The U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) centers its mission on testing the military’s war-time capabilities to its fullest extent. Within those capabilities is the ability to free-fall out of the sky dropping into a select area at moment’s notice in efforts to defeat the adversary.
But the Army’s focus on jumping out of a plane first started with paratroopers attached to a fixed cord connected inside the aircraft that allowed the chute to deploy automatically after jumping out of the plane. That technique known as a static line jump, had been around for a while. But as the Army evolved so did its interest in free-fall.
Eight brave and courageous men that started as static line paratroopers would set off to be the original test team for the High Altitude, Low Opening (HALO) free-fall project for the Army Golden Master Program in 1958 at the proving grounds.
“They obviously had to have nerves of steel because they were the first ones to jump out of a plane and just keep falling several thousand feet,” said Bobbye Williamson, the daughter of Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Joe Williamson, one of the first to be a part of the HALO team.
Bobby Joe was transferred from Ft. Lee Virginia as a paratrooper to YPG in the 1950’s. He was the tallest amongst the group. He stood 6’8’’ making him the tallest man to have ever been in the Army Airborne during that time.
Back in that era each team member did it all, they were riggers, packers, and jumpers. They would even go to car junk yards, boat junk yards, anywhere they could to find altimeters and the equipment they needed because the military didn’t have it yet, according to Williamson.
“They were jumping over 20,000 feet with football helmets on and jump boots, or in my dad’s case Converse All Stars because he was six-foot-eight and wore a size 16 shoe, they didn’t make jump boots that big yet.”
Jumping anywhere from 10-15 times a day the team of eight was dedicated to learning the ways of the skies with accuracy and precision. “They could pretty much land on a dime,” Williamson shared. “They were dedicated and did everything together.”
The proving ground served as an ideal spot for a free-fall school as the skies surrounding the installation were almost always clear and restricted airspace allowed for jumps year-round with jump zones clearing the way for free-fall.
It wasn’t soon after 1958 that the first HALO team would branch out and start training others. “Specifically, the Army from Fort Lee, Fort Brag, and Fort Campbell and from there it just kept getting bigger and now this is the premier free-fall school in the United States,” said Williamson. “It must have been a successful program.”
And that it was, the Military Free-Fall School (MFFS), a part of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School has trained thousands of the military’s most elite paratroopers for the last quarter of a century.
Since its inception the MFFS has expanded its focus on four courses. The Military Free-Fall Parachutist Course, Military Free-Fall Jump Master Course, Advanced Tactical Infiltration Course, and the Military Free-Fall Instructor Course.
The MFFS is also home to the world’s largest vertical wind tunnel located at YPG and is currently constructing a two -bay hanger for the Special Operations Aviation Command flight detachment that has supported training operations of the MFFS for the past seven years.
“My dad just happened to be on the first group of eight men that came out here to do it,” Williamson said as she reflected on his impact in what would become the premier MFFS in the United States. “It is satisfying to know my dad had a humongous part in that.”