Entangled at 4000…. An essay by William Marshall

I began counting just like I was supposed to as I leapt from the door. 1000, 2000, 3000, 4……. the wind gust hitting my helmet, my britches legs flapping in the breeze. I am an Army paratrooper. I’m exiting a C-141 aircraft over Holland Drop Zone. Holland is one of the major training DZs on Fort Bragg, NC. It is a wide open expanse of clearing. Starkly devoid of trees, just flowing waving grasses and patches of dirt. There is a large flight landing strip in the center of it. You don’t want to land on the runway. It is very hard.

I have on a helmet, boots, a main and reserve parachute. I have camouflage paint on my face to help me hide better once I’m on the ground. On my left side is a M1950 Weapons case which holds my M-16A2 rifle. My Rucksack is strapped to the front of me. By rule, it must weigh at least 35lbs. It hangs between your legs suspended by straps connected to the same connector that your reserve parachute was connected to. You must walk bow legged while wearing the gear on the ground. You feel about like a hunched over super squatty heavy waddle duck.

As I’m counting, the horizon seems to tilt and spin and whirl while the jet blast buffets me around and I flail at the mercy of physics. I’m locked into my good tight body position like I’ve practiced so many times. “Eyes open, chin on chest, elbows tucked into your sides, hands on the end of your reserve with fingers spread, feet and knees together, knees locked to the rear, bend slightly forward at the waist, count to 4000.” Just as I got to my 4000 count, I realized that as my parachute was opening, there was another parachute that was opening around me. Oh boy!

Another Soldier’s parachute had inflated and now I realize that I’m in the middle of his canopy. My weapons case had entangled with my sudden new buddies parachute. To get technical, my connector on the weapons case had gotten wrapped up and entangled with my fellow paratrooper’s anti inversion net and suspension lines. I realized that I was in the middle of my new friends’ canopy and we were about to take a ride, together.

“No big deal, we got this,” I thought to myself. We have procedures for all this. We are taught how to avoid collisions and what to do in case it happens. My new friend spoke first. I was just finishing the count as he stated, fairly firmly, “slip away.” You see, that is what we are taught to do. If you find yourself drifting towards another jumper, simply pull down on the opposite riser and you will begin to slightly drift in the direction you are pulling. But this isn’t some nimble sport wing flying canopy, this is a round piece of nylon with a hole in the top. You can’t steer this thing. Even if I could, its way too late for that now. Here I am, I missed my chance to slip away. I was too busy counting.

He obviously realized that his pleas were pointless, as a matter of fact, I seem to remember him clipping off the last part of “slip away”, as if he realized it was futile of him to even finish the words. Luckily, it was daylight outside. We were about 700 feet in the air. We both had good main parachutes suspending us. We were just a lot closer than we liked and tied together in a crazy green silver and white knot on my left side.

As soon as I reached to fiddle with that mess of a knot, something seemed to be amiss. Remember that I was inside of my new partner’s parachute. As soon as I began to direct my attention on that knot, I remembered the next step of what to do if you entangled. The training says, “the higher jumper will climb down to the lower jumper using the hand under hand method. Once the jumpers are even, they will grasp each other’s main lift web and discuss which parachute landing fall they will do.” Sounds easy enough. If I can get this knot out, I’ll just climb down to him. Too easy!

That something that was amiss showed itself very suddenly about one tenth of a second into my knot worries. You see, my parachute lost air. The parachute of my new friend downstairs creates a vacuum up above it. Well, that was the area where my parachute was trying to hang out. Uh oh!

I began to fall through even more suspension lines. As I passed my new buddy on the way down I realized that I knew my new partner. It was Private First Class Friend from Alpha Battery. I remember very clearly seeing the expression of determination and also fear as we fell through the sky together. I was a Specialist at the time. I was in Bravo Battery. I knew who Friend was because he would come and hang out in our area from time to time. We weren’t really friends or even buddies but we were sure working together now.

I sort of tumbled below him briefly. I remember that we didn’t really speak when I went by. We didn’t take time to exchange pleasantries. I wasn’t below him long. When my canopy lost air, my entanglement with his anti inversion net caused me to take his canopy with me. We began to leapfrog. First, I lost air, then he did, then I did. We were playing follow the leader in a very dangerous game. It was looking like I needed to break out my reserve.

The procedures were, “In order to activate your reserve for a partial malfunction, snap back into a good tight body position with you left hand over the rip cord protective flap. With your right hand, pull the rip cord grip and drop it. Form a knife cutting edge with you right hand and insert it behind as much canopy and suspension lines as you can. Pull it out and over one shoulder, throw it in the opposite direction of spin. If it fails to inflate, gather it back up and throw it again,” we always added, “you have the rest of your life to accomplish this task.”
For a second, I realized that it was going to be hard to snap back into anything resembling a tight body position as I was flailing about. I began to wonder where I would throw the reserve. Basically, If I wasn’t falling, I was wrapped up in Friend’s suspension lines. I fell again.

This time the fall was different, it was farther. I felt something snap, rip, tear. My right hand was reaching for the rip cord grip as I wondered if this was really the time. The suspension lines were hitting my legs and boots, I was kinda upside down and falling fast.

Suddenly, something took. My canopy inflated, I wasn’t free from my new buddy, but things were suddenly much better. And we both had good main canopies. We were still riding this thing together but it seems that my last fall had ripped me free from his anti inversion net. We were now just entangled by several suspension lines and we weren’t leapfrogging and spinning as badly as before.

We were really close to the ground though. Like real close. Friend was a little bit higher than I was. Laterally we weren’t too far apart but still way out of reach. He reached down suddenly and lowered his rucksack that was between his legs. I remember it passing by me on its way to the end of its lowering line. It was close but it wasn’t going to hit me. I remembered to lower mine also. I reached for the lanyard, I pulled, it dropped. My rucksack didn’t make it to the end of the lowering line that was about 15 foot long. It hit the ground before it ran out. I and PFC Friend hit the ground shortly after. Me first then him right behind. We both jumped up right away and looked at each other. “You ok?” we seemed to ask in unison to each other. We both said “yeah, I’m fine.” And we were so relieved. I remember just falling back down for a second and saying a little prayer.

I remember that untangling our parachute was just as easy as me taking my quick release snap off of my weapons case. That’s where the problems were. Took me two seconds on the ground. We both rolled up our parachutes, put them in the bags, threw them over our shoulders and ran off on our mission for that day. Our camouflage was probably a little smudged.

I didn’t talk to Friend about this event after it happened. There was no investigation into the events. I’m not sure anybody else really noticed. Just the way things went back then.


See video where James and I discuss many years later. Link below.

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