down and laugh. For some reason it takes him awhile to see the humor.

Everyone gathers on the bank of the stream and one of the team medics examines my ankle. He deems it likely a bad sprain from landing on a rock with my left foot when I landed in the stream. I’m wet, it’s cool out, I’m hurting, but we try to get them out of here as fast as possible. With the assurance of the team medic that it’s just a sprain, I assure them that they do not need to stay with me, but to get the hell out of there while they can.

I wait half an hour, then break a chemlite. Eventually the DZ party finds me, over an hour later. Driving around they spot the chemlite with their night vision goggles and come to my position. They help me back to a car, then load the parachutes on the truck. The Danes are pissed that they missed the team, which proceeds to raise all kinds of hell. Go us!

I get some crutches, which I get rid of the next day. We’re out having lunch in a Danish cafe (in uniform). When we emerge to leave a car screams up to us, stops, and two guys in uniform jump out and point sub-machine guns at us. This is the first time I’ve had a gun pointed at me like this and I’m all eyes. My partner pulls out his umpire card and lets them know that, no, they did not catch some of the Americans. One of them was inside when we showed up so he went home, got his uniform on, grabbed his gun out of his closet, grabbed his neighbor (also in the Guard), and came to save his country from the ravages of the likes of us.

Me? It turns out that the sprain is worse than I thought. Much worse. But that’s another story.

marcus erroneous


Filed under Paratroopers

18 responses to “A night at the ballet

  1. msgtbuck

    Nice piece, Marcus.

  2. oldafsarge

    Whoa, Marcus. That was a serious piece of writing my man. Hopefully there are many more stories like this. Soon to be forthcoming and such. Jumps out of airplanes and is literate? Who-da thunk it?

    • Jumps out of airplanes from up to 30,000 feet no less! Yeah, somewhat literate. I can count to twenty with my boots off, to twenty-one if not in mixed company. 😉
      Each of these takes about three or more hours what with the writing, proofreading, and editing, but I’ve got twenty years of them in me. My daughter told me that she enjoys reading these as it gives her insight into the man that she just knew as “Dad”, so I’m motivated to write more.
      I’m always concerned that they’re too long, but xbradtc seems to know how to set things up so that only so much shows up on the main page, with the rest on another. I’ll do that too once I figure it all out.
      I really had wanted to meet you at the Lexicans NE meeting. Shake your hand and tell you how much I enjoy your blog and posts. I’ll do that at the next one. I’m on my last class of my Masters program right now, so I’m sorely pressed for time. But I get my life back in June and I’ll increase my efforts then.
      Thank you and msgtbuck for your kind words.


    • oldafsarge

      I look forward to meeting you Marcus, it will be a distinct honor and privilege.

  3. Mark – I told you so. Just had to say it.
    Dammit man that’s a piece of writing for sure; had me on the edge of my seat just with the countdown inside the plane. The outside stuff I almost couldn’t read, being one of those folks who don’t understand why people want to fly let alone jump out of a plane that is, you know, flying.

  4. AndyOH

    I knew a British soldier who related an incident of badly routed strapping to me while he was exercising with the French Military – [this always comes to mind as a defenition for the word “Imperative” to me] – he was forced to support his weight by his arms all the way down and having no control of the chute he landed in a back and forth swing, backwards, heels first, fracturing his spine which, typical of British stoicism I suppose, did not stop him from walking himself to the medic van by the LZ un-assisted.

    And OT I have been meaning to email HOGDAY for idea’s on contacting/locating British Veterans – Morgan was a fine though brief aquaintance and I’ve always wondered how he faired.

    Thanks for the post Marcus

    • AndyOH,
      Yeah, no matter how hard you try, no matter how far up the risers you climb, you cannot get any relief from that pain until after you get the harness off. I tried and it didn’t work. But – I paid attention to when I was landing and did it properly to preclude things from going from bad to worse.
      HD is a great guy, he should be able to set you right in that regard.
      I’ve jumped with the French at their jump school in Pau. Great time, great folks. Their wings are the ones I usually wear ever since I was awarded them.

  5. John Blackshoe

    Marcus- Very interesting to see how other folks live. Late, lamented Lex and his fighter (and other) flying, AW1 Tim’s tales of ASW hunting in P-3s and now something from crazy guys who jump out of airplanes.

    All well written and filled with the details that we who will never do it ourselves are eager to know.

    THANKS! Look forward to more, when you have a chance.

  6. Hogday

    A stonking read Marcus. I was expecting you to say that Denmark was so small you all missed it 🙂 We have a long history with the Danes, tending to love the big blond buggers without question – after all, they managed to invade us, once!
    As for the other comments, I’d be happy to try and help.

    • I’m guessing “stonking read” is a good thing? England and the United States, two countries separated by a common language. 😉
      That would not be a stretch, Denmark isn’t that large. This particular story took place on Jutland, not too far from Aarhus. I have another Flintlock story that also takes place in Denmark, but on Seeland. It involves HALO jumping and things going every way but right. And the AF releasing them via HARP with similar results. Maybe that will be my next one.
      Thank you, kind sir.


    • Main Entry: stonking
      Part of Speech: adj
      Definition: excellent, very impressive

      Other examples: hoofing
      Part of speech: adj (Royal Marine speak)
      Def: See `stonking`

      Also see: http://www.cotleighbrewery.com/brand.php?&dx=1&ob=3&rpn=hoofing&id=31&sx=5

  7. @HD,
    It’s the differences that make life so special. I’d tell you not to change, but that would be like carrying coals to Newcastle. 😉
    Thank’ee sir.


  8. RJL

    So did your team end up making their rendezvous with the Danish underground, blowing up the bridge, and finding the buried gold?

    Fantastic read, Marcus!

    • You forgot getting the girls, an important point in Denmark. Those that have not been there know the place for it’s Viking heritage. Those that have know it for its good beer and wondrous female population. Right friendly they are, though their boyfriends not so much the fourth night in a row that we walk into their club and leave with their women. Good will and forbearance always being in limited supply. The men get right testy about that time. For the good it did’em. But that’s another story.

      To your point, yes. They successfully infiltrated their AO, linked up with the partisans, and raised holy hell in the Danish countryside, to the chagrin of the HG forces.


  9. colocomment

    I’m living vicariously through your stories, Marcus. Your attention to the particulars truly makes events come alive: I floated through the air with you during HALO, watched for chem lights during Night Jump, and now have rigourously experienced pre-jump preparation. Can’t wait for the next installment. This is like watching serial weekly Tom Mix cliffhangers at the movies as a kid. 🙂
    PS: I know that you mentioned how long it takes to craft each one & I wanted to tell you that the extra time you take to re-read and polish them and proof them makes for a five-star reading experience. The experiences are so awesome to we’uns who only observe from afar, that it would be the height of shame to publish them with avoidable blemishes.
    PPS: I make a good part of my living proofreading for form and content & would be happy to assist should you have the need of someone to do that. T’would be much more enjoyable a project than scrutinizing contracts and legal memoranda!

    • I’m glad to read your comments. Lex had a wonderful way of putting us in the cockpit with him, for those of us that did not and will not ever now, do such deeds. My attempts are to do that with my experiences, put you out there with me, live it, feel it, enjoy it. And to do it as close to meeting Lex’s standards as I can.

      You have my sympathy proof reading the documents that you do. Necessary, but probably dry at best. A tough slog if ever there was one.


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