HALO Jumping in the News
Excerpt from Men's Journal, October, 2003
You'll Be Cruising at an Altitude of 30,000 Feet
MJ's fearless reporter aims to set a world
sky-diving record -- and scares the bejesus out of himself in the process.
By: Jonathan Green
Photograph by: Stewart Simons
(Jonathan Green, left, with tandem jump partner Ben Crowell)
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.
by Men's Journal LLC