By Aniesa HolmesAugust 21, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga., (Aug. 21, 2013) -- Jumping from an aircraft at more than 1,000 feet from the ground allows little room for error. That's why the instructors of the U.S. Army Airborne School dedicate hours of time and energy coaching paratroopers to go against natural instincts and earn their wings.
Alpha, Bravo and Charlie companies of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, trains paratroopers in order to prepare Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines to conduct airborne operations across the Department of Defense.
The U.S. Army Airborne school instructors, addressed as "Sergeant Airborne," by the students, and known throughout the Army as "Black Hats," have three weeks to instill confidence in their trainees with precise instruction during the Basic Airborne Course.
Capt. Michael Baliles, B Company commander, said Black Hats are subject matter experts with flawless memorization skills and can answer any question that could be asked about parachuting.
"The Black Hats here are definitely the cream of the crop of the non-commissioned officers we have; parachuting is a zero fail business," Baliles said. "They have the ability to hone in on the minute details that makes performances successful, whether it's parachute landing falls or activating a reserve parachute."
Students learn various components of the course each week. During Ground Week, students must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test.
Ground Week Airborne instruction begins with an intensive program of instruction that builds individual Airborne skills.
These skills prepare the Soldier to make a parachute jump and land safely. Students train using mock doors, the 34-foot tower and the lateral drift apparatus.
Tower Week requires individual skill training and team effort skills. Students must qualify on the Swing Lander Trainer, master the mass exit procedures from the 34-foot tower, gain canopy confidence and learn how to manipulate the parachute from the 250-foot tower and pass all physical training requirements. During Jump Week, students must successfully complete five jumps from an altitude of 1,250 feet, from a C-130 or C-17 aircraft.
On average, a team of 25 instructors and support personnel in a company will be responsible for 450 to 600 students per course, with 25 students per instructor, said B Company platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Kathleen Hedges. Students vary in their individual level of Army experience.
"We have privates from basic training and we have colonels and sergeants major who have been trying to come to Airborne school for years," Baliles said. "They all have the same apprehensions and these Black Hats make them confident because they are experts in their field of training."
Whether working long hours or enduring the Georgia heat on the drop zone, the job of an instructor requires a perfection of standard. B Company Staff Sgt. Rafael Torres, now in his third Airborne unit, said he was ready for the task when he arrived at Fort Benning, in March of 2012.
The Los Angeles native, who was previously part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, in Vicenza, Italy, said the legacy of paratroopers is one filled with pride and integrity.
"I've always loved the fact that you get to jump out of planes and the camaraderie between the people," Torres said. "There's a high set of standards that I have seen since I have been in Airborne units."
Torres said communication is vital between an instructor and trainees to overcome fears and avoid injuries.
"You have to get them to a point that they understand you so they get comfortable with themselves," Torres said. "If you yell, you can't get through them the same way than if you spoke to them and gave them a clear idea of what the feeling is going to be like."
Hedges, a Massachusetts native and former Army combat medic, said the past 16 months as an instructor has given her the opportunity to relate to her students and earn their trust by easing their apprehension of heights.
Teamwork between cadre is also a vital component of leadership, she said.
"We have to be very honest without ourselves, and never let our pride override our confidence," Hedges said. "We have to stay vigilant in our doctrine and constantly communicate with each other."
Graduations are held on Friday mornings at Eubanks Field or on Fryar Drop Zone during inclement weather.
Baliles said it's a time of pride for all Sergeants Airborne to see previous generations of paratroopers attend a ceremony and pin silver wings on their children or grandchildren.
He said Black Hats continue to succeed through the generations because they carry the same leadership traits into their homes and communities when work is done for the day.
"We work long hours, hard hours and we work until we meet the standard," Baliles said. "These cadre are getting off at 1800 (6 p.m.) and more than half of my cadre are volunteering, teaching football, coaching hockey or volunteering at their churches or giving back so much more. That's why we're so successful, because we have these cadre that give everything and the students see it and understand it."
Editor's note: This is the second in a series following the training and careers of Army instructors across the Maneuver Center of Excellence.