An exclusive excerpt from Jaeger: At War With Denmark’s Elite Special Forces by Thomas Rathsack
Chapter Three: No oxygen
I felt like I was flying. To be the owner of a burgundy beret and nearly through my year of training almost gave me wings. Following Jaeger training, I began exercises abroad, working on my training in communications, medical skills, demolitions and specialized-weapons training. Each day brought me closer to becoming a real Jaeger.
But one of the most fundamental skills of all these, the one the Corps is best known for and one which commands respect from Special Forces all around the world, is its parachute operations. And in the summer of 1991 in Aalborg, I was experiencing for the first time the Corp’s highly specialized oxygen jump.
At that time, I loved skydiving. I participated in every jump that I could. Beside the four or five weeks a year I spent training in the Jaeger Corps, I also took part in the military national team training tours and military events such as anniversaries, as well as in civilian parachute engagements and demonstrations such as sports events, festivals, and so on.
A jump on a warm summer day with a light chute and without heavy equipment is one thing. The military oxygen jump is another case entirely. It involves altitudes three times higher than a normal jump. A jump like this, on a cold and dark winter night, equipped with oxygen and many pounds of equipment, leaping into an unfamiliar landing zone, is a journey into the unknown. It is hard work and it involves significant risks.
There are two kinds of oxygen jumps: HAHO and HALO. HAHO means “High Altitude, High Opening” and implies that the jump happens from the aircraft’s maximum altitude of 30,000 feet—5.7 miles altitude. The Jaeger releases his parachute and navigates with a compass to sail behind enemy lines. The advantage of the HAHO jump is that the Jaeger is inserted a relatively large distance from the designated target. In good conditions, I have floated a distance of 40 miles in the air above Northern Jutland. After landing with the rest of the team, landing zones are secured, the parachutes are buried, and the Jaegers continues to solve the task at hand. The disadvantage of HAHO jumps is that there is a relatively high risk of being detected from the ground, because you float in the air for up to 50 minutes.
The other option is the HALO jump, which stands for “High Altitude, Low Opening.” The jump still happens 5.7 miles up, but the Jaeger waits until the last minute to pull the chute. This minimizes the risk of being detected while in the air. During a normal parachute jump, the speed during free-fall is approximately 125 miles per hour. Due to the thin air at the higher altitudes of the HALO jump, the Jaeger achieves speeds of 250 miles per hour. The disadvantage of HALO jumps is that the Jaeger must be dropped a lot closer to the target, since he does not float in the air for long.
Whether participating in a HAHO or HALO jump, both require a large amount of preparation. A Jaeger’s backpack must be packed very carefully with necessary equipment—food, water, sleeping bags, clothing, observational equipment, commo gear, ammunition, and explosives. The backpack might end up weighing 140 pounds, and so it is of the utmost importance that the weight be distributed evenly, or it could have fatal consequences during free-fall. In the case of an unstable load, a Jaeger may only have an unstable fall, or he could end up in an uncontrollable spin, making him lose consciousness due to the violent centrifugal forces. As an important part of the preparation phase, one always packs one’s own parachute and equipment by themselves.
A Jaeger’s compass and altimeter are strapped to the front, the breathing bottles are mounted in a special pocket on the harness, and the weapon is kept out of the way of their parachute’s pull cords. In the hours before the jump, I would always go through the pack containing my parachute, my rucksack, and my other equipment meticulously, making sure I checked everything one last time before takeoff.
Sitting in a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft, I felt, after my two previous HALO jumps, that I was ready for my first HAHO jump. The Hercules is not exactly famous for its high level of comfort: A red net strung along the sides of the cabin functions as seating, and the concept of air conditioning is completely unknown to this aircraft’s design. Onboard, you either sweat like a pig or freeze your ass off.
My team and I were connected to the aircraft’s joint oxygen system, and next to me sat my patrol leader, Morten—a stocky, stern, but friendly guy in his late twenties. Morten had already completed over 600 jumps, and the confidence that came from that experience was very reassuring to the rest of us. He turned to me, and even though he was wearing his oxygen mask, I could see that he was smiling.
I admired Morten’s natural coolness in high-tension environments. But it also annoyed me a little; I knew I could never be as calm and collected as he was. Naturally, I was a bit scared my first time trying the dangerous jump. I was already soaked in sweat under my many layers of clothing and my gray, uncomfortable jumper suit. I could taste the saltiness of it on the rubber of my oxygen mask. I was comforted to see that Morten’s face was also covered in beads of sweat.
Minutes remained before we’d be jumping out into the cold and inhospitable skies, 30.000 feet above Danish ground. Everyone was tense, concentrated and focused.
We’d soon be hurtling through -20-degree air, plummeting toward earth wearing backpacks weighing 120 pounds fastened to our bodies.
Exposed skin, in these conditions, will result in almost instantaneous frostbite. I’m sporting large mittens to protect my hands and a dickey around my neck. My helmet, goggles, and oxygen mask protect my face and head. The oxygen mask is fastened to the helmet with two buckles and a pair of heavy rubber bands for security. My rucksack is connected to the parachute harness with what is called a ‘lowering line’, which allows me to release the bag just before landing, making my own landing a lot safer. The backpack is fastened to the back of my legs, with the bottom facing upwards—I have a leg through each shoulder strap. This ensures the most natural position for the lower body during the jump, but also makes for a very unnatural position while sitting down before the jump.
Our plane was no longer rising, and it began to bank right. We had reached our jump altitude. The aircraft’s cargo ramp opened slowly, and a soft, warm ray of sunshine filled the cabin. My four teammates simultaneously turned their heads and look toward the fully opened cargo ramp.
Our jumpmaster, Mike, clapped his hands and then held up six fingers, meaning six minutes until we’d exit the aircraft. Any form of speech was impossible, since we were wearing our oxygen masks. And even without the masks, it would be virtually impossible to understand anyone with the intense engine noise of the Hercules.
Shortly after, Mike made a slow, circular, upward motion with his arms, almost as if he were directing an orchestra.
It was the signal for us to stand up. We looked like a bunch of old men due to our restricted and awkward movements. It took us a long time to reach a half-upright fetal position. We disconnected from the shared oxygen system and turned our own supplies on so the team’s “oxygen medic” could do his final check. He stood in front of each and every one of us, looked us in the eyes, and gave us the thumbs-up. We returned the stare, nodded, and gave him the thumbs-up right back. Then, Mike concluded the final check-ups of the equipment and the parachutes.
Everything was as it should be, and he acknowledged this by giving me a friendly shoulder squeeze.
Now, the rest was up to me, my parachute, and the sky above Aalborg.
We all turned to face the ramp. Mike ushered us along. I was at the end of the line, and the four jumpers in front of me stood out in a clear silhouette against the sharp sunlight. In a bizarre moment of contemplation, they reminded me of four penguins, with their small and rigid steps.
Mike clapped his hands together and lifted one finger.
I could feel my heart beating rapidly against my chest and was suddenly very cognizant of my sweating as I saw the finely detailed map appearing under me. It was a wondrous sight.
I could see the southern tip of Norway and Skagen, the northern tip of Denmark, and the city of Aalborg just north of the air base, which was our target.
We continued slowly scooting toward the platform in a tight row, as it was important to get off the plane in very quick succession. The plane soared through the sky at 400 miles per hour, a full 190 miles per hour faster than it would travel at normal altitude due to the thin air. As a result, if the pause between our jumps became too large, it would be almost impossible to achieve the desired “string of pearls” formation during our fall, or even locate each other upon landing.
The last time signal had been given and the man up front inched to the edge of the ramp. The red lamps on each side of the ramp lit up clearly. There was Mike with his hand on the first man’s shoulder, looking at the lamp with only a few seconds to go. Then, the lamps turned green. Mike gave the first man a hard pat on the back, and he jumped with his arms wide open, disappearing behind the ramp. I made tiny steps behind Morten. Mike patted him on the back, and he jumped immediately, without hesitation—this was his own little pleasure trip.
When I made my leap, I was instantly hit by speed and turbulence. My goggles were so foggy, I could hardly see anything. I could just barely make out a Jaeger who had just drawn his chute. With his calm and calculating movement, it could only be Morten. I stretched out my arms to increase my stability in the air. My backpack felt balanced and fine, so I found my release handle with my right arm and compensated for the movement with my left arm, which I placed behind my head. Then, I pulled the handle, stretching out my hands and readying myself for the sharp tug of the parachute when it takes in air. But not even the most in-depth preparations could have prepared me for the jolt I experienced traveling from 400 miles per hour to next to nothing in a fraction of a second. I was thrown forward into the harness and had no control over my movement. The pressure was pushing the air out of my lungs, and I moaned loudly. Looking up, I found that my parachute had unfolded perfectly, and was billowing with air.
A relief. But there’s a nagging feeling—an icy cold wind whipping against my face and a tingling sensation in my mouth and lips. The kind of feeling I shouldn’t have been having at that moment, hanging in a parachute 30.000 feet above the surface of the earth.
I knew immediately what had happened. My oxygen mask, jerked off the right side of my face, was now only hanging in the left lock. This was really bad—on par with a parachute malfunction. This sort of catastrophe was what every HAHO jumper fears most: Without oxygen at this height, I would pass out at within seconds. I’d learned my limitations from controlled trails at the Flight Medical Institute, and estimated I had less than 30 seconds before I would black out and float lifelessly through the air, with no influence on where I might end up. Worst-case scenario? This would be my last 30 seconds alive.
My options were limited. I could take off my mittens and try to pull my mask back on to get the necessary oxygen, but doing so would give me extreme frostbite, which could result in me not being able to use my hands properly. I might even lose a mitten or two in the attempt, which could result in permanent frostbite. If that happened, I might never be able to use my hands as a soldier ever again.
Alternatively, I could try to fumble my mask back into place with my mittens still on. Both solutions would be very difficult to accomplish, and still presented a high risk of my failing and slipping into unconsciousness.
Career-ending frostbite or unconsciousness and death?
For me, that was like asking if I’d prefer the plague or cholera. But I had to make the decision immediately.
I was 24 years old and a Jaeger. Exposure to more pain didn’t frighten me. I had constantly pushed my tolerance level and forced my body to endure immense suffering. But I did not want to ruin my hands by pulling those mittens off.
So the mittens-on approach it was. I grabbed at the fluttering oxygen mask, the mitten covering the entire thing given its size. I placed the mask in front of my mouth and jaw. With the other hand, I pushed against the buckle of the helmet. The sun shined directly into my face as if to remind me of my impending doom—like the light at the end of a tunnel. It pushed me to fight even harder.
I have no idea if it took me 10 or 30 seconds to struggle with the mask, but suddenly I heard the liberating clicking sound of the buckle snapping into place.
I let go of the mask and it fit tightly over my mouth. The beautiful, cool, and slightly metallic taste of oxygen once again flowed into my airway. I caught my breath and felt almost high, reveling in my victory in the battle against time.
But I couldn’t allow myself much time of time to think about my close call. Now that the immediate danger was over, I needed to get back on course. The wind blew from the west and was leading me towards northern Jutland. I loosened my steering handle and corrected my course. I couldn’t see any one of my teammates, but if I kept this direction I knew that I would land roughly in the vicinity of the proposed landing area northwest of the Aalborg Air Base.
There were a few robust-looking cumulus clouds that were going to be an obstacle for my path. If we can, we always try and steer clear of clouds. A jumper can experience severe turbulence inside a cloud, and it can be very difficult to orient oneself given the lack of visibility.
I found myself at an altitude of 20.000 feet, the cloud directly in front of me. If I tried to get around it, I might get too far off course. And since I probably didn’t have enough time to get around it anyways, I maintained my course and continued into the milky-white, dense, moist fog. I had never flown into such a dense cloud before, and I was surprised at how much it tugged and tore at my parachute. I got the uncomfortable feeling of not being completely fastened to my harness. I pulled my steering handle closer and reduced my speed a bit. This is a standard procedure we use to steer clear of other Jaegers.
A remarkable silence spread, only interrupted by the flickering of the cells on the chute. I looked down, and to my astonishment, realized I couldn’t even see my own boots. I was lost in a miasma and could see less than six feet.
My compass and my altimeter were my only two points of reference in this blindness. The clouds felt as though they continued on interminably. Again, I sensed a certain feeling of uncertainty sneaking up on me. But then, a moment later, the light finally became sharper again.
Never before had I been so happy to see my old, worn out “Danner Boots.” Shortly after, the horizon unfolded itself in front of me and the Northern part of Denmark reappeared, clear and green.
The needle of my altimeter swung past the 12.000 feet mark, and I had a cloudless sky in front of me. I loosened my oxygen mask and let it fall to the side, enjoying the thrill of reaching breathable air. In my feeling of victory I stretched out my hands to open up all the cells in my parachute, gathering as much velocity as possible for the final push toward the landing zone.
Down to my mates.
Down to familiar things and comfort.
When I reached 500 feet above the ground, I made sure to face toward the wind, and upon reaching 60 feet, I braked. I collapsed when I landed. That’s not altogether unusual in HAHO jumping; after half an hour spent in the air with reduced blood circulation to the legs due to the tight fit of the harness in the groin area, my feet and legs were completely numb. In addition to this, I struggled to maintain my balance given the heavy weight of my equipment. Slowly, I made it to my feet, rolled up my parachute, and tried to determine the reason why my oxygen mask had come undone. As it turned out, one of the rubber bands holding it in place had snapped as a result of the extreme conditions. It is crazy to think that something as trivial as a damned rubber band could have cost me my life.
But now, this day’s work was over. As we traveled back to the air base by truck, me sitting in the bed, I looked down at my shaking hands. The night before, I had been sitting with my comrades, drinking beer in Aalborg, talking with excitement about the day’s challenges. But not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this jump would involve me fighting for my life. But I had pulled through, and with that thought, the tingling in my hands and the uncomfortable ride were rendered almost pleasant.
Although I always approached these jumps with optimism and confidence, the oxygen mask incident wasn’t the only time I experienced a terrifying, near-catastrophic mishap during a jump. While training with the military national team in the United Arab Emirates, I was tasked for the first time in my career with a “precision jump,” using a type of parachute quite different than the usual military chutes. It was larger, and consequently more sensitive and responsive to the steering handle, which makes it easier to land with precision. I was to land on a mattress, with one of my heels hitting a spot not much bigger than a quarter.
The jumping area was in the middle of the desert, so I had a clear line of sight to target. I thought I was doing quite well until I realized—while a mere 30 feet above the ground—that I would probably miss the mattress by a bit. Not a disaster, but I wanted to get as close to the finishing point as possible. So I gave my steering handle a sharp pull to brake, hoping to give myself more time to line up my landing. But I’d forgotten that this wasn’t like the parachutes I’d worked with in the past, and my pull caused such a sudden change that the parachute became completely drained of air. For a moment, it hung above me, as relaxed as a condom. That was followed by a lightning-fast drop to the ground. I landed on my ass, directly on my tailbone, while trying catch myself with my right arm. I hit the ground so hard that the other Jaegers who witnessed my crash were certain I had broken my back. Fortunately, I hadn’t. My forearm, however, didn’t fare so well. It looked pretty ludicrous, actually, bent into an almost zigzagged shape at the wrist.
Shortly after, I was picked up at the jump site by a Huey helicopter and flown to a nearby hospital where we landed on the roof. I was greeted by another dilemma. A big, fat German chief medic gave me two choices: Either I could get the arm put into place immediately, which would be best for the healing process but performed without anesthesia, or I could get it straightened out later, under anesthesia, which would result in a longer healing process. Naturally, faced with a longer delay for the sake of comfort, chose the first option. Before I knew it, my patrol leader, Morten, and a paramedic are holding my shoulders while the German medic pushes my arm back into place. I came close to fainting during that episode, watching this guy jerk my broken arm around. It seemed to take forever. When he finally released his iron grip of my broken arm, I sank back into my chair—exhausted but relieved. The typically formal and eloquent Morten laughed at me loudly and exclaimed, “During my training as a paramedic in Danish hospitals I’ve seen lots of dead people, but not one of them has ever been as white in the face as you were today.”