By Alexandra Foran, NSRDEC Public AffairsAugust 6, 2012
KINGSTON, R.I. -- Four Department of the Army civilians and one Soldier from the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center jumped out of CH-47 Chinook helicopters Aug. 4 and 5. They were participating in "Leapfest 30," the International Military Parachute Competition held annually by the Rhode Island Army National Guard. Leapfest is the largest international static-line parachute competition (and training event) and is in its 30th year, making it the longest-standing event of its kind.
Within about a minute and thirty seconds, jumpers yield to gravity in the hopes that they land safely on the ground, as close to their target as possible. The Natick team members all landed safely within the drop zone during all of their jumps, but others were less fortunate and ended up landing among the trees lining Drop Zone Castle.
"I was able to speak to quite a few of the U.S. military folks that didn't understand why (Army) civilians are jumping as part of Leapfest," said John Mahon, senior Airdrop equipment specialist at NSRDEC, "and I explained to them that it was part of our mission, or our interpretation of our mission, to be able to associate with the equipment that we design, develop, engineer and fix and to be able to be able to relate to the operational customer. The best way to do that is to use the same equipment as the customer; so quite a few of those guys were impressed."
Each participant in the four-person team exits the Chinook helicopter at 1,500 feet and then steers his MC1-1D parachute to land as closely as possible to the marked "x" in the landing zone. Jumpers are timed by judges until they reach this designated spot, and timing commences once jumpers hit the ground. Competitors make three jumps and compete for both team and individuals honors.
Parachute Landing Falls are a necessary part of this competition. Jumpers are supposed to make sure these five contact points touch the ground in this precise order: balls of feet, calf, thigh, buttocks, and pull-up muscle.
"The best way to describe it is to go limp, because if you don't … you won't walk it out, because you're falling anywhere from 14 to17 feet per second," said Sgt. Jon Weymouth.
Weymouth, a rigger from NSRDEC, jumped the usual three static-line jumps rounding out the 360th Civil Affairs team out of Maryland and then completed two free-fall demonstration jumps at the competition.
The difference between these two jumps is that static-line involves a cord attached between the inside of the jumper's backpack and the aircraft, so that after a certain point once the jumper has exited, the chute automatically opens, while a freefall jumps require jumpers to manually deploy their own chutes.
"With freefall I'll still get a little nervous right before I exit. I mean, you're up there, 12,500 feet, you're really up there," Weymouth said. "It was cold up there; it was about 2 degrees Fahrenheit."
One of the biggest components of Leapfest is the camaraderie that comes with the airborne environment. Military personnel from across the world compete at Leapfest, some Soldiers meet up again after jumping in other countries together while others garner new friendships. This happens in this spirited atmosphere despite the cultural and language differences.
"The other thing about Leapfest is that for all the years I've been going, I keep running into all these different people," Mahon said. "Some of them worked for me as privates and now they're sergeants, majors, lieutenant colonels, and generals. It's refreshing every now and then to see all these troops that did good."
Nearly 60 teams competed in Leapfest this year, including about 40 from the United States. International countries represented at this year's event were South Africa, Morocco, Mexico, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Germany, Italy and Canada.
While Natick did not place in the top three this year, the team did win the competition in 2009. "Leapfest 30" was still a worthwhile opportunity for all who attended, as NSRDEC continues to do its part to help serve U.S. Soldiers.