By John T. Dillard, Col., USA (Ret.)January 30, 2017
In any career, military or civilian, of any significant time span, one will have the misfortune to work for at least one world-class jerk. I had one who was that for me and many others, and his actions personified for me the reason for Hippocrates' oft-quoted principle of medical care--in English, "First, do no harm." In the early 1980s, he commanded the brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division that had proponency for all things tactical and operational about parachute operations in the division. Its two other brigades were assigned proponency for heliborne and dispersed anti-armor operations.
Just before my arrival at the 82nd's home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1979, the division had begun issuing and using a new "steerable" parachute, the MC1-1. This was a modified T-10 parachute, with a large U-shaped hole in back, which enabled a trooper who knew what he was doing to turn the chute in midair and do a moderate amount of maneuvering while descending. The air escaping from the back of the chute did at least two other things: It slightly reduced the buoyancy of the chute, and it built in a forward speed of about 8 knots. The idea for this technical innovation was to provide for midair assembly, a new capability for the airborne community.
Assembly on the drop zone had been a major challenge for airborne forces since World War II. Even if not hampered by anti-aircraft fire from enemy or friendly forces, poor navigation by pilots and jumpmasters, or the disorienting noise and blast of the wind while exiting the airplane, paratroopers were still widely dispersed over an area of ground--as much as could be covered by an aircraft doing 100 knots or so over a period of 30 seconds and more. All that and the chaos of battle (or even peacetime training) amounted to individual troopers having a tough time linking up with their squads, platoons and companies in a battalion-sized drop.
A SOLUTION WITH MAJOR PROBLEMS
Earlier in the decade, some geniuses envisioned that highly trained paratroopers with a steerable chute could maneuver in the air as they descended to earth and move closer to previously designated assembly areas, perhaps marked by Pathfinders or other early-arriving troop leaders. If you're already imagining some things wrong with this tactical concept, try adding the fact that in actual combat (and usually in training as well), the preferred mode of airborne forced entry into enemy territory is during the hours of darkness, and from an altitude of only 500 feet above ground.
This doesn't give the trooper adequate visibility of the terrain, or the time to do much maneuvering before hitting the ground. The Soldier is usually busy untwisting the parachute harness "risers" and lowering heavy equipment (rucksack and weapon containers) in the few seconds before conducting a controlled fall onto what the Soldier hopes is something other than trees, water or asphalt. The Soldier is really lucky to be able just to face the chute into the wind, having to guess which way it is blowing, to avoid crashing into the ground at 8 knots--plus whatever the wind speed is at ground level.
Well, we assembled in midair with this new parachute all right, but not the way the geniuses had planned. An additional and completely unintended aspect of the MC1-1 that came to light during initial employment was that the chute did something strange as it was coming out of its deployment bag underneath the aircraft. When two troopers exited the airplane at the same time from the opposing rear doors, the chutes tended to come together and even rub against each other as they were opening. Sometimes they would intertwine and cause catastrophe--one or both jumpers would lose all lift and fall free when the nylon chute began melting from friction, or hang helplessly entangled below the upper jumper. It happened even when troopers, propelled by the built-in forward speed of the canopy, collided at lower altitudes. The 82nd lost seven troopers to high- or low-altitude entanglements in the months leading up to my arrival.
In the brigade headquarters, I remember occupying the office desk of a sergeant first class who had died from such an accident a week or so earlier. He was an experienced jumper, which gave me pause: What in the world were we doing with this new piece of gear? Soon we were incorporating workarounds such as alternating the exits of individual jumpers out of each opposing aircraft door, using chemical light sticks inside the aircraft, pointed at the jumper as a visual signal to go out the door. This slowed down the exits and required multiple passes over the drop zone to get all the paratroopers out safely--a real pain in peacetime, and definitely not feasible for actual combat operations.
We were also having ground crews light big smoke pots on the drop zone so we could perhaps see (on a moonlit night, maybe) which way the wind was blowing. (We joked about who might perform this nice service for us in combat.) We intensified the training and pre-jump briefings on how to steer, avoid collisions with each other and land with the chute. Orthopedic injuries were way up, and more Soldiers died--all because we were trying to accommodate the biggest technological innovation that the airborne community had seen in the past 35 years. It was insane. As much as we all wanted to embrace the new snazzy gear, it was literally killing us.
Over the course of 1979 and 1980, we did our best to just "soldier on" and adapt to it. Then one spring day, the brigade commander assembled all of the brigade's jumpmasters into Towle Stadium on Fort Bragg. The stadium was named after Pvt. John R. Towle, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his valiant actions during Operation Market Garden in Holland on Sept. 21, 1944. Towle was a trooper from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment who single-handedly went up against German armored vehicles with his bazooka, constantly exposed to enemy small arms fire, and killed at least nine enemy soldiers before being mortally wounded by a mortar round.
By the time of our assembly, I was a rifle company commander in the 2ndnd Battalion of the 504th. We all knew the story of Towle's bravery, and the stadium had special significance for us. I looked around at the several hundred of us officers and noncommissioned officers who were jumpmaster-qualified from the brigade's three battalions and headquarters company. We didn't know why we were assembled or what the brigade commander was going to say to us. Then he held up an MC1-1.
We were mighty shocked and insulted when he said, "Anybody here who is afraid of this parachute, raise your hand. Raise your hand, and I will see to it that you never jump one of these again. I will personally issue you a T-10 to jump with instead." No one raised his hand, though many of us probably wanted to. Seeing us all acquiesce, he went on, "The Army has invested millions of dollars in this parachute, and we're going to jump with it." That was about it for that little meeting. I saw bewildered heads shake and eyes roll. "What in the hell are we doing?" I thought.
GETTING AROUND IT
As the next year went by, while using all the workarounds described above to try to prevent more accidents, we somehow slowly began to abandon the use of the chute--first for "mass tactical" jumps of many aircraft loads, then whenever we jumped full aircraft loads at night, and so forth. I don't know the backstory, but there had to be one. Perhaps our division commander, Maj. Gen. Guy S. Meloy III, who was a real Soldier's Soldier, had something to do with our backing off the use of this chute in tactical operations.
In any case, by the time I had served three years in that wonderful division, we had almost gone full circle. But I never forgot what it felt like to be on the receiving end of "new" equipment that didn't work properly, or was insufficiently tested, or was politically promoted, or whatever led up to the misfortune of that parachute debacle. There was no excuse for it. It was a leadership failure.
We later learned that the Airborne Test Board had tried its best to stop the fielding of the chute when its members observed and filmed the entanglement phenomena during development and operational testing. But the thing had its own momentum by then. As in the failed Operation Market Garden, which is often attributed to "momentum" and groupthink, everyone was swept up in the notion of something new for the paratroopers. No one along the way had the guts to stand up and say, "This is wrong."
The brigade commander could have done it. He was at the end of his career. But I have to suppose he was trying to get promoted to brigadier general. He was definitely trying to "manage up" and please those above him.
I could have done it that day in Towle Stadium myself, but it likely would have had only the effect of my own embarrassment, since I was at the end of a long line of events that delivered the parachute to me and my troopers. I guess that's why I resent this experience so much--because people got hurt and it made a sort of accomplice out of me. I was only mildly uncomfortable jumping the chute tactically and became a master parachutist by the end of my tour. But I didn't stand up for my men that day and tell the CO where he could put that parachute. The acquisition system had let us all down, and I swore to myself I'd do my best to prevent such from happening again if I ever could.
The only way I figured I could do that was to infiltrate the ranks of the "acquisition weenies" who were giving us this kind of crap: the scientists and engineers and testers and logisticians and bureaucrats who ran or oversaw this process that could allow people to be hurt by the very thing that was supposed to help them.
Unfortunately, the parachute tale isn't that unique--it was just personal. Go all the way back to the Vietnam-era saga of the M16 rifle's multiple malfunctions if you want another horror story of a technical glitch costing friendly lives. Programs seem to have a life of their own sometimes, a very real momentum. We've been getting better at killing programs lately, at various stages of their lives--usually fairly late--some deservedly, some maybe not. Usually the decision to cancel stems from money constraints or requirements waning, and thus ignores sunk costs.
The parachute experience was irony. It sucked. Because Rule No. 1 for anybody in the acquisition business should be, just like ol' Hippocrates said to all future generations of medical students, "First, do no harm." Yeah, that's right: Don't kill the customer.