Go! That was the last thing I heard the Jump Master yell and seconds later I was at the door, terrified from the exit till the landing, wondering just why in the hell would anyone in their right mind jump out of a perfectly good airplane?
I’m CJ Machado, photo journalist and veteran advocate with Homeland Magazine.
The projects I’m most passionate about involve veterans, capturing their stories in hopes of reviving the American Spirit. The Spirit which holds our democracy together through selfless acts, the devotion to protecting our country and the dedication to defending our freedom.
My most recent project is Normandy Jump 2019, a documentary that will memorialize the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Vintage aircraft from around the world will cross the English Channel and fill the French skies with hundreds of paratroopers and parachutists, dressed in WWII uniform. It will be the largest parachute drop over Normandy since D-Day.
Many organizations including the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), Round Canopy Parachuting Team (RCPT), the Pathfinder Parachute Group UK and the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team (ADT) along with many other parachute teams will commemorate one of the most significant events in our history, “Operation Overlord.”
“Operation Overlord” was the code name for the “Invasion of Normandy,” the WWII allied invasion launched on June 6th, 1944 (D-Day) against Nazi Germany.
The first wave of attack began with paratroopers, followed by a 1,200-plane airborne assault and amphibious assault involving more than 5,000 vessels. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day and more than two million Allied troops were in France by the end of August, eventually resulting in the retreat of the German forces.
Recently, I had the privilege of training with the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team (ADT), a parachute jump school based out of Frederick, Oklahoma. I was to train, document and experience what it would be like to jump out of an aircraft in a round parachute much like the WWII Airborne units did during the Invasion of Normandy. The mission of ADT is to: Remember – Honor – Serve.
The WWII Airborne Demonstration Team’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Raymond Steeley, US Army, Special Forces, Retired, recruited me while I was covering the 2018 “Planes Of Fame” (POF) Airshow in Chino, CA.
I became quite enthralled with ADT’s public presentation. There was a young boy who stood out in the crowd, Noah Comstock. He was dressed in full paratrooper gear from head to toe, including his distinctive wrist compass. I watched as Colonel Steeley invited the young enthusiast to take part in the preparation for their next jump. Steeley along with other ADT members gave Noah and his family the grand tour of the WWII veteran, C-53 D Sytrooper, “D-Day Doll.”
At that time, I had no idea that Allied aircraft, parachutists and paratroopers from across the world planned on commemorating one of the most significant events of WWII.
Colonel Steeley invited me to come out to document and possibly participate in their Jump School. Initially, I had absolutely no intention on jumping out of an airplane, especially with my fear of heights. Colonel Steeley proved to be just as convincing as a typical Army recruiter. He persuaded and eventually I reluctantly agreed.
Once the opportunity presented itself, I then summoned my counterpart and good friend, award winning Director, “Viz” Vizcarra, a former “Top Gun” fighter pilot in the Navy. We decided to collaborate and create Normandy Jump 2019 documentary to monumentalize the historical event. Cherished stories of the remaining WWII 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” including Dan McBride and Vincent Speranza will be one of the highlights of this project. We also thought it would be inspiring and relevant to document my jump training with ADT being a first-time jumper.
We were fortunate, because in addition to my training at the ADT facility, five vintage aircraft including the Commemorative Air Force’s “D-Day Doll,” “That’s All Brother,” “Ready for Action” and ADT’s “Boogie Baby” and “Wild Kat” gathered at the historic Frederick Army Headquarters Hangar to practice flying formation and dropping Jumpers in preparation of the D-Day Memorial Airborne Operation.
One of the most inspiring moments that occurred during the Normandy preparations was when ADT member, Kat Healey, dressed as an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Agent, jumped out of “That’s All Brother,” the lead aircraft during “Operation Overlord.” Kat is the first female to ever jump out of this historic aircraft. A pivotal point that will be celebrated in the upcoming documentary.
As I mentioned earlier, my first jump was terrifying. Before you actually jump out of the plane, there’s a set of commands we had to master to ensure a proper exit and safe landing. Our Jump School training was intense. However, the instructors at the WWII Airborne ADT were absolute experts at training students to be competent, confident and most importantly safe. From the classroom, to our Jump Master, emergency procedures to the Parachute Landing Fall (PLF) pits, the instructors were determined for us to succeed.
Our class ranged from WWII enthusiasts, bucket list achievers, prior military including a Vietnam War combat photographer, retired paratroopers to special forces from all over the world. Many of which were preparing to jump in Normandy for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
We had to learn a tremendous amount of information in very little time. Since I had never jumped before, the curriculum was completely foreign to me. First, we had to learn the many different parachute parts and their functions. Then we had to be proficient in emergency procedures, mainly when it came to pulling our reserve chute. We had to understand potentially dangerous situations (water, electrical wires, mis-landings, parachute malfunctions, suspension line twists and entanglements, etc.) and know when and how to react to each one of them because our life depended on it. We needed to know when to pull our reserve and how to pull and remove our reserve effectively without delay, being that we were dropped at a low altitude of 1500 feet. Precise decision making had to be quickly executed to increase our odds of survival or not getting badly injured. It was an extreme amount of pressure to perform well in a limited amount of time.
For me jumping was horrendous, especially the first jump. I was on the first stick, fourth or fifth in line, thank God. It was bad enough hearing the force of the winds engulfing the jumpers in front of me. If you’re on the second stick, you not only hear the jumpers being engulfed, you see it all happening.
There’s an unforgettable sucking sound as each jumper is snatched into the open skies. Fffffttt…, fffffttt…, fffftt… like an agitated cat. That sound was all I heard until it became my turn. The main stressor for me was that my stride is short. When you give your static line to the Jump Master, you have to pivot in such a way that your right foot is at the front of the exit door in order to make an accurate exit, all of this without stalling. That was difficult for me to do accurately. Then you jump and count 1-1,000, 2-1,00— Phew! You feel the tug and the relief of the parachute opening. On my first jump, my suspension lines were twisted and I was freaking out trying to remember what I was supposed to do.
I had a brief second of complete panic and I wanted to pull that damn reserve. Funny how many thoughts travel across your mind in a split second when you’re in complete hysteria; then you quickly remember what your instructors told you to do with line twists.
I could hear instructor Greg Humphrey’s voice blaring in my ear, “Cycle, cycle, cycle.” So, I cycled like I was competing in the “Tour de France,” causing further twists in the opposite direction until I calmed my panicked-self down. Once that was over with,
I frantically looked for the arrow to guide my landing. I was dropping in a state of constant panic, practicing the fine art of hyperventilating. I could hear my other classmates scream with excitement. I was envious. I finally found the arrow on my descent and worked very hard to avoid the jeep entourage that was to the side of our designated drop zone.
The land came closer quickly and I could see the open muddy fields from the recent rains. My only concern besides dying was which PLF would I be performing? Front, back, right, left? Oh, geez when will this be over? It was to be a front PLF. As I came closer to land, my classmate, Joseph Campbell yelled in his distinctive Northern Irish accent, “Close your legs, close your legs!” Something very basic we learned in training to prevent injury. I hit the muddy ground and completed a fairly decent PLF then tried to rise when I felt the pull of my parachute. The chute was still open and it pulled at my harness, bringing me down on to my bottom every time I tried to get up. An open chute will do that.
Each attempt I made to stand, the chute would drag me further into the muddy terrain. After the third attempt, I was exhausted. I could see my classmate, Joe Coyle to my left. I screamed out for help. “Joe, what do I do? What do I do?” Poor Joe, you could see his immediate reaction in wanting to come over to help me, but he was ankle deep in mud as well with a parachute attached to his back. He yelled back at me, “I’ll be right there… Run to the side CJ, run to the side.” I ran to the side and finally, the battle was done. The chute collapsed and I managed to stand there gripping those suspension lines as if I took down a mighty beast from one of Harry Potter’s novels.
There I stood, shaking, holding on to those dreaded suspension lines covered in mud. I tried to “Daisy Chain” the suspension lines, but I couldn’t, because I was shaking so bad from all the adrenaline rushing through my body. An ADT member from the medic jeep entourage came over and calmy re-trained me on how to properly weave the lines around my hands to create the “Daisy Chain.” Once the chute was packed and on my shoulders, I finally remembered what Instructor Brian Wiswell worked so hard on teaching us when a chute drags you. Instructor Wiswell had kind eyes and a humble disposition, so I paid attention. “Release the Capewell,” I finally remembered.
I was incredibly frustrated with my performance as a first- time jumper. My frustration soon turned into anger. Questioning myself on just why in the hell did I agree to do this? More importantly, why in the hell would anyone in their right mind agree to do this? I cursed that damn Colonel Steeley and his southern charm that got me into this muddy mess. I wanted to cry but couldn’t, because in the state of my angry mental rant, I remembered the ADT motto. Remember-Honor-Serve those that came before us. Those words silenced my rant with embarrassment.
It was an exhausting trek to the rally point. Carrying a heavy chute was difficult to steady one’s pace as each step sunk my boot six inches deep in mud. By the time everyone reached the Deuce and a half truck, our boots had a thick 3-inch ring of mud around them and hence our class name was deemed, “Mud on the Risers.” As expected, I was the last jumper to reach the truck. The instructors greeted us with praise and excitement, some yelling Airborne! The usual response would have been “Airborne!” or “All The Way!” They received no such commentary from me, but I was sure to give each and every one of those instructors a personalized look of disdain due to my momentary displaced anger. As we drove back to the hangar, one of the more experienced jumpers well into his seventies, Charles “Chuck” Hannah, sang “Blood on the Risers (Gory, Gory What a Helluva Way to Die)” song.
I was always partial to “Chuck.” Had he been twenty years younger, I would have considered proposing. He was prior special forces, part of the Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). A gentle and calm man who always wore an “Up to know good, half-hearted smile.” That was the first time since my first jump I felt my lips creep upward toward a smile.
When we got back to the hangar, someone must have snitched that my first jump was not an enjoyable experience. One of the instructors approached me and asked, “One and done?” I remember cringing my forehead and making certain I made distinct eye contact with him before answering. “Look, I think you’re all a bunch of crazy bastards. I sincerely mean that, but I’d rather die than not earn my wings.” After all I had a job to do, a powerful message to convey and the task at hand to document Normandy Jump 2019. And what better way to do that than to Jump out of an airplane on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
We needed five jumps to earn our wings and there wasn’t one jump I made where I didn’t get twisted in those damn suspension lines. I’m sure my poor exits and light weight attributed to that.
Everyone at ADT was so supportive and personally invested in our success. The camaraderie is like no other, not just with your classmates but with other members of their organization. ADT member, Ryan Kergides graduated from Jump School in October 2016. He took part in the Normandy Jump preparation with many of the other ADT members that will be crossing the channel and jumping in Normandy next year. He brought a set of wings to jump with and present to his cousin’s newborn child. One of his jumps was cancelled due to rain and on my last jump he asked me if I would jump with them. Wow! What a blessing he gave me that day.
The most gratifying part of completing Jump school was being pinned by 93 year-old WWII 101st Paratrooper, Vincent Speranza. It was an honor to have one of our “Greatest Generation” acknowledging my accomplishment.
As terrifying as jumping was for me, earning my wings gave me the opportunity to experience a glimpse of what our WWII airborne veterans went through on that infamous day. Except they had to be dropped at lower altitudes with additional gear, in an unknown drop zone and with the enemy constantly shooting at them. Talk about pressure and the fear they incurred. Those men were the essence of the American Spirit. They were courageous and devoted to God, country and family.
They understood the value of freedom and gave their life to defend it. Those men were AIRBORNE! ALL THE WAY!!!
I am grateful to have earned my wings and a proud member of the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team.
An organization that is worthy of our support to continue their mission to REMEMBER – HONOR – SERVE.
For those of you who can not make the D-Day Memorial Airborne Operation event in France this June, join us as we follow and document “D-Day Doll” and the WWII Airborne Demonstration Team in celebration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the world famous “Planes Of Fame” Airshow in Chino, CA, May 4-5, 2019.
May God Bless America and her Allied forces. Normandy Jump 2019! AIRBORNE! ALL THE WAY!!!
For more information on Normandy Jump 2019 documentary, please visit: NormandyJump2019.com
These great organizations need our support for the upcoming 75th Anniversary of D-Day:
D-Day Doll, Help Us Get Her There!
Commemorative Air Force‘s Inland Empire Wing: www.inlandempirecaf.com
WWII Airborne Demonstration Team: www.wwiiadt.org
Round Canopy Parachuting Team (RCPT): www.rcpt.eu
Pathfinder Parachute Group Europe: www.jumpwith.pathfindergroupuk.com
With Passion and Patriotism, –CJ Machado, photo journalist and veteran advocate, Homeland Magazine
Special thanks to:
• Photo’s by: Gina Lee
• “Mud on the Risers” patch by © 2018 Geoff Ahmann