Dropping equipment, saving lives is all part of a day in the life of a parachute

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman S.I. Fielder
  • 347th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
As a retired U.S. Navy pilot sat in a restaurant long after Vietnam War ended, he was confronted by a complete stranger.
"You were shot down. You parachuted into enemy hands and spent six years as a prisoner of war."
"How in the world did you know all that?" said retired Navy Capt. Charles Plumb to the stranger, according to http://www.charlieplumb.com.
The man replied, "Because, I packed your parachute." 

This chance meeting made the retired captain wonder how many times he passed the man on board the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and hadn't said 'good morning.' He realized he couldn't have cared less ... until the one day his parachute was needed and the man was his "rigger." 

Many Team Moody members put their lives in the hands of these survival equipment specialists as the retired captain once had, and it is these Airmen who make sure a parachute is ready to use when needed. 

"(The parachute) is our second chance," said Capt. Dave Evans, 49th Fighter Training Squadron instructor pilot. "If the airplane doesn't work, that's how we are getting home. Obviously, we do everything we can to get the airplane home, but sometimes there comes a time when it's not possible." 

Lt. Col. Robert Sweet, 435th Fighter Training Squadron commander, recalled when he used his parachute as a "second chance" during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He couldn't believe what was happening to him the instant his aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile over Iraq. 

"It just reiterated that as a fighter pilot there are very few things for sure in life," he said. "But, one of them is that when you pull the ejection seat handle, it better work. It worked as advertised." 

Other customers of the parachutes also look for that type of security. During the search and rescue mission, the parachute is required to ensure the load, whether it's Airmen or equipment, safely reaches the landing zone.
Although an airdrop is not the safest type of landing, it is sometimes needed when a drop must happen over unfriendly areas or in places with no landing zone, said 1st Lt. Jerome Robinson, 71st Rescue Squadron navigator. 

"I calculate the release point based on the different variables, such as the type of parachute being used, the aircraft's altitude and the weight under the canopy," he said. "If the parachute isn't packed correctly, the equipment could hit the ground too soon and (break), or the (pararescuemen) could get injured." 

After the landing zone has been calculated, the PJs use a static-line or free-fall jump maneuver. The type of jump depends mainly on who is participating and what type of mission needs to be accomplished, said Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Marshall, 38th Rescue Squadron flight superintendent. 

"In our fixed-wing mission, the parachute is our way in," said Sergeant Marshall. "If we have an isolated person and it will take too long to get ground forces or helicopters there, we parachute in as a team, get the person and move them to a safer location. Then, we wait to be recovered by ground forces or rotary wing assets. 

"People always talk about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane," he continued. "If they were so perfect, why did they invent parachutes?" 

During the mission, a free-fall jump gives the PJs greater maneuverability precision into tighter drop zones because of the type of parachute used. They're also able to jump from higher altitudes and carry more equipment with them, said Sergeant Marshall. 

"Not knowing the wind speed is the biggest hazard we have to face," he said. "We have equipment we use to determine the winds, with a combination of experience, helping us overcome those hazards." 

However, without the help of a qualified rigger and life support, the mission couldn't be accomplished. These shops ensure the equipment is maintained at the highest standards, said Sergeant Marshall. 

"If they didn't maintain it, who would?" he continued. "It starts with the 'riggers.' They do their checks and periodic inspections. After the (para)chute is issued to a PJ, we go through a checklist." 

It takes several shops working together to get the parachutes to the Airmen who use it. Without each Airmen working behind the scene, Moody's varied mission couldn't be accomplished. 

"It's the most important piece (of equipment) out there," said Captain Evans. "You need to have faith and confidence in the riggers and life support Airmen because they are your last chance. They are some of the brightest and sharpest Airmen I have met." 

The parachute helps Moody's pararescuemen and equipment reach intended drop zones and becomes a pilots "second chance" during an aircraft mishap.

However, before being used, all parachutes pass through the hands of Moody riggers.
Supporting the missions of the 38th Rescue Squadron, 71st RQS, 820th Security Forces Group and 479th Flying Training Group, Moody riggers have to understand the inner workings of a variety of parachutes.

"(Riggers) are responsible for maintaining and placing into service various styles of lifesaving equipment for use (by) Moody's units," said Tech. Sgt. Jason King, NCO in charge of the 347th Maintenance Squadron parachute section, which supports the 71st RQS and 479th FTG missions.

The back automatic-style parachute, used by C-130 aircrew members and T-38 pilots, is repacked and inspected every six months. This process takes a skilled rigger a couple of hours to complete, said Master Sgt. Randy Cnota, NCOIC of the survival equipment shop.

"The nice thing about these chutes is the automatic ripcord release in the parachute," he said. "If you had an unconscious crewmember, you could put the parachute on them and basically throw them out of the aircraft."

Another parachute, used by the 479th FTG T-6A Texan II pilots, is the Martin Baker parachute system, which is inspected every four years. It is part of the aircraft's ejection seat and takes about three days to pack.

"For two of those days, (the parachute) is under three-tons of constant pressure," said Staff Sgt. Robert Marlow, a rigger with seven years of experience. "The press gets rid of all the air. If you keep (the parachute) under it long enough, it squishes out all of the air."

Squishing out all the air is the only way to make about 28 feet of parachute material fit in a container that's approximately one foot by six inches, added Sergeant Marlow.

One group of 'specialized' riggers, which strictly supports the efforts of the 38th RQS' rescue and training missions, packs an MC-5 Ram-Air parachute used by the pararescuemen for premeditated jumps.

"(The Ram-Air) is used with the mindset that if the aircraft doesn't have an airfield to land on, the PJ can still complete their mission," said Staff Sgt. Amon Whitehurst, a rigger with 12 years of experience.

These riggers' duties will change again as the 38th RQS changes from the Ram-Air to the Special Operations Vector parachute. The SOV is similar to the Ram-Air, however, it can hold more weight and has a computerized back-up parachute.

"It has two parachutes, and the one for emergencies has an automatic back-up that is computerized to help the reserve open up faster," said Sergeant Whitehurst, who has been working with the 38th RQS for half of his career.

Each parachute, no matter what type or who uses it, goes through similar steps to ensure its quality. Whether the parachute is used during emergencies or premeditated jumps, it needs to go through a repacking process.

"We typically go through the load (of parachutes) and identify any items that need to be changed (due to specified time limits)," said Sergeant Cnota, who has more than 19 years of experience. "We order any needed items, open it up and stretch it out on the table. That begins our inspection and repacking process."

During critical stages of the packing process, in-progress inspections are performed. The IPIs are performed by an experienced rigger, who holds a seven-skill level and ensures the process is accomplished correctly according to the technical data.

"The inspections make sure corners are not cut," said Airman 1st Class Richard Gayler, who has been a rigger for about one year. "It makes sure the chute is in the condition it needs to be in case someone is going to use it. It wouldn't be (right) if something was missing or wasn't done properly."

Visual inspections are also performed during the repacking process. The rigger ensures the canopy is not torn or mildewed, suspension lines are not frayed or tangled and everything is stored within the pack correctly, said Airman Gayler.

Once the parachute is completely repacked, a quality assurance check is performed by a rigger who didn't pack or perform the IPIs on the parachute. The QA check is a visual inspection on the exterior of the parachute as well as a second look at the paperwork to make sure all IPIs are signed off.

"I'll QA two or three (parachutes) and then walk away," said Sergeant Marlow. "If you get in the habit of packing or QA'ing eight (parachutes in a row), you start overlooking things. You'll see something wrong but you'll overlook it because you didn't walk away."

With every type of parachute, the biggest challenge is the monotony of the job.

Yet, each day the riggers must fight complacency and approach every parachute with a fresh set of eyes, said Staff Sgt. Stanley Lavine, a rigger with 10 years of experience.

"I know I have to pay attention because there's not a second chance to get things right," he said. "You have to challenge yourself to find something wrong. You have to make sure you use a fine-tooth comb and take your time."

And, it's that continued challenge that keeps the job interesting, said Sergeant Marlow.

"I think if you lose interest in this job, it can hurt you," he said. "When you first start packing parachutes, you're paranoid because if you mess up someone (can) die."

The riggers serve as the first stop in the life of a parachute.

Once stringent guidelines are met through several inspections, many parachutes travel to their next destination - aircrew life support.