Parachutists drop in for visit; ‘It’s not a natural thing to do’ |[09/07/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 7, 2007

MOUND — Unlike other military units that visit Vicksburg to learn from their predecessors in arms, 33 members of the U.S. Army’s 18th Airborne Corps arrived by parachute Thursday.

“I don’t care who you are,” said Capt. Zack Leonard. “If you’re getting ready to jump out of that plane and you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong with you.”

“It’s not a natural thing to do,” added Staff Sgt. Brian Whitaker, who waited on the ground with Leonard for members of a group of computer communication specialists to fall from the sky — low in the sky.

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Their initial target was a 400-acre corn field, later changed. Each one left the plane at a run, an arm’s length from the soldier in front of them. They exited either side of a C-130 Hercules aircraft, zooming along at about 200 knots, or 230 miles per hour that is only 1,000 feet off the ground. The chute takes four seconds to open fully — barring a mid-air collision with the soldier jumping out the other side, or a “cigarette” — the Army term for being wrapped in your parachute like a pinch of tobacco.

“If that main chute doesn’t open in the first four seconds, you open that second chute quick,” Leonard said. “You don’t have a lot of time to think.”

In low-level jumps, soldiers hit the ground at a rate of more than 10 feet per second. The impact is equivalent to jumping from a three-story building.

Even an ideal drop onto soft terrain can end in injury if the jumper doesn’t land right, Whitaker said. “Last week we had a guy break his pelvis.”

All landed safely Thursday for their Vicksburg field trip.

“The airborne operation was just our way of getting here,” said Capt. Robert Day. “We do a guided battlefield tour.”

Tactics and positioning along with defensive battlements used in the Civil War are still relevant to military education today, so each year many units tour the Vicksburg National Military Park. “We do some battle analysis and assessment,” Day said. “It’s basically like a ride-along history lesson.” The group will stay until Saturday and return by bus to Fort Bragg, N.C.

Last year, a similar trip was made to Gettysburg, where the “tourists” landed in a pasture.

Whitaker and Leonard, monitoring safety at the drop zone, were worried the parachutists would land on stobs of recently cut corn that stuck four to eight inches out of the ground, like blunt, hard stakes.

Westerly winds, however, buffeted them into farmer Ed Yerger’s stand of 5-foot cotton.

Yerger, a former member of the U.S. Army Reserves and wife of Margaret Yerger, the mayor of Mound, said he was first contacted in 2001 about using his field, which sits on Thomastown Road between Tallulah and the Vicksburg-Tallulah Regional Airport, as a drop site.

“They were looking for a place to it, and they asked me,” said Yerger.

Since then, at least four parachute drops have been made here by various divisions, including one this spring.

At about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the four-prop aircraft made its first pass and 16 silhouetted figures appeared. Two more drop passes were made, and the plane circled twice again before veering off. At the rendezvous sight, where tour buses waited to take the soldiers to Vickburg, a small crowd from town had gathered to watch the drop. Col. Campbell Cantelou, the commanding officer, presented statuettes of Fort Bragg’s mascot, Iron Mike, to Yerger and to Carroll Garrett, a retired member of the 81st Airborne Division.

A soldier who makes more than 30 jumps earns a star, and Campbell presented one to 1st Lt. Ryan Delaney.

“This was probably the most beautiful descent I have ever had,” said Delaney, a native of New York City. It was his first time landing in cotton, he said.

Campbell leaves for Iraq on Saturday, in preparation for the 18th Airborne’s redeployment there next year. “Every person in this room will be in Iraq after Christmas,” he said at a banquet Thursday night at the Battlefield Inn, where the troops are lodged.

For most, it will be their second or third tour of duty there.