Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) is the home to the elite Airborne Test Force (ATF) jumpers; one of the Department of Defense's (DOD) premier developmental airdrop test facilities.
YPG is home to two airborne entities, yet they both have distinctive roles and only one conducts testing missions. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Travus Heffernan, with the ATF explains it best, "We (ATF) are maintaining the future of the aerial delivery mission while the Military Free Fall (MFF) School is training the future free fall parachutists."
The two entities are intertwined and do support each other by sharing resources when possible.
ATF's role is to provide premier training, support, and invaluable feedback to the Army, sister services, DOD, U.S. Government, commercial customers and international customers. Early this year ATF tested the Embraer KC-390 aircraft for the Brazilian Airforce.
Heffernan explains, "Because we are here we are organic to the installation, we don't have to bring anyone else out here. That saves money since it avoids bringing personnel here. They know our qualifications because we are constantly training, anybody that needs airdrop testing knows that we are equipped with subject matter experts and we will accomplish the test to its fullest. Plus, we have the parachutes for cargo and personnel parachutes so they don't have to bring the parachutes, unless it is an experimental parachute undergoing testing. They just bring the equipment, we rig it and throw it out of an airplane."
The team is comprised of ATF parachute riggers/test jumpers and TRAX contractors who are also test jumpers and most previously worked as parachute riggers.
The test jumpers perform static line and Military free fall jumps.
Sgt. 1st Class Luis Feliciano, Operations Non-Commissioned Officer explains, "As they jump out the static line elongates, the parachute pulls out the deployment bag, the deployment bag then stays with the aircraft while the parachute fully inflates."
Heffernan recognizes that this job is inheritably dangerous, "Anything whether you are throwing cargo out, or in an aircraft pushing equipment out, we are on hazardous duty orders because we are jumping from a plane" adding, "For the most part, we can train all day long when it comes to the last five seconds, landing softly or hard is really dependent on the jumper."
Just this summer a member of ATF was injured during a jump, "The equipment functioned properly; it was an unfortunate error in timing and altitude that ended up having that jumper injured."
Parachute Rigger, Staff Sgt. Alonso Argueta, says, "Once they open the ramp, I am ready to go" yet admits "The only time I get nervous is when I am about to hit the ground because I don't want to get injured."
The test jumpers undergo rigorous training, the goal is to jump between 50 --100 jumps a year that being a mix of static line and Military free fall. Many safety procedures go into place to try and prevent any accidents.
Staff Sgt. Brandon Hunter is the drop zone (DZ) safety officer and is responsible for preparing the drop zone to receive jumpers. Also on the ground is a malfunction officer and a medic. "We come out, we survey the area, make sure there are no obstacles, and we set up the impact point with the DZ marking so the aircraft knows they are on the right track of flight. We also communicate wind readings."
Hunter communicates with the aircraft via radio communication. He relays all the information from the ground to the aircraft to ensure the aircraft has a safe and secured DZ for the jumpers and or equipment that are going to be delivered.
ATF's contribution to YPG and the Yuma Test Center is a large one. They also play a huge role in the community. When you see the YPG Color Guard you are seeing members of the ATF proudly serving their community just as proudly as they serve their country.