The way back can only be done by jumping off
“I stood next to the door for an entire minute before jumping”
The First C-130 Hercules Takes Off
Waiting for Their Shot
Pilot Cadets, Moments Before Takeoff Pilot cadets stepped boarded Hercules Airplanes, clutching a one way ticket: they would only be able to return by freefalling into thin air. “There is a sudden silence. A canopy opens above you and you become carefree”
Itay Itamar | Translation: Loren Mashiah
The IAF’s pilot cadets are the only soldiers in the IDF who need to skydive once in order to receive the coveted paratroopers’ pin. They call it ‘suckers skydive’–parachuting without any equipment–only you and your parachute.
“There is no correlation between what we learn here and how we have to act when abandoning a plane”, emphasizes Sergeant Major Ran Bachar, Commander of the paratroopers’ course. “When abandoning a plane you lose consciousness, the parachute automatically opens and the chair falls. You pull the handle and suddenly you are freefalling into the air”. The reason that cadets go through this course, he explains, is because it’s crucial for them to know and experience the thrill. “They will not jump in operational missions, so they need to at least learn the technique. They need to become familiar with the sensation”.
I notice the worried look in their eyes just before they hang the bag on their backs, wondering whether to trust it, since their life will depend on it in just a few brief moments. “It’s going to get freaky”, admits Captain Michael, one of the ‘basic stage’ commanders of the Pilot Training Course, who is joining his cadets. The last time he parachuted was as a cadet. Maybe once the door flies open, so will the tension.
It’s hard not to notice the rubbing marks on the cadets’ necks, an obvious sign of the week they’d just gone through. It’s a souvenir from the “Eichmann”, a 12 meter tower from which they had to jump off and trust a harness to catch them at the last second. Jumping out of the plane was much less frightening than jumping off the ‘tower’, admits one of the paratrooper instructors, who says that this year’s cadets were one of the best he ever got to meet. “I had men come to me and says that they don’t know many women who would jump off the ‘tower’” says L’, one of the female cadets.
Amongst the cadets roams a surprising guest: Master Sergeant of the Squadron, Nisim Ochayun. “A week before the paratroopers’ course I was told that I would be participating in it as a bonus”, he says. Without ranks or insignia, he participated and was treated like all other cadets–training for an entire week for the glorious freefall. “Within the Academy I’m an authority. Suddenly I’m one of them, skydiving alongside them. When I landed the protégés helped me fold the parachute and we walked together to the gathering point. They will remember that for the rest of their lives”, he says proudly. “I know I sure will”.
What a Unique Feeling
It’s the final briefing. The students are trying to memorize the ongoing scenario, which has been circling their mind for the last week, ever since they began their course. “You prepare for the worst case scenario”, smiles Rotem, who is waiting for the second takeoff as the first plane made its way to launch the first group. “You jump off the plane, count 21, 22, 23, take a look up and see the parachute crimpled, and your heart thumps because it won’t open. There is no logical reason for something bad to happen, but you always have a feeling that you could be the exception, maybe you will have to face some rare complication”.
The enthusiasm rises on the plane. “I was head of the cluster,” reminisces Itamar. “I was standing by the door for about a minute before I jumped. I saw the view, it was amazing”. They already perform the order of operations automatically. “Your brain freezes for a while so you have to trust your instincts”, Rotem tries to explain. “The last thing you see before you leap is your friend jumping beside you, like a flower in the wind”.
“You can practice exiting the door, rolling on the sand or singing inside the simulated plane as much as you want”, describes L’ enthusiastically, “but no simulator can mimic that feeling you get. The engine’s wind whirs, you blur out. Suddenly silence is surrounding you. A beautiful canopy opens above you and you become careless. You enjoy the thrill of flying. One moment later you can already see the ground beneath you. It goes by so quickly”.
The landing stage, took many practice hours. You learn how to roll and divide the pain of hitting the ground. “What rolling are you talking about?” she laughs. “I basically collapsed onto the ground. For a split second you just lie there, moving your feet, checking that everything is okay, you get bummed that it’s over and start to fold your parachute back”.
A few minutes later, everything is back to normal, they have calmed their nerves as if jumping out of a plane is the most ordinary thing in the world. “When you’re in the basic stage you’re programmed to do crazy things”, says L’. “Navigating at night all alone is so much more frightening, so jumping out of a plane is the least nerve-wracking thing I’ve had to do”.