Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Okay, got the Airborne wings in time for my birthday, perhaps one of the best presents ever! But we were issued the old dark-green badges and so now I've to hunt for the ones on olive-green backing. Honestly, the implementation of the new Army dress rules have proved to be quite a hassle, especially since no one in my formation seems to have any inkling whatsoever when it comes to the formation and arms badges. Which is not a good sign, because we're supposed to get everything altered by 1st July. And the alterations burn quite a hole in the pocket- I know I shouldn't be complaining, since there are probably others who have it far worse- but I'd have to say the Beach Road Army Market stallholders are probably making a killing right now by charging unprecedented prices for all the sewing they've been doing of late. So far life in the unit has been decent, just lie low and don't attract the wrong sort of attention and I think I should survive till the end of my attachment. Anyway training is at a lull now, excepting NDP (which is crazy busy) so my weekdays are not as packed as I'd imagined them to be, but I foresee all my Saturdays up till the end of NDP being entirely burnt by combined rehearsals, NE show, Preview and the like. Cookhouse food is surprisingly palatable and they're generous with fruit so I really can't ask for more. Endurance/ AHM training runs are mainly held at ECP which is just across the expressway from camp and it's nice to run there so that's pretty good. I've come up with a good 3km running circuit in camp so every morning I go at it at least twice or thrice (or maybe even four times, if I'm so inclined). Which brings to mind the fact that the 10-km Mizuno Wave Run is scheduled for the 23rd of July and I think I'll be entering for the heck of it since the start/end point (Kovan Hub) is barely ten minutes' walk from my place. So if anyone wants to join me just let me know. Come to think of it, will be leaving for Michigan in scarcely more than two months' time. I think I will have to make the most of the time I have left here! Four months seems like a lot, initially- but half of it's already gone and I have to do what I can to make the remaining two last!

Anyway the National Dragonboat Championships are this weekend, man, it brings back memories of JC paddling days! Only that now I'm rowing for SAFSA in this race which is quite a different experience altogether. But it will be good. Hope we will get something out of it! I've learnt to appreciate dragonboat rowing far more as compared to back in JC, where it was just a method of team bonding and a half-hearted attempt at winning more medals (we were denied in both our tries, being edged out by a split second in the first and a large wave in the subsequent year). Far more teams have sprung up, which makes the competition admittedly stronger, but my faith lies with the Commandos and the SAFSA girls! The motivation has definitely altered now but I know when it comes to the crunch some things just don't ever change- taking it one stroke at a time, all the way to the finish line!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"The Sky is the Limit, The World is my Dropzone."

After completing an intensive three weeks of ground training in my Basic Airborne Course, I made my first jump today, Tuesday! It was such a wonderful experience that I'd like to share it with you guys. I must say all the sweat and pain was worth it, every single bit. Ground training was gruelling- mastering parachute landing falls by hurling ourselves in every possible direction, from four-foot-high platforms and swing trainers, doing 5-storey tower jumps, aircraft drills, lugging bloody heavy parachutes about... Oh, and I was the only female in the course of 160 trainees so naturally people tended to take a more prurient interest in me and how I was coping. All was well and good though.

Third time lucky after having done 5-hour pre-jump preparations, gone down all the way to the airbase on both last Friday and Monday in anticipation of jumping, only to be thwarted by thunderstorm warnings both times. I was almost certain it'd be the same today because the skies were grey and overcast and didn't bode well for our chances of making our jumps. But thankfully enough no ill-weather advisories were issued and the green light was given for us to do our jumps. So we para-fitted (put on our harnesses and static-line parachute packs), went through the mandatory checks by two separate instructors, before we were cleared to board the CH-47 Chinook rotary-wing aircraft. Para-fitting is awfully uncomfortable, to say the least, because you basically have to be strapped in as tightly and as securely as humanly possible for safety reasons, and so I could barely breathe after being sandwiched between the main chute on my back and the reserve chute in front of my torso. Not to forget the life jacket which goes on under the main chute, the ankle braces for landing protection, and the padded helmet. We were also required to arrange ourselves within pass level (a pass consists of 8 jumpers who are dropped in intervals of one second over a designated drop zone before the aircraft circles back to start another drop) in order of weight, from heaviest to the lightest. The rate of descent is proportional to weight. And since I was the only female in my entire airborne course I was also naturally the smallest (I know you probably don't need
to be reminded of this fact, but just in case) and so I became the last jumper in the second pass of the first sortie (a sortie consists of 3 passes- one sortie boards the aircraft at any one time).

So we waddled in an ungainly fashion to the point where we were supposed to board the aircraft, and were promptly herded on board like a pack of lambs to the slaughter. By this time you could see it, people were excited yet apprehensive. It was practically impossible to hear anything over the noise of the engine and overhead rotors. Strangely enough, I wasn't as scared as I thought I would be, until we gained enough altitude (1000 ft) and the first pass got up to hook their static lines to the cable, do the necessary equipment once-overs and shuffle towards the open ramp door. All too soon it was our turn. The jumpmaster gave the following commands accompanied by handsigns- his voice was almost unheard over the din.

"STAND UP!" I stood up and almost immediately toppled into someone's lap due to the
instability of the moving aircraft.
"HOOK UP!" After regaining my balance (but unfortunately not so much my composure) I
hooked the clasp connecting my static line onto the cable running parallel along the
length of the aircraft, inserted the safety pin and bent it downwards.
"CHECK STATIC LINE!" We tugged at the clasps to ensure that they were securely clipped on to the cable. "EQUIPMENT CHECK!" We had rehearsed this so many times on the ground but somehow I still managed to spout some unintelligible gibberish. "Helmet, Capewell, Life Jacket, Chest Strap, Reserve Snap, Rip Cord, Pack Tie, Static Line, Clear and Hook Up!"
Only it didn't sound like that coming from me, more like "Mmmmffgghhhhhhhhh... Clear and Hook Up!"
"SOUND OFF FOR EQUIPMENT CHECK!" I was the last jumper so I shouted (not like anyone
could hear anything, anyway) "EIGHT OKAY!" and tapped the back of the guy in front of me, who in turn went "SEVEN OKAY!", all the way to the first guy who went "ONE OKAY, STICK OKAY!" (a stick is another name for a pass) "5 SECONDS, STAND IN THE DOOR!" We moved forward in sync, having adopted a right-left shuffle step movement, and the first jumper stood in the door. "GO!" Out went Jumper No. 1, and we shuffled forward. "GO!" Out went Jumper No. 2, and we shuffled forward. ...
"GO!" Out went Jumper No. 7, and as he fell I was left with a far too clear view of the thousand feet of air below me. Didn't have much time to think about it, though, because the next thing I knew I heard "GO!", I took a step out into nothingness, assisted by the jumpmaster's helpful push. This was a moment unlike any other I have ever experienced. It's plainly indescribable- I mean, how can you ever encapsulate the feeling of stepping out into thin air and the tumultuous thoughts that go on inside your head? I vaguely remember falling fast while uttering "one thousand, two thousand, three..." and I think by then my canopy deployed and I felt a gentle tug and my rate of descent slowed. I quickly breathed "Thank God!" and reached for my toggles to gain control of my drift and direction and also to ensure that I wouldn't land on the runway below. One thing I was struck by was how peaceful and serene it was up there. It was so unbelievably quiet after the din of the aircraft, and I felt like I was floating, suspended in the air, altogether surreal- it didn't even feel like a descent, the only clue that gave it away was how the objects on the ground were rapidly becoming larger. I quickly orientated myself to face into the wind so as to slow my forward drift, and looked around for a suitable landing spot unmarred by obstacles or other jumpers. All too soon I heard the safety officer shouting through his loudhailer "Jumper No. 8, prepare for landing... landing any moment
now!" Kept my feet, knees locked tight, toes pointed upwards, chin tucked towards chest, and prepped for landing. The ground rushed towards me and I landed on the flat of my feet (marvelous!) and promptly sat down with an "oof!". It was awesome. Quickly got to my feet and ran around like a headless chicken in glee for a while before remembering that I ought to fold my canopy and exit the drop zone. I was in the midst of gathering my canopy when I heard "LAND!" come from somewhere dangerously near to above my head and looked up to see one of the Gurkhas heading towards me from above. I quickly moved away only to see him land on my canopy and simultaneously kick my reserve chute a few feet away. Pretty close shave, it would have been perversely amusing but not the best thing if he had landed on me. I packed up my chute, slung it over my shoulder, and made the long trek back to the hangar area.

So there you go- a synopsis of my first jump! It was such a surreal experience which I enjoyed thoroughly. It's almost impossible to say everything in words, because I think it's something which can only be understood after going through the experience itself. I will be jumping at least once more on Thursday, this time from a Fokker-50 fixed-wing aircraft, and hopefully once after that on Thursday evening, from a C-130 Charlie fixed-wing aircraft.

Hopefully those two jumps go well, and I'll get my AIRBORNE wings!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Will be booking back in to Hendon Camp at 2300 hrs to await the start of a long week ahead. We've been prepped mentally by the instructors to be prepared for a tough time especially with all the parachute drills and all. And I'm not a big fan of heights so definitely it's not going to be exactly easy-going for me particularly when we get to the tower jump and of course the real plunge from the C-130. In the course I'm the only female as well so naturally I tend to be on the receiving end of more attention than I would actually care for, especially from the instructors. Always kena picked to answer questions or conveniently referred to in the process of their discourse. It's okay, lah- all that I can handle, and the guys in the course whom I've met so far have been nice as well. And Ruijie, Edwin and Tai Wei keep me pretty sane too so that's good. But cannot complain, we get to book out every night. Even though I have some doubts about whether I'd have the time or energy to make the arduous journey from Changi back home. We'll see how it goes. In the end I just hope I get my wings without injury.