On a particular jump in Utah, at a drop zone called the Turkey Farms, about forty miles south of Salt Lake City, our unit, along with others from around the state, were scheduled for an afternoon drop in clear weather. The aircraft being used for this exercise were the C-119s – the Flying Boxcars.
Our assembly point for this drop was an aircraft hangar at the old Salt Lake Airport adjacent to the newer Salt Lake International Airport. At some time in the past, the older facility had been the main airport for Salt Lake City, but now was just an auxiliary airport for civilians and occasional military aircraft.
With our main chutes strapped onto our backs, much like one carries a backpack, and our reserve chutes strapped to our chests, forty-eight of us waddled out to our waiting aircraft sitting on the tarmac. There were four aircraft making the flight to the drop zone today, and each plane had a full allotment of forty-eight troopers.
We climbed up a series of steps to enter the aircraft and took our seats on either side of the plane – twenty-four troopers to a side. Each side of twenty-four was further separated into two halves, each half being called a stick, with a total of twelve troopers to a stick. When it came time to stand in the door preparing to jump, one stick, from either side of the aircraft, would stand up, attach their static line to an overhead cable and shuffle to the door, waiting for the green light, which was the signal to go. After the first drop, the plane would make another pass over the drop zone and the remaining two sticks will repeat the maneuvers of the first two sticks and leap from the airplane.
After taking my seat in the aircraft, which was nothing more than interwoven nylon webbing strung between two aluminum bars, I glanced around at the men who are jumping with me. Some were staring into space, others had their hands folded across their reserve chutes, fingers interlaced, and several had their eyes closed. I looked to see if any were nervous; if they were, they didn’t show it, or at least I didn’t recognize the signs. In the stick of twelve troopers facing me, on the other side of the aircraft, were several newly minted 2nd Lieutenants.
The engines of the C-119 came to life; they sputtered, popped, and backfired, and all the while black smoke belched from underneath their metal cowlings. With the engines throbbing, the pilot feathered the angle of the props for maximum speed and taxied to the runway.
Flying is an interesting phenomenon. When air moves over a curved surface, such as a wing, it causes a difference in air pressure that virtually sucks the wing upwards. Air has to move over the wing surface at just the right speed to cause the lift, but once that speed is reached, there’s no holding the plane on the ground; it has to fly.
With the engines roaring, the plane taxied down the runway, gained speed, then ever so gently lifted off the tarmac and we were airborne. The flight to the drop zone was no more than a half hour. With the noise of the engines reverberating within the hollow shell of the fuselage, there was no way to communicate with a neighbor, and nobody wanted to anyway; we were all absorbed in our own thoughts.
I was in the first stick, right side of the plane looking towards the rear of the aircraft. As the plane approached the drop zone, the jumpmaster opened the two side doors of the aircraft. Now with the doors opened, the engine noise inside the belly of the plane intensified, making all verbal communication impossible.