20 Good Chutes

La Fière, Normandy, France

20 Good Chutes - La Fière, Normandy, France - USAF, parachute, CCT, Combat Controller Team, special forces

Lines of jumpers had been exiting C-47s and C-130s all day, their chutes unfurling as they left the aircraft doors. Standing in the drop zone shooting photos all morning, the USAF Combat Controllers had seen me running back and forth as people came in, landed, packed up and left. In a pause between airplanes, one Controller said to me, “Watch – these guys will be different.” I asked why, and he pointed to his colleague, who threw a soup can-sized cylinder into the distance. As the thick grey smoke poured out across the grass behind us, another soldier unfurled two orange markers on the ground. They came together as the tip of a V just a few feet away, the apex pointing into the wind.

The Combat Controllers on the ground were talking with people aboard Ospreys, as they flew into the drop zone area. There were handheld radios with huge antennas. Laptops and communications gear was arrayed on the ground. The team all looked up. The aircraft were much higher than the previous waves of C130s, enabling a period of free fall. The jumpers would be special forces. Back and forth on the radio. “20 exits!” Dots against the grey sky. One by one, canopies appeared. “20 good chutes!” These canopies were different — rectangular — they could be controlled and flown. These were the experts and I was about to be in the middle of a master class.

20 chutes swarming. Swirling downward. I was in the middle of the Combat Controller Team, watching their colleagues expertly approach their target. Shooting, walking, shooting – I wasn’t sure where I should be. The first jumper, a few hundred feet away, looked to be ready to land. He piloted his chute right between the orange markers. A stride’s distance away from the tip of the V, feet at waist height, he pulled hard on his steering cords. The chute flared and slowed. He dropped down, feet landing squarely on the tip of the V. “YEAH!” yelled someone on the ground team. The jumper looked over to his side, gave a quick nod and a smile and casually stepped forward off the marker. 

From several thousand feet up, he had exited an aircraft, free fell and steered a parachute to hit a target the size of a pizza box.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would have thought this sort of thing to be just in the movies. It turned out to be the Combat Controller’s Chief. The Chief had several thousand jumps under his belt. 

Another jumper was coming in just behind him, but about 15 feet from the tip of the orange V target. He pulled up, touched down, walked forward.

“What happened? You have some kind of malfunction? Why so far off?”