NATICK, Mass. (June 21, 2016) -- Why would an Army civilian jump out of a perfectly good airplane?
Jennifer Hunt did it to find out more about Soldier equipment and the Soldiers who use it.
Hunt is a textile technologist/materials engineer on the Aerial Delivery Engineering Support Team, or ADEST, at the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
At just under 5 feet tall, Hunt is a powerhouse of dedication. To garner greater insight into her job, Hunt attended and graduated from the U.S. Army Basic Airborne Course, also known as Jump School, which provides paratrooper training for the armed forces.
"I wanted to go and have the experience of using and jumping the parachute equipment I work with and inspect every day," said Hunt. "The opportunity has given me a different and fuller perspective of the work I do for ADEST and has made me better qualified to do my job."
"Jen works closely with personnel parachute systems, system parts/components and often goes TDY (government travel) for first article tests and lot inspections," said Richard Benney, director of the Aerial Delivery Directorate at NSRDEC. "Jen has rapidly become an aerial delivery subject matter expert and is well respected across the community for her knowledge, skills, abilities and total dedication to the airborne Soldier."
Hunt had wanted to go to jump school for a long time and was prepared to do the intense physical training necessary in order to be able to participate.
"Before this, I never went to the gym," said Hunt. "I never ran. To prepare for the challenges, I had to physically train for seven months, working out five to six days a week -- running, cardio and weightlifting. You have to be able to meet certain physical requirements to get in and stay in."
"Jen expressed interest in attending the Basic Airborne School approximately one year ago and continued interest after getting smarter on the physical and mental challenges of the BAS -- especially with no prior military experience and the knowledge that she will stick out as the only U.S. Army civilian," said Benney. "With support from the NSRDEC riggers and other military personnel at NSRDEC, Jen worked out on her own time for many months in preparation and to ensure she could pass the 18- to 21-year-old physical test easily."
"BAC was three weeks comprised of ground week, tower week and jump week," said Hunt.
"Ground week focused on proper landing -- parachute landing falls (PLFs). We did PLFs from platforms of different heights and from lateral drift assemblies, which used a zip line."
Practicing PLFs and learning how to fall correctly in any direction is an important part of the training because it is key to avoiding injury.
During the course, Hunt also learned how to properly wear the parachute equipment, including the harness, the main and reserve parachute, and combat equipment. She also learned how to recover the equipment off the drop zone after the jump.
"Tower week included jumping from 34-foot towers with mock aircraft doors," said Hunt. "In full harness and equipment, we practiced how to properly exit an aircraft. We completed more PLF training using swing landing hangers. We learned techniques for handling emergency situations, parachute collisions, tree and water landings, and malfunctions."
In addition to the intensive training and preparation, you also, of course, have to jump out of an airplane.
"Jump week involved completing five jumps from a C-130 aircraft using the knowledge learned over the course," said Hunt. "After completion of the jumps, we inspected all the equipment for damage and prepared the systems for repacking."
Hunt said that the young Soldiers she trained with were incredibly supportive.
"The Soldiers wanted to know why I was there," said Hunt. "When I explained my job and how I wanted to learn more about the Soldier's perspective of using the parachute equipment, they were amazing and so supportive. They appreciated why I was there. Not being familiar with military culture, they taught me a lot -- like how to run in formation and properly wear the uniform, how to follow and respond to commands and address Soldiers, and many other things part of military life that, being a civilian, I was not aware of. They spent a lot of time helping me fit in."
Being a civilian and a woman made Hunt unique. Only about 10 percent of her class were women. And among the Army's women, Hunt's height and weight place her in the fifth percentile -- making her one of the smallest in stature. She stands at just under 5 feet and was the minimum weight to qualify.
To do the pull-up test, or arm hang, Hunt actually had to jump to grab the bar.
"I was very nervous first going in. After passing some of the physical tests, Marines and Soldiers were fist-pumping and telling me, 'You're killing it,'" said Hunt. "Their support really helped me. It gave me encouragement."
The average age of the Soldiers with whom she attended Jump School was around 23 or 24 years. The cut-off age is 36, and Hunt, who is 41, had to get a waiver to attend.
"From all the feedback received, she nailed it and impressed the majority of her classmates," said Benney. "Many did not pass the course. I recall Jen checking in via phone after completing the first week and stating, 'Did you know I'm the oldest, the shortest and the lightest in my class of around 300?'"
Hunt was inspired by the dedication of the young Soldiers she encountered, and they were inspired by her.
"On the first jump, they had me jump out first," said Hunt. "Some Soldiers told me afterwards, 'We saw you do it, and we thought now we HAVE to do it.'"
She is also an inspiration to her colleagues at NSRDEC.
"We nicknamed her 'G.I. Jen.' She went so that she could do her job better," said Christine Charette, a textile technologist at NSRDEC. "She was doing something that people half her age do. I feel that I can learn from her experience. She is able to give us feedback now and share what she learned with the team. It just enhances what she is able to do. Her level of dedication is exceptional."
"Clearly a huge accomplishment, Jen now fully understands what it takes to be Airborne and has gained an even higher level of credibility as part of the club," said Benney. "The knowledge of how the T-11 personnel airdrop equipment is used, the training soldiers experience, and airborne operations in the aircraft, during exit, and under canopy through landing will all be invaluable in assisting her for the rest of her career."
The importance of being able to incorporate what she learned into her daily work cannot be overstated.
"As the military liaison for NSRDEC's Aerial Delivery Directorate, I've had the opportunity to work with numerous scientists and engineers who are extremely talented and smart," said CW5 Cortez Frazier. "The theoretical knowledge that our engineers have is nothing short of amazing. However, theoretical knowledge can only take you so far when dealing with airborne paratroopers that want to know that you as an engineer can guarantee that the product or service that you have developed/tested will work as designed. What better way to earn the credibility of your customers than to actually gain the practical knowledge by jumping out of an airplane with the same products that we tell our Soldiers will work?"
"Ms. Hunt's expertise as a textile technologist directly contributes to our mission when conducting parachuting or airdrop-related mishap investigations," said John Mahon, a senior airdrop equipment specialist at NSRDEC. "The experience gained by attending Basic Airborne School and performing parachute jumps with the equipment she is subject to be analyzing will be beneficial by having firsthand knowledge of the associated environmental factors that the materials which the parachute is constructed of goes through. From ultraviolet rays through opening forces and the range of size, shape and weight of the jumpers are just some of the contributing factors that present themselves through each investigation."
"It has been the best training for me, very beneficial," said Hunt. "It was an amazing experience to get the Soldier perspective, to actually use all the equipment and see how it all interfaces and works together -- things you usually don't get to see as an engineer. It really helped me to understand the equipment on a whole different level."
"Jennifer's dedication to her understanding of aerial delivery equipment by becoming an airborne paratrooper gives her that special practical knowledge required to articulate clearly a better understanding to her fellow 70,000-plus paratroopers," said Frazier.
"The airborne experience she has attained also provides Ms. Hunt a feeling of personal ownership when inspecting the components of personnel parachute systems and a more in-depth level of understanding of the whole process, which cannot be taught from any textbook," said Mahon.
Hunt saw firsthand the importance of the parachute work done by NSRDEC.
"Throughout the course, Soldiers are told by the instructors 'Trust your equipment. Trust your equipment,'" Hunt recalled. "That is what they are taught. And we, on the engineering side, our job is to make sure the equipment is safe and built correctly because that is what the Soldiers rely on. It validates what we do and the importance of the work that we do."
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.