Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lightheared Tales of Air Force "PJs"

I just watched a SMTHHD (Smithsonian) Channel documentary on Helicopter Missions, called, The Taliban Gambit, about some ParaRescue guys rescuing a Navy SEAL, the only survivor of a mission. Once they completed their amazing rescue, they went back for the bodies of the rest of the team.

It got me to thinking about the PJs I used to work with in the Air Force. What a bunch of characters. I had a lot of dealings with the PJs on base and I thought I would share some of those experiences with you. PJs are some tough, incredible guys. But they have a sense of humor that is not uncommon among those who go into harm's way, but not common in the least.

I was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. We had mostly B-52 Bombers and KC-135 refueling Tankers. But we also had a POW training facility that shut down about that time at the end of the 1970s, a Survival School for training pilots and others, and the ParaRescue Unit. I worked in the Survival Equipment Shop as a Parachute Rigger. I had other jobs where I worked in the cockpit of the planes, but this concerns my Rigging job. I packed the B-52 drag chutes, the emergency chutes for all the planes, and the PJs chutes that they jumped sometimes, daily.

"PJ" just stands for "Parachute Jumper", because that is what they did. These were guys that would have to go into combat zones, sometimes, live battles taking place and amidst gun fire, extract wounded soldiers. They had to get in safely, stabilize and extract soldiers possibly near death, and get out safely. Basically, to most people, these guys are nuts. In a good way. That is, I loved these guys and I'm sure plenty of wounded in firefights who were being extracted by these guys, loved them too.

The emergency chutes I packed were 28 foot parabolic chutes, round, not like the squares most jump now a days. PJs jumped 36 foot chutes because they could be jumping with full gear, weapons and armor. These were totally different types of chutes to pack. The emergency chutes were packed for deploy at 400 miles an hour. The PJ's chutes mostly for static line deployment, but not necessarily. The thing about their chutes, and this is important, you have to flip the body of the canopy as you place it in the pack, attached to the risers that connect to the shroud lines which are attached to the canopy.

I asked them one day, what do you usually do for a day at work? One of them said, "Well, today we got to work at O dark 400 and went for a five mile run. Then we did some climbing on the mountain and repelling practice. Then we went up in the helos and jumped out with full SCUBA gear, hit the lake and practiced covertly swimming to shore. That, was all before lunch.

I'll tell you about a few of our interactions. I may have mentioned one of these before but this is the first time I mention them all together. Mostly, when I think about my dealings with these guys, it evokes humor and / or, involved laughing while dealing with them. I enjoyed the friendship I had with them (everyone is friends with their rigger, in fact, pilots during Viet Nam, if they had to use a parachute in an emergency situation, would buy the rigger who packed it, either a bottle or a case of whiskey, depending on how much they thought of themselves). Also, the Air Force lives for the pilots. The pilots therefore, live for the riggers. No one messes with the pilots, and no one messes with the riggers. If you see what I'm saying.

I can think of several instances that I had interesting dealings with the PJs on our base. I got to know a few of them but they were a tight group and mostly hung out together. But I can tell you here about these times: My First Packing (of a PJ chute); the Army six man life raft fiasco; the BUF drag chute incident; the Reassignment Going Away Party.

My First Packing (of a PJ chute)

As I mentioned, packing a PJ chute was different than packing an emergency chute. For one thing, emergency chutes were only packed every 120 days for inspection periods, to be sure they were safe, haven't been tampered with (sabotaged), and to replace parts that are going out of service (which happens to every piece of a chute, every seven years). I won't bother talking about the emergency chute they carry. Typically, they just too low for using an emergency chute anyway.

The most important thing is that a PJ will be jumping a chute that I packed, most likely, that next day, or by the end of the week, for sure. So if you mess up packing it, either they die, are hospitalized, or they may come find you to talk about how you packed it, something you never want to hear, unless they are bringing you a bottle of booze, which also never happens, because for them, these aren't emergency chute, they mean to jump them when they jump them and they had better damn well work.

So I packed my first PJ chute. I was very careful. But in being careful, I was too careful and still ended up getting the chute, which goes into an inner bag, into the pack which is part of the harness. End result is, when the PJ comes down, the "mod" (modification, or hole in the panels of 1.1 ripstop nylon) ends up in the front, rather than the back. The effect is that you come down backward and it's hard to see where you are going or exactly when you are going to touch down.

It's really bad form for a rigger to do this, and mistakes aren't forgivable, or shouldn't be. So I come into work one day and Tech Sgt. Pete, my boss over both shops, my Parachute Shop in the back, and the Fabric and Rubbergear shop in the front. So I walk in the front door one morning at 7AM and Pete says, "The PJs are looking for you." I said, "Oh, cool." But Pete says, "No, not really. You packed a chute of theirs and it opened backward. Did you not flip it before you put the chute bag into the pack? He got hurt and he's in the hospital." I said, "Oh, no!" He said, "So, they're looking for you. They're not happy. The guy in the hospital, he's hurt pretty bad."

I went into the back shop and sweated out their arrival. Eventually, they showed up. But I saw them come in the front door, through the upper glass part of the metal door between shops. It dawned on me to head out the back door. So I did. When I got back (after I saw them leave), Pete said, "PJs were asking about you."

This went on for two solid weeks. Finally one day, they came in the front door and I went out the back again. Only this time, one of them was at the back door. I almost ran into him. He said, "Hey, we've been looking for you. Why don't you come back on inside, we'd like to talk to you." I gave up. I walked back into the chute shop.

The other PJs came from the front into the back shop. I knew it was over.

The team leader walked up to me. They are all good looking guys, muscular, in sharp uniforms. Having a team of them trying to track you down is no fun. But by then I just figured, okay, whatever we have to do, let's get it over with.

Their leader walked up to me and I was surrounded. I said, "What can I do for you?"

He said, "You know, you're a hard guy to find, we've been looking for you for two weeks now." I said, "Yeah, I know, sorry about that."

And he says, "I have some things I think you might be interested in."

Perplexed, I said, "Okayyyy... what?"

He said, "We have some things you might want, you have some we want. I thought we could make a trade." I was stunned. I didn't know what to say. No beat down?

"So," I said, "You guys aren't looking for me about what happened with the chute opening up backward?" He looked at me with genuine surprise.

"What? What are you talking about?" I told him what Pete had said. He laughed. "Pete pulled a good one on you. So that's why we couldn't find you for two weeks?" About then, the guy who had jumped that chute, actually walked into the back shop. Laughing, the leader said, "Hell, we thought it was hilarious, we wanted to shake your hand, what a joke that was. And no, he didn't get hurt, did you," he said, looking at the PJ who jumped the chute. He answered.

"No, I didn't get hurt, it sucked though, I couldn't judge when I'd hit the ground and I hit hard but I didn't get hurt. They all thought it was pretty funny thought." Everyone was laughing by now.

"No, don't worry about it. It takes a lot more than that to put one of us in the hospital." And we all had a good laugh about it and ended up making a good trade on some stuff they needed.

The Over Packed PJ Chute

Sadly, I wasn't involved in this caper but it would have pleased me to no end to have been there. One of the PJs was talking to my shop boss, Mike, one day. They came up with a scheme to overpack one of the PJ chutes, then have one of them jump it. Of course, the guy that jumped it, didn't know it was over packed.

What I mean about overpacking the chute is adding content. You see, those chutes are tight and packed hard to begin with. As they are, they are big chutes. But after adding a couple of packs of chaf (aluminum foil confetti that confuses radar), five pounds of talcum powder, and a few rolls of toilet paper, it was a very over packed chute. From what I understand it was a real bear to pack and there was a fear it would burst open before getting jumped. But it held together.

On the day of the jump (I had the day off, much to my regret), everyone, PJ's and the rigger who packed it, went out to the LZ (jump site landing zone) and had folding chairs. Some other guys saw that they were setting up for something so they joined them to see what the spectacle was going to be. They weren't dissappointed.

Now, all the told the PJ who jumped the chute, was that there were some modifications done to the chute that they wanted to test. His reaction was, "Uh, okay." And he jumped it. The guys who watched it from below said you could actually hear it pop open. At that point, the PJ jumping the chute said he almost had a heart attack when the chute literally exploded open.

He found himself in a cloud of white, when the talc package broke open, the chaff drifted around and sparkled in the sun and the rolls of toilet paper unraveled and fell away from him; he said he really didn't know what to think, he was just surprised and wondering what the hell happened. Once he was under canopy (and it was a perfect deployment, by the way, the extra stuff didn't affect the inflation whatsoever), he had time to think and realized what must have happened.

The guys on the ground burst into a round of applause, laughter and yelling. It was evidently something to experience however, for the people on the ground watching who had no idea what was about to happen. In the end, everyone, including the PJ who jumped the chute, said they had an incredibly good time. However, the rigger who packed the chute said, he'd never do it again, it was just too hard to get packed up properly.

The Army Six Man Life Raft Fiasco

I had a six man (I think it might have been a seven man) life raft that my mother picked up years before. We used it for a while and then she lost interest in it. So I ended up with it. I wasn't really using it anymore either. The PJs heard me talking about it and said they would have a use for it and were looking for one. I said well, I had one. They asked if it was in good condition. I told them I didn't know, but as we were the fabric and rubber shop too, we could not only fix it, but also certify it was in good condition.

I talked to Dan in the front shop and he agreed to help me with it and he'd get some of the trade out of it. Now Dan was trained in this as a primary job, I was training as a Parachute Rigger, and as they wanted us all to be able to do one another's jobs, I was the in the two shops to cross train. But I wanted some help and more experience helping me. PJs weren't the guys you cut corners with. We worked on anything in the front shop, from 1 man life rafts, to 20 man life rafts, environmental suits, thermo nuclear flash radiation barrier curtains for aircraft windows, to upholstering things.

So I brought in the Olive Drab (OD) green life raft and we blew it up to proper Pounds Per Square inch (PSI) pressures. And we found leaks. We found some rubbed spots, some fairly good sized damage. I had used it some years before as a platform to SCUBA dive off of and it was just getting old on top of it. But, we patched it up and kept working on it through out the week until finally on Friday, we had it ready. We called the PJs and they came over.

We showed it to them inflated. We assured them it was in good condition. We sucked the air out of it and folded it up while they got the stuff they were trading us for it. They carried it out and we thought that would be the end of it.

Until Monday....

Come Monday, three of the PJs showed up. They were friendly as usual, but said they were not very happy about the condition of the raft. We asked what they meant, because we were sure it was in good shape. Then they told us the story.

They had take it, four of them, to a river race on the Snake River. Many people were there that day for this race. They took four guys and a case of beer with them. As they were going down the river in the race, they thought they had a good chance of winning. Then suddenly, one entire cell of the raft, the entire right side, deflated and suddenly one of them was gone, into the waters of the river.

About this time, Dan and I were not only horrified they had lost a PJ (and what repercussion was that going to be on us, we wondered), but we were also worried about our having certified that the raft were good to the PJs, and how were they going to respond now? They seemed amiable enough, as usual, but they were talking like they weren't happy. And they weren't.

So we questioned them more, we told them we didn't know they were going to take the raft into a river race where there were unknowns like rocks they could rush into and who knows what else, pieces of trees, branches, who knew? They were sweating us pretty good. And then they cracked up laughing.

They told us they knew what they were getting into and they weren't worried about it. The only thing was, who was going to replace that case of beer they lost over the side. I was stunned. I said, "You lost a case of beer?! What about the guy who went into the drink?" They said, "Screw him! What about the beer? We lost a whole case of beer and it was supposed to last the entire race." I asked of the PJ was fine and they pointed to the guy who had gone in the water. He spoke up saying, "Hey, I'm a man! I tried to save the beer, but I had a lot to contend with at the time."

In the end, they said they have a blast and they didn't care that the life raft had blown a cell when they rammed a rock sticking up out of the water and that it was their fault. They said they had a great time and it was worth it, still, they regretted losing that case of beer. After all, the PJ who went into the water would heal, but the beer was now lost forever!

The Notorious B-52 Drag Chute Incident

One day the PJs stopped by after I called them to say that their day chutes were ready. So they came over, hung out a bit killing time like they did sometimes. We always enjoyed them hanging around because they had really positive energy and hearty laughs. This must have been int he morning, because I always packed the BUF (Big Ugly F*ckers, or if civilians were around, Big Ugly Fellows) chutes, that were used to slow the B-52 bombers when they landed.

These chutes were 232 pounds of ribbon nylon, part of that weight being a 25 pound buckle where the chute attaches to the compartment on the tail of the plane.

When the plane lands, the chute door opens, the pilot chute pops out, catches the wind, inflates, pulls out the main chute (actually, the pilot chute, just as a pilot chute works for a regular sport chute, anchors in the air, and you fall away from it), which inflates and helps the plane to slow down without wasting the engines or brakes having to do all the work. It is an effective and cheaper way to slow the plane down.

These chutes were heavy to haul around on the ground, worse when wet, horrible heavy when they have scooped up snow in them in the Winter times (or a rattle snake in the summer time). Once they scooped up some spent shotgun shells, and the MP's (Military Police) came in one an unannounced inspection with explosives trained dogs and they alerted on the chutes which required a shut down of the shop. This really annoyed our boss, as we were getting behind on our work and it was, after all, only some expended shells.

And the static electricity they could generate was no fun at all. Once put on the table (if they didn't need to be put in the tower, then winched up with a giant hand held drill, which could, if you weren't careful, kicked you across the room if done incorrectly, or break an arm, even), then stretched the length of the table and all the knots removed. If they chute had been put in the tower to dry using the giant blowers, when they came out, they were fluffy and horribly difficult to get ordered and packed. This is where the static electricity would come in play. If there were a knot in the shroud line, you had to hit it with a rawhide mallet to loosen it up. If it had been wet then dried, let's just say you'd want to have undone the knot ahead of time if possible.

Once they are straightened out and readied on the table, you tied the ribbon shroud off, then orderly put them into the bag in a zigzag fashion as they deploy very fast and like with a regular parachute, crossed nylon lines can cut another line right in half, a dangerous situation.

After that, you fold the canopy into the pack, then stand on the box the pack is in, hold a bar above your head, and jump up and down repeatedly until you can close the pack, and put the large buckle on top. Then you haul or drag the heavy back into another room where they could be accessed to be put on a plane at any time day or night.

That being said, the PJs were kidding around in the shop and we got to talking about how heavy these chutes were. I picked a chute by its side handle, a piece of folded nylon that cold take the weight, there were two on either side, designed for two men to use two hands to pick them up for transport. But I would pick it up using on handle, getting the chute a couple of inches off the ground so I could carry it to the next room. The PJs had obvious muscles. I was a skinny 20 year old kid.

The PJs, being PJs, started talking smack and said, they bet I couldn't lift one on my shoulder. A couple of my guys were there too. So one thing lead to another and we had a bet. One of their guys would put a packed chute on his shoulder for five seconds, before dropping it. Just a gentleman's bet. So I said, okay, you first.

The PJ I'll call Paul, picked up one of the chutes by the two handles. I knew right then, he simply didn't know how to handle something that bulky. I knew two things that gave me an edge. I did this every day, at least four chutes a day, sometimes as many as thirteen, which was a long, and hard work day. Seconds, they weren't used to dealing with something so bulky and it takes experience almost more than strength to move them around.

Paul got the chute up to his knees. He tried to snap it up to his chest, and got it to his waist. He was starting to struggle already. His and my guys were yelling now, and laughing. But Paul was turning too red, his muscles were completely inflated. He was pumped up pretty good. I was getting worried for when it was my turn. My thought was, if a PJ can't do it, I don't have a chance in Hell. Paul took a breath, then snapped the chute up and arched his back, and got it up to his chest... for about four seconds. I was seriously worried about him, he was fully red, straining too much, and then, he dropped it. And there was a round of noise and hoots and hollers.

Then everyone looked at me. Good God, I knew I was in trouble, but I decided to take what I just saw and not make any mistakes I had just seen him make. I knew of NO one who had put a B-52 drag chute on their shoulder, or even got one up to their chest. I mean, why in God's name would anyone want to do that to begin with?

I grabbed the chute by one handle. I lifted it upright, sitting on the pin in the bottom. Then, I grabbed the second handle and lift the entire chute up the side of my body, using the friction and leverage to my advantage. At some point, I knew, I had to just go for it and if I stopped, I'd lose. So, when I was ready, I took a breath, and hefted it up my side, onto my chest, and hesitated, only for maybe half a second, and could feel the full weight of this chute on my chest, knowing I couldn't go this, but not wanting to fail, I simply went for it, and pushed it, seemingly up into the ceiling, and it move, it went up my chest, over the front of my chest, and fell back on my shoulder. God that hurt, but I got it balanced on my shoulder while they counted off the necessary five seconds, then I dropped it as fast as I could and moved out of the way.

I was exhausted, but I had done it. I looked at my guys, they were unbelievably excited. I looked at the PJs and they had only admiration in their eyes that were filled with good humor and camaraderie. It was like for even a moment, I was one of them. I got some slaps on the back and words of congratulations and a hand shake from the loser.

I could see that Paul felt bad, not because he felt inferior, just that I'm sure, with all his training, he figured he should have been able to heft that chute up on his shoulder, and really, he wasn't much able to get it up to his chest. I just told him, "Look, really, don't worry about it. I'm sure there are things you do I couldn't do. Besides, I work with these every day and it's mostly about knowing them, understanding how to use leverage because, brute strength just doesn't work with these things."

A couple of his own guys agreed with me, telling him that I actually had the advantage since I work with these things every day. He started to feel better, and it was obvious it wasn't that big a deal to him, he just felt like he let his guys down and himself. I pointed out to him to just forget about it. I told him that really, it was mostly about knowing how to handle these heavy chutes and said that I'm used to hauling these things about the shop.

And as proof of that, I pulled a second chute over to the first, then with them side by side and standing between them, I picked them both up, one on either side, and carried them, all 464 pounds of them, out of the packing room, into the main parachute room, and through the adjacent door to the drag chute pickup room, a matter of only about ten feet. But it was a long ten feet for me. The hard part was sidling them through the normal sized doorways, but I had done it all before actually. It was quite a strain and I was glad I carried it off looking so relaxed. To be honest, I had only recently realized I could do that and was the only guy in the shop I ever saw do it.

They all thought that was pretty funny, and even Paul laughed about it. He knew I was just razzing him and that we were all right about what was being said. That those who work their job, always know their job best, can do it better, and handle their equipment better, than those who do not. After all, wasn't that why they practiced what they did, day in and day out?

What a crazy team of guys, but what a great team to be a part of, if only for a short time, and to have earned their respect.

The Reassignment Going Away Party

PJ Paul, from the last story, got new orders cut. He was the youngest of the PJs on base, and it was time for him to leave the nest and go to a new base. So of course, they had to have a party. The PJs had their shop next to the flight line where the planes lined up to be readied to take off.

They needed access to their Chinook heelos (helicopters) to be able to take of ASAP should the order ever be given and so their shop was right in the middle of everything. I once almost got to sky dive from a Chinook myself, but before I got into the service; having no military ID at the time, it didn't happen. No one really went to their shop unless invited or in the course of their duties. I was only out there once or twice myself.

The main part of the building was a living area of sorts, with a sink area and a couple of refrigerators.They threw their party for Paul by having food, fridges full of beers, and hard alcohol. The party got started and they were having a good time. A couple of the guys, decided to go get their wives and bring them back to join in the party. While they were gone however, things got a bit out of hand. Paul, being young and nervous about a new base, and leaving his pals and his first base ever, partied a little too hardy. That lead the others to follow suit.

So, by time the married guys got back with their wives, they walked into a shop that had several completely naked PJs, drunk, three sheets to the wind as they say, running through the building with alcohol in hand, and rough housing. There stood the wives, in shock, as several of the PJs ran into the main room, stark raving naked and looking, most likely, raving mad and yelling; basically, just having fun. This however, did not sit well with the married PJs and they were furious. They turned their wives around and they all marched out. The PJs inside, just stood there, stunned. Then went back to playing.

The next few days weren't happy as the married PJs had been embarrassed in front of their wives and saw the behavior as simply uncool and unprofessional. Weeks after Paul had moved on to his new base, I heard grumbles still about that party and it simply wasn't mentioned again in their presence. The other PJs who weren't married, pretty much all thought it was downright hilarious, but even they admitted it was cool to do around the wives.

In closing, I can only tell you that these were some of the greatest guys in the world. These were just a few of the things I could fondly remember about the PJs I had the honor to work with and support. These were guys who would do anything for you, they would  do anything in order to do their job and save another. They had a good sense of humor, laughed in the face of death, and nothing was too difficult for them.  The kind of guys you want watching your back.

I can only say, I'll never forget them. I was lucky enough to know them in peace time, during a period when we were bored, but could have a few laughs. I can think of no others I would want to come get me out of harm's way if I were injured, and I wouldn't want to face them when they were pissed off in battle trying to do their job, being in the way of them doing their job in saving America lives, the lives of American Soldiers, or whomever they had been ordered to go and get out of harm's way.

Thanks for the laughs guys. I'm proud to have known you and I hope you all were able to retire safely as old, healthy PJs.

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