MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE, Ga. -- Imagine jumping out of an airplane, free falling for a couple of seconds, until a slight pull on a string reveals a parachute which expands to save the body strapped to it from hitting the ground head on.
First Lt. Paul C. Alvarado and Gunnery Sgt. Mark N. Rankin from Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany graduated from the Army's Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga. July 29 and came home decorated with new silver jump wings.
“I have always wanted to go to jump school," said Rankin, supply administrator, Supply Chain Management Center, Logistics Command. "My dad is prior Airborne also and he's a retired Marine first sergeant."
Although some Marines have had the chance to get a coveted jump school seat as part of training for their military occupational specialty, for Rankin it was a second chance at fulfilling a career goal.
"I e-mailed Staff Sgt. (Lawrence) Floyd down in training and asked him if there were any slots open for jump school," Rankin said. "He gave me the requirements and I passed the required Army physical fitness test and got the school seat."
Shortly upon arriving to Fort Benning, Ga., Rankin and Alvarado checked into their Basic Officers Quarters and began training right away.
"When we were introduced to our instructors it was pretty interesting," Rankin said. "The instructors are addressed as 'Sgt. Airborne' and when they came out they did this little drill team style routine. It's like when you meet your drill instructors in boot camp with arm movements."
Although most of the students were college Reserve Officer Training Corps students, all branches of service attended the prestigious military school.
"Our class started out with 431 students - male and female, from all different services and were divided into two platoons," Rankin said. "I was appointed a student platoon sergeant also."
With such strict requirements to get into the school any student who fell out of two runs were dropped from the course.
"The first two weeks we had physical training every morning," Rankin said. "We either have a formation run for a couple of miles or did a circuit course. During the second week we had a battalion run."
The first week of training, also known as "ground week," taught the jump school students the basic parachute-landing fall, which is essential for a steady landing. At the end of the first week, students also jumped out of a 34-foot tower.
"We were strapped into a harness and then we jumped out of a mock airplane door," Rankin said. "We slid down a cable with our feet and knees together with our hands on the reserve parachute and our chin to our chest."
During the second week of training, students practiced the practice-landing fall over and over to prepare them for the last week of training where students jump out of the real airplanes.
"At the end of the second week we jumped out of a 240-foot tower, and only half the class was able to jump off due to a thunderstorm," Rankin said. "There is a machine that pulls you all the way up and you are strapped into your full gear. Once the machine reaches the top of the tower, the parachute opens up and you float like you were actually coming out of the plane."
The last week of training involved no physical training during the morning, but was a week full of jumps followed by the day the students look forward to - graduation day.
"The last week we go through four day jumps and one night jump," Rankin said. "The first jump we go on, we jump out of the plane 10 at a time. The second jump is called a 'combat jump.' We jump out with full gear and a weapon on our left side. The third jump is where 15 people jump out on each side. The last jump is called 'mass exit,' where everyone goes out at the same time."
Although the class usually has to do a night jump, Rankin and Alvarado's class were not able to do the night jump because of thunderstorms and the flight crew had to change a tire on the airplane.
"It was disappointing not being able to go on the night jump, but just a chance to go on the day jumps was amazing," Rankin said. "My first jump I was a little scared and I had butterflies in my stomach. I landed correctly on my first jump, but not on my third jump. I fell and bruised my left ankle."
Before the jumps, the instructors taught the student's how to "slip" the parachute so they won't get tangled up after the release cord is pulled.
"When you are up there you remember everything," Rankin said. "You're not supposed to look at the ground because it comes fast. The instructors told us when we are level with the tree tops we have to get ready to land."
With the hot Georgia weather and the insects out and about, Mother Nature had a role in the drop in students from the class before graduation.
"Because it was the summer, the heat and humidity got to you, but you have to keep on training," Rankin said. "We had a female Army major, she was 41 years old and she stuck it out with the best of us."
On the final Friday of class, the graduation ceremony commenced and a new pair of jump wings are pinned proudly to his uniform.
"There were three stages to the graduation ceremony," Rankin said. ÒThe first stage they recognized the guidon bearer and honor graduates - officer, noncommissioned officer, and the youngest student were pinned by the guest speaker, United States Military Academy Command Sgt. Maj. Michael L. Bergman. The second stage those whose family are former Airborne graduates were pinned then in the third stage the Sgt. Airborne's would pin the rest of the platoon. My family had a chance to attend and it was a memorable experience."
With the thought of jump school behind Rankin, the memories of his first jumps will stay with him for a lifetime.
"To feel weightless for a couple of seconds was an awesome experience. You don't really feel like you are falling for a couple of seconds then you feel the jerk one you pull the cord to release the parachute," Rankin said. "You float a good 15 to 20 seconds before you actually land on the ground. I would go through the experience all over again."