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Excerpt from Men's Journal, October, 2003
You'll Be Cruising at an Altitude of 30,000 Feet
A great many things go through your mind when you feel you are about to die a brutal, needless death sometime in the next few minutes. I'm sitting shoulder to shoulder in a minus 10 degree chill, fast getting colder, the plane's rattling drone making speech impossible. Despite the savage cold I am wreathed in sweat, and I'm hyperventilating with such force that I suck oxygen through the sweaty rubber of my mask in rapid, asthmatic thumps.
I'm supposed to jump out of this plane when we reach 30,000 feet. That's airline cruising altitude, 1,000 feet higher than Mount Everest and six miles above the earth's unforgiving crust. There's no flight hostess or pressurized cabin, which means that without a mask you would have about 30 seconds of useful consciousness before you would black out from lack of oxygen and risk severe brain damage from hypoxia. Open your chute at this height and it explodes, at which time you plummet to earth in a blizzard of confetti -- the air being so thin that you fall at twice terminal velocity, too much for a parachute to take. This is the earth's troposphere, and it is a very, very bad altitude.
And here I am -- with a sickly feeling -- readying myself to parachute from this height. This I am supposed to do despite never having parachuted in my life -- or, for that matter, jumped off so much as a high dive.
I can feel the eyes of my fellow jumpers, hard men who have killed for their country, searching for weaknesses in my demeanor. I can't divine the expressions under their masks, but I hope they can't tell by looking in my eyes that I am fighting the instinct to save my own skin. Paranoid, I stare at the floor, thinking, It's not too late to back out. I don't care about money or glory or breaking a parachuting world record. I just want to live.
I am to be attached by four clips to an experienced sky diver in a harness called a tandem, and, if we live, we will have performed the highest civilian tandem sky dive ever (military records are unavailable). There's a rumor around here that the last time anyone tried a high altitude tandem sky dive, they jumped at 27,000 feet -- and one of them blacked out in free fall. His mate had to plummet toward earth strapped to an unconscious body, which fortunately revived at 15,000 feet -- normal sky-diving altitude -- with enough time, mercifully, to pull the parachute.
None of this is that new to the military. They have been using this type of jump -- called HALO (for High Altitude Low Opening) -- for years to furtively insert Special Forces soldiers deep behind enemy lines. Above 25,000 or 30,000 feet a plane is invisible, just a dull murmur above the clouds. On radar it looks like a commercial flight, if it's noticed at all, and troops can fall from its belly silently, lethally, undetected. Before bunker busters, cruise missiles, and laser-guided smart bombs there were men with suitcases. In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War and the nuclear age, the most precise way to deliver a nuclear device behind enemy lines was by paratrooper. Back then HALO operations were so secret that both the Army and the Marine Corps were working on them without the other knowing. HALO was first used in combat in the Vietnam War and has been a staple of Special Forces deployment ever since. Today the Military Freefall School in Yuma, Arizona, offers one of the most sought-after courses in the military. Only 570 elite Special Forces troops, drawn from all four branches of the service, graduate each year.
HALO's civilian application, on the other hand, is brand new. At West Tennessee Skydiving, just outside Memphis, there are tattooed Marines wanting to HALO, along with tie-dye-wearing thrill junkies looking for the ultimate sky-diving experience. Since 2001 a company called Superior Jumps (based in New Orleans and run by a former Special Forces major) has been offering HALO jumps to civilians at West Tennessee's facilities. Superior's founder, 45-year-old Kevin Holbrook, was involved in operations in El Salvador and Grenada, and in Saudi Arabia just weeks prior to the first Gulf war, before leaving the service in 1991.
An intelligent, convivial man with a large frame, Kevin has thrived in civilian life as an entrepreneur. With a degree in psychology obtained after he left the military he opened a treatment center for people with developmental disabilities, and a restaurant, too. Both flourished. But he grew bored with the business world, just as he had grown bored with the sky diving he did for kicks on weekends. So in 1998 he bought an old HALO oxygen console and began accumulating other equipment -- initially out of nostalgia, but also to have a little fun. "My intent was just to take some friends, break a few records, and leave my mark on the sport," he tells me in his gentle twang. With the HALO equipment in hand -- or, rather, on his back -- Kevin has smashed civilian high altitude sky-diving records in Mississippi and Tennessee, where his 30,850-foot sky dive broke the state record. But all this has been just a warmup to breaking world records.
Copyright ©2003 by Men's Journal LLC
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