Sky Diving with SOCOM – sort of: Thoughts on Japan

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I want to free fall out into nothing
Gonna to leave this world for awhile
And I’m free, I’m free fallin’
—Tom Petty “Free Fallin’”

On March 13 (not a Friday this year) I jumped with SOCOM (Special Operations Command)—sort of, and made my first free fall parachute jump.  I say “sort of” because SOCOM remains blissfully unaware of my existence.  I’m sure that the announcement that I jumped “with” them, is news to the good folks at Special Operations Command.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  (Link)

A few weeks back I was forwarded an email by a fellow ex-SEAL named Randy.  Randy let me know that he and Pierre (a team-mate I had served with in UDT-21 [Underwater Demolition Team] back in the early 1970s) would be in my area to parachute in conjunction with a SOCOM jump, that would include Capt. Norm “The Sky Fossil” Olson (USN Ret.), and Admiral Eric T. Olson, the head of SOCOM.

Here’s part of the email (written by Norm Olson) that Randy forwarded to me: “Weather permitting, on Sunday, 13 March 2011, I’ll be celebrating my 80th birthday at Zephyrhills, Florida, by making my 4,000 skydive.  …If you are local, and are considering bearing witness to this spine tingling feat of derring-do, you may want to give it a second thought [and watch TV instead].”  I thought, “I’m there!”  (Link)

Norm Olson went on to say that, “Adm. Eric T. Olson, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, has invited me to join him and the SOCOM Parachute Team, to make a few jumps together in the morning.”        (Link)

“Jumping with the Olsons—sounds great,” I thought to myself.  “Heck, compared to “The Sky Fossil” I’m a young whippersnapper—a mere sixty-years-old.  I have no excuse not to jump (well, besides a healthy sense of self-preservation).”  The long and the short of it is, I decided to make my first free fall jump.  (Link)

Although I have my US Army, and US Navy jump wings, I’m not what you would call a parachuting aficionado.  I only made about 20 jumps while I was in the Navy, and while some of them were memorable for various reasons (like the 800’ water jump), they were all static line jumps, not free fall jumps.  (Link)HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) free fall jumping had been around for awhile when I was in the teams, but it was not mandatory, and I missed out on it simply by the luck of the draw.

Static line jumps, (for you “legs”), refers to jumping out of an aircraft with your parachute attached to it via a long nylon strap called, appropriately enough, a static line, which is in turn attached to the aircraft; usually by snapping its free end to a stout wire running the length of the fuselage.  When your falling body plays out all of the line’s length, it then pulls out, or deploys, your parachute.  At which point, a relatively weak cord that connects the static line to your chute breaks, and the aircraft and static line go one way, while you and your chute go another.  “Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door.”  (Link)

Two other things of note related to static line jumps are the static line parachute’s relative lack of maneuverability, and PLFs (Parachute Landing Falls).  The typical static line parachute’s maneuverability, compared to a typical free fall parachute’s, can be compared to the difference between a Mack Truck and a Ferrari.  You can maneuver with a typical static line chute, but it’s hardly “turn on a dime” stuff.  PLFs are mainly about landing in such a way as to disperse the impact through as much of your body as possible—feet, calves, thigh, lower back, shoulder.  (Link)

In addition to my US military jumps, I’ve made a few jumps in other countries.  In the late 1970s, while onshore between diving gigs in the North Sea oilfields, I met and befriended several South African commercial divers while frequenting the pubs in Aberdeen, Scotland.  Their tales about life back in “Suid Afrika” left me with a lingering desire to visit that country.

So in 1990 when I saw a magazine ad for a parachuting trip to South Africa, I was intrigued.  The vacation package was under the auspices of a group (IAAV) that specialized in vacations for those with military jumping experience—where you could visit a foreign country, and earn their jump wings while you were there.  I thought to myself, “What a unique way to experience South Africa,” and I signed myself up.  It turned out to be very enjoyable, and I got to visit Capetown, Pretoria, and a number of other places, as well as jumping from an old WW II vintage Dakota (C-47) with the 1st Parachute Battalion out of Bloemfontein. (Link)

If memory serves, there were about fifty of us in the group, the bulk of whom were US Army Airborne, active and vets, who were mainly there for the chance to jump from a C-47.  There were also a number of jumpers from other countries as well, such as Greece, Great Britain, France, and Germany.  Myself and a guy from Naval Intelligence were the lone sailors present.  I was fortunate to have Col. George Paccerelli (US Army Ret.) as my room-mate.  George had fought with the LRRPs in Vietnam, and was a 1993 inductee into the Ranger Hall of Fame at Ft. Benning, Georgia—a true hero, a fine gentleman, and a class act all the way.

Before leaving the states I purchased a hundred SEAL lapel pins to give out as souvenirs.  Unbeknownst to the Secretary of the Navy, or anyone else, I inducted a number of South Africans into the teams while I was over there.  I was still drinking back then, so perhaps the less said, the better.

Moving right along; my experiences in South Africa were uniformly positive until the landing after my parachute jump (we just did one).  As I hit the ground I proceeded to perform my PLF, but only got as far as “feet, calf, thigh…,” when I hit a hardened clod of clay, and came to an abrupt “All Stop.”

It was one of those physical traumas that are at first felt as a subliminal “uh oh” feeling, rather than any particular pain.  I’m familiar with the difference between being in discomfort, being in pain, and being injured.  As I lay on my back staring up at the blue African sky, and feeling all the above, I knew I was injured—the only question was how badly.  I wondered if I would be able to stand when I went to get up.

Not to worry.  I was able to stand, and then hobble over to the DZ (Drop Zone), where the South African’s had thoughtfully set up a beer tent.  After a couple of beverages I was “good to go.”

The bruising started at the impact point on my left hip, but soon spread into a technicolor wonder that covered my entire thigh, from hip to kneecap, in putrescent shades of blue, green, red, yellow, and purple.  Not anything to write home about as far as parachuting injuries go, but I found it to be an attention-grabbing experience nonetheless.  Although I never went to a doctor, I looked like I was wearing a hip-cast for the next month or so, due to my stiff-legged gait.

I was glad I had gone to South Africa, and glad I had jumped—but I figured that I was finished for good with my “parachuting career.”  But then in 1992 the same group offered a chance to be the first foreigners allowed to earn Russian jump wings, and well, I just had to go.

I was running low on my stock of SEAL pins by that point, so there are not as many honorary SEALs in Russia as in South Africa, but I did what I could.  “Nostrovia, tovariches!”

Be that as it may, I again had George as my room-mate (by choice, rather than “luck of the draw” this time), and we made three jumps around the city of Ryazan (about 120 miles southeast of Moscow).  There were quite a number in our “tour group” (more than sixty I believe), including a German who had last parachuted into Russia as part of Hitler’s invasion during WW II.

There were some injuries resulting from the first jump (we made three jumps all told), including a couple of broken legs.  I landed okay, but smacked my left hip pretty hard, which brought back some painful memories.  By my third jump I was seriously questioning what the heck I was doing, and I swore that would be my last parachute jump.

And so it was, and so it would have remained, except for Randy’s email.  I remembered the comments that a friend had made after he made his first free fall jump, back when I was in the teams.  He had told me that free fall was the only way to go, and that he would never static line jump again if he could help it.  Ever since, I had wanted to try free falling, and here was a chance to meet Randy, and see Pierre after all those years, and…well, it just fell into place.

I called up Sky Dive City at Zephyrhills, and scheduled a tandem free fall for the 13th.  A tandem jump for those who don’t know, is a jump where two jumpers are purposefully hooked together—usually an instructor and a student.  As I lacked the necessary certification to do a solo free fall, I would be making my jump in tandem with an instructor, named Scott.

I arrived at the Zephyrhills airport around 1100 on the 13th, parked next to a tent SOCOM had set up, and paid for my scheduled jump.  While I was wandering around waiting for Scott to show up, and watching sky divers come in for landings, Randy walked up and brought me over to where he and Pierre were packing their chutes.  Pierre looked surprisingly like—Pierre—although granted an older version.  When it’s been more than thirty years since you’ve seen someone, you don’t know what to expect, so it was good to see Pierre looking fit and healthy.  It was a treat to see them both.

Norm’s 80th birthday jump would occur later that afternoon, and they successfully formed a thirty-man formation in the air.  In the photograph taken of the formation, Pierre and Randy are one ring out from Norm, with Pierre holding onto Norm’s left leg, and Randy holding onto his right.  (If you browse for the March 16 edition of “The Village Daily Sun” you can see the photo.  Norm is at the six o’clock position, wearing a light blue helmet).  (Link)

Earlier in the day, when SOCOM had jumped, Adm. Olson had informed “Sky Fossil” Olson that he was to be inducted into the new SOCOM Hall of Fame this coming May.  So congratulations, and a belated Happy Birthday Captain!

At any rate, I made my way back to the staging area, where Scott found me, and we started gearing up for the jump.  Once we got on the plane and had gained some altitude, Scot started cinching my harness tighter, in preparation for the jump.  I had light bruising on my shoulders from it the next day, but at the time I didn’t notice any physical discomfort.  I’m sure it must have pinched a bit, but my mind was preoccupied with other things besides incidentals like physical pain—things like the plane’s door opening in preparation for the jump.

No “stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door” this time.  Scott was seated behind me, and together we “sat down, wiggled, scooted to the door.”  When we reached the open door we paused for a couple of moments, while I sat on the doorways edge with my legs curled back against the plane’s fuselage.  Before we get into the jump I would like to say a few words about fear.

Winston Churchill once observed that ““There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”  To which I would add that throwing your butt from a plane has a similar bracing effect.

I dislike fear when I sense it in myself, not so much from any sense of machismo, but simply because I know that it steals clarity from my thinking and actions.  I can’t think of any situation where caution, commonsense, and judiciousness will not serve me better than fear—except perhaps when instantaneous reaction is called for.

I’m much more concerned with cultivating fearlessness, than courage, in myself these days, and as I looked down at the countryside 13,500’ below, I was pleased to note that I was relatively fearless.  Excited, tense, and expectant?  You bet.  Fearful?  Not so much.  I was vibrantly alive, and living close to the now.

A favorite passage of mine is in William James’ classic “The Varieties of Religious Experience”—which came out at the fin de siècle of the 19th and 20th centuries.  At one point he discusses a gentleman that I’ll call John Doe (James doesn’t mention his name).  The passage is in a section of the book where James is discussing how when a person is “ripe,” it doesn’t take more than a nudge to bring on a powerful spiritual experience.
James tells how John Doe heard from a friend about how Japanese Buddhists practiced dissolving fear and worry. John Doe’s friend told him that if “it is possible to the Japanese, [it] ought to be possible to us.”  John Doe went to sleep that night thinking about what his friend had said, and awoke in the morning totally free from fear and worry—and he found that he was in heaven, or Heaven, with a capital “H,” as he describes it.

“[I am not] wasting any of this precious time formulating an idea of a future existence, or a future Heaven.  The Heaven that I have within myself is as attractive as any that has been promised, or that I can imagine; and I am willing to let the growth lead where it will as long as the anger and their brood have no part in misguiding it.”  (John Doe had found that when fear and worry left him, so did anger, and a host of other inter-related negative emotions).

Scott tapped me on the shoulder, and shouted that it was time to go.  I arched my back, and tilted my head back as I had been instructed to do, and Scott and I pushed off from the plane and started falling.  It was an exhilarating feeling, a good feeling.

In a world where hell seems all too easy to find, the question has always seemed to me how, and where, do you find heaven.  “Heaven is within you” is the answer that works best for me, so I try to align my general consciousness with as positive a vibe as I can manage, without feeling like some Pollyanna numb-nuts.

Bob, the photographer who jumped with us so I could have a photo of the event to hang on my “Wonderful Me” wall back home, fell with us about twenty feet out in front of Scott and I.  I waved at Bob; gave him a thumb’s up, and looking down, enjoyed the curious visual illusion that we weren’t falling at all.

Visually it DID look as if we were not falling at all, but the aural sensation of the air speeding by my ears, and the tactile feel of the wind rushing around my body, told me, “It may LOOK like you are not falling, but trust me, you are falling like a brick s—thouse.”  I thought briefly about dying.

I remembered sitting on a barstool in New Orleans, talking with a new found drinking-buddy who had been a chopper pilot in Vietnam.  We had both recently turned forty, and were somewhat nonplussed to find ourselves still alive.  “I thought for sure I’d be dead by thirty,” my buddy said.  “I know, me too—bummer,” I commiserated.  “What are we supposed to do now?”  Bummer indeed.

I have since learned to be much more life affirming.  While it’s true that “the moment we start living we start dying,” that’s only true in a physical sense, and while our bodies are indeed temporary abodes, our life force, or spirits, are in it for the long haul.  So I’m learning to value that part of me that carries on, which means I’m learning to identify with my spirit, as opposed to my body.

When we reached the proper altitude Scott popped our chute.  The tug from the chute opening was considerably more than I recall from a static line chute opening, but perhaps it was more the effect from the abrupt reintroduction of gravity, after the ease of free falling.  The phrase “gravity sucks” took on new meaning.

In his book “Sacred Hoops” nine-time NBA championship-winning coach,  Phil Jackson, relates the following story as told by psychiatrist Mark Epstein.  Epstein in turn, is recounting a story about Laotian spiritual teacher, Achaan Chaa:

“You see this goblet?” Chaa asked, holding up a glass. “For me, this glass is already broken.  I enjoy it; I drink out of it.  It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns.  If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it.  But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’  When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

Chaa is of course talking about the impermanence of physical things, and their specialness due to their transient nature—their ephemeral nature if you will.  It is also a lesson in non-attachment—why attach yourself to something that must pass?  One aspect of the lesson is to value things without being attached to them—love with no strings attached.  A neat trick if you can pull it off.

When we were a few hundred feet off the ground Scott informed me that we would be making a “butt landing.”  That is, we would not attempt to land on our feet, but would instead land in a sitting position.  He told me in no uncertain terms that I should raise my legs straight out when he told me to.

Scott yelled, “If you fail to lift your legs you will break them.”  I thought to myself, “You might have mentioned that before we jumped,” but I simply shouted back “Understood!”  No doubt some things are best left unsaid until a “need to know” situation arises.

A “need to know” situation had arisen, or rather, was quickly rising.  “Ground rush,” which generally kicks in during the last hundred feet of a jump, is always something of an emotional jolt to me.  For those not familiar with the term, “ground rush” refers to the illusion that the ground is rushing up to meet you.  Of course the ground isn’t “rushing” anywhere, you are FALLING, which becomes ever more apparent the closer you come to landing —or impacting, as the case may be.

I’ve learned to treat the “Angel of Death” as my friend, my buddy, mi amigo.  I keep the Angel of Death near to me in consciousness, and treat it with respect.  In turn it reminds me to not take any day for granted, and to not waste my time—to live in the now, and to love, and yet not be attached.

The landing, I’m glad to report, went without a hitch (and you can believe my legs were UP), and Scott and I stood, and congratulated each other.  Randy was there to take some photos, as was Bob.  My “Wonderful Me” wall will have a plethora of choices to hang on it.  Unfortunately I wasn’t there to return the favor for Randy, for I misunderstood things, and thought that he, Pierre, and Norm Olson had already jumped, and I took off and headed home after I was finished parachuting.  I owe you one, Randy.

Back in the day I would have felt proud of my “accomplishment,” but over the years I’ve learned to replace pride with gratitude, which has a much “cleaner,” healthier, and firmer feel to it.  As I left Zephyrhills airport I was beaming with gratitude, no doubt.

I can definitely see the allure of free falling, but I believe I’ve had my last parachute jump.

Then again, it would be nice to do a solo free fall.  And free falling is a great way to build self-confidence, self-respect, self-trust, and a number of other positive virtues.  And there’s a definitely s nice “buzz” connected with it.  And it can be a wonderful meditation in “letting go, and letting God.”  And…as the saying goes, “never say never again.”

This article didn’t originally start out a “Life, the Universe, and Everything” piece, but that’s how it ended up.  Oh well, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…” and all that.  As I was working on the story of my parachute jump, the news of what has been transpiring in Japan kept intruding into my thoughts, and coloring the article, and increasingly influencing its direction.

I thought about just writing this article as a “puff piece” to help take people’s minds off the woes of the world for a bit, but the disaster in Japan seemed to call for a more serious tone.  At the same time, I’m a great believer in Paul’s advice to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).  So I’ve tried to balance things.

In any event, the disaster(s) in Japan are very grave indeed, and coupled with an uncommonly severe string of earthquakes around the world, and the uncertain state of the US, and the world at large, an increasing number of people are talking about the “end days.” (Link)

The New Testament tells us that “…in the last days difficult times will come.  For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant…ungrateful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…” (2 Tim. 3:1).

Hmm, well there’s plenty of that going around, no doubt.  Whether the current geographic/cultural/economic hoopla is indicative of the “end days,” or simply the cosmos shifting gears, I believe that it is always a good idea to be prepared for “lift-off” on any given day.  The Bible tells us that things can change “in the twinkling of an eye,” so I try to be prepared for a rapid departure at a moment’s notice—or no notice.

“So people get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesel’s hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord”

Laus Deo.

Born in June of 1951 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jim O’Neill proudly served in the U.S. Navy from 1970-1974 in both UDT-21 (Underwater Demolition Team) and SEAL Team Two.  A member of MENSA, he worked as a commercial diver in the waters off Scotland, India, and the United States. In 1998 while attending the University of South Florida as a journalism student, O’Neill won “First Place” in the “Carol Burnett/University of Hawaii AEJMC Research in Journalism Ethics Award.”  The annual contest was set up by Carol Burnett with the money she won from successfully suing the National Enquirer for libel.

Over the last few years, Jim has regularly written for Canada Free Press.

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  1. “Soldiers Never Die Until they are Forgotten”….Amen to my brothers of War and Peace times. Semper Fi.

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