C-47 Jump at Illopango

Los Paracaidistas de El Salvador

by Herbert Holeman, Colonel, USA(Ret)

The three battle weary C-47 aircraft of the Salvadoran Air Force had been stripped of seats. To keep from sliding on the slick metal floor of our plane, each para had his legs wrapped around the man in front of him.

Less than a half hour earlier, we had taken off from the El Salvadoran paratrooper airbase at Il Opango. The airbase is located in an inland valley, but the Drop Zone on the seacoast was on the other side of the mountains. Climbing out of the valley, our plane belched loud, groaning and creaking sounds in its struggle to clear the craggy peaks near the El Pital. The tallest summit in the country, El Pital rises 8,960 feet from the airstrip at sea level. Even once over the peaks, our plane continued to jolt and thrash about in vicious winds as it began its descent towards the bright blue waters off the seacoast. Within minutes we would be approaching the DZ, and our mood was upbeat with anticipation!


This was, the culmination of an airborne adventure in vintage aircraft of World War II fame. Our group of thirty-two paras visiting paras was about to make a friendship jump with some sixty paratroopers of the elite army commando parachute battalion, El Comando de Fuerzas Especiales, Batallon de Paracaidistas de El Salvador.


To be sure, we were a mixed bag of paras. Some came from as far away as Germany, Greece, and Norway. And, others were actve and retried military and combat veterans with wartime jump experience as U.S. Army rangers and SF, force recon marines and ranged in rank from a Special Forces colonel to a woman parachute lieutenant in the Chinese Army.

The drop was planned to take advantage of the early morning weather when it would be cool and the wind calm, ideal for parachute operations. Moreover, it was going to be a Hollywood Jump; using the steerable MC1-1B parachutes, a blue skies and soft landing.

NO WAY WAS THAT GOING TO HAPPEN!.


At the first light of dawn our group assembled on the training field of the Salvadoran Army Paratrooper School. Its training program parallels the Ft. Benning training regimen, and as required the Salvadoran jumpmaster instructors led the group through ground refresher training before being allowed to make the jump.

As a start, we practiced parachute landing falls under the the jumpmasters watchful eyes, making several PLF's by jumping off platforms at progressively higher levels. Click here to see the proper form of the PLF as practiced at the U.S. Army Jump School at Ft Benning. Before making our parachute jump, we were required to make a satisfactory PLF from platforms in each of the principal directions before leaving the platform area.


Inside the ancient shell of a C47, the jumpmasters instructed on the jump procedures and Spanish language commands used by the Salvadoran Paracaidistas. Exits were made from the open doorway to practice even more PLF's. As the airborne drop would be made with the Salvadoran Special Forces, we would follow Salvadoran SOP which differed slightly from that used at Ft Benning. We were also checked out on the Harness Trainer by the Salvadoran jumpmasters. Click here for the Harness Training at Ft Benning.


Last, but not least, refresher training was concluded with harness jumps from the familiar 34 foot tower. True to the Ft Benning Airborne School tradition, training at the El Salvadoran Paratrooper School paralled that of the U.S. Army. At Fort Benning where it is said more student paratroopers have quit jump training because of failure to jump from the tower than on any other training device or even during live parachute jumps from planes. Click here for a comparison with the 34 foot towers used in paratroop training at both Illopango and at Ft Benning.


Just avoid the barbed wire, the river, and the trees.

Refresher training over, the weather was balmy and the wind calm during the mision briefing which was given in Spanish by a Salvadoran Major. Never having seen the DZ, we paid close attention to an English-speaking Guatamalan Captain in our group who acted as interpreter.

We learned a short twenty minute flight would take us over the DZ, which was a cleared field in the midst of dense foliage just off the sea coast on one end. On the other end, the DZ was bounded by a meandering river with a string of barbed wire cattle fences stretched across each side of the DZ and bordered by dense trees.

The DZ would be marked colored fabric panels would be placed on the ground and a smoke gun would be fired to show wind direction.

No problem. Let's do it!

Wearing chutes and lined up by sticks on the airfield runway at 0900, we eagerly anticipated the drop planned for 0930, well before a rising wind would pose a hazard for jump operations.



But, following military tradition in all armies, we would have a long wait. And, while we waited, the once calm wind was gaining in strength. "Army says we don't jump if the wind exceeds 15 MPH," commented an active duty U.S. Army jumpmaster in our group.


Some of the group nodded knowingly, but gazing with more than a ting4 of anxiety at the faded paint on the mottled C47 aircraft that sat just across the parking strip. Battle scarred in wartime ops in El Salvador, these were also the same planes combat from which paratroopers in World War II had made their jumps more than fifty years ago.


Time dragged on, so when at last we began to load up, the wind was gusting across the runway. Light-hearted banter was replaced by a sullen silence as bent over by a tight fitting parachute harness, we waddled off in single file, and climbed the short metal ladder into the aging C47's. Finding the interior seatless, we sat on the metal floor, lined up in three sticks. Click here for U.S. Army C47 aircraft jump procedures.


Our plane warmed up its twin engines and slowly taxied out to the runway. Then gunning its engines, took off, turned south, and bouncing around the sky, began it climb over the mountains. Some twenty minutes later they were approaching the DZ with the wind whistling through the open doorway, and the plane thrashing around in the rough air currents,

the Salvadoran jumpaster on board yelled out the force of the wind had reached 28 mph. Still, each roller coaster-like dip of the plane brought a roar of glee, which arguably masked building tensions. Then the Salvadoran jumpmaster staggered to his feet and took his position near the open doorway at the tail of the plane and shouted.

"LISTO!"

While shouting in Spanish the command for "Ready," the jumpmaster stamped his boot hard on the metal deck to be heard above the roar of the engines and the wind screaming through the open door.


LEVANTA SE!


Motioning upward with his hands, the jumpmaster yelled at the first string of paras seated on the deck to stand up. Clumsily, they struggled to their feet as the plane continued to bounce about the sky, and faced the jumpmaster in a single file.


"ENGANCHA!"

On the jumpmaster's command, they hooked the snap fastener of their heavy webbed static lines to the overhead metal cable running the length of the plane.


"CHECKE EL EQUIPO!"

Then hearing the command to check their equipment, they focussed on making sure leg strap snap fastners were closed tightly and in place along with the reserve chute snaps and chest buckles. The command to Hook-Up quickly followed, then, came his next command.

"SALLE EN LA PUERTA!"

They were coming over the DZ!

When the jumpmaster gave the command to Stand in the Door he pointed to the first para in the stick. Following Salvadoran jump procedures, the para hurled his static line snap fastner towards the end of the cable and took up his position with both hands in the open doorway, standing there slightly crouched, right boot placed just over the edge outside, and left boot behind as if waiting for the crack of the starter's gun to begin the race.The plane ahead of us had already completed its drop and they were over the DZ.

The rest in the stick were so crowded up together it was hard to breathe. There would be no green light, which is the final time warning on U.S. aircraft, signaling the jumpmaster that as far as the aircrew is concerned, conditions were safe and time to issue the ninth jump command, GO. Instead, the Salvadoran jumpmaster received his OK by a tap on the shoulder from one of the aircrew.

FUERZA!

Regardless of no green light or the sound of a buzzer,the first para heard the jumpmaster roar, and he jumped. Immediately, the others in the stick shuffled towards the door -- left foot forward in lock step with each para pushing hard against the jumper in front of him. One para recalled when the command came to jump, he leapt out into the roaring slipstream with knees together, arms folded over his reserve chute, and his static line trailing behind him. After feeling the jolt of the static line ripping the chute open, he found himself swinging wildly in the wind. Twisted in the fall, the risers were unwinding and spinning him around. Moreover, we had not been issued steerable chutes. their chutes were the early model small canopy military parachute ... it was the T-10 which really could not be steered.

Their downward journey would be totally dictated by where the high winds would take them. The best that could be done was to pull on the risers to face into the wind on landing.

IMPACT!

To keep from being dragged along the ground by the wind, they knew to quickly collapse the chute on landing and shuck the harness. As it happened, in the gusting wind, the ground was rushing up an at an alarming speed. They would hit the ground going backwards ... and bounce hard.

Before some could spill air out of their canopy, they were lifted up again by the wind. And their open chute caught by the wind dragged them with alarming speed and force across rough terrain. Plowing across the ground, dirt and debris were thrown up, stinging faces and shredding uniforms. The harrowing ride finally coming to an end when they crashed into the barbed wire fence at the edge of the DZ.


With the pounding into the ground and being dragged across the DZ, even the most experienced paras were plagued with injury. One of their group, a veteran U.S. Special Forces soldier with considerable combat jump experience suffered a bad head concussion when he slammed into the ground. Others, a combat experienced Marine master jumper, and two Army Rangers, one of whom was a jump master on active duty, suffered broken ankles. Injuries were experienced by the Salvadoran paras as well. The strong winds had caused several of the visitng paras and their Salvadoran hosts to land in the trees and the river lining the DZ.

Luckily for one unconsicous Salvadoran para, who was being dragged along the ground by his chute in the high wind, an American captain, who had injured his leg on landing, was still able to pounce on the billowing canopy and bring it to a halt.


For others, such as Captains Kevin Holeman and Rob Krott, being dragged across the DZ by their chutes resulted in shredded uniforms and bruises.



When it was all over, sixteen Salvadoran soldiers were reported injured in the jump, and among the visiting jumpers, there were seven cases of of sprained limbs, one head concussion, and three broken ankles.


Fortunately, the injured were immediately aided by American Army doctor who was a member of the visiting paras. And a Salvadoran Army helicopter provided speedy medical evacuation.


As a reminder of this eventful drop in the "tornado-like" strong wind with a force of 28 miles per-hour, the wings below were produced for those making the jump.



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