Stripes Okinawa | .
published: June 24, 2016
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Beads of sweat run down his forehead as he squeezes out every last cubic millimeter of air from a parachute and folds it into a bag no larger than a basic tool box, checking each step to ensure strict compliance to safety standards.
After several hours of assembly and safety checks, pararescuemen of the 31st Rescue Squadron will don the parachute pack, trusting their lives to the dedication and attention to detail Senior Airman Erik Merrill, and other 31st RQS aircrew flight equipment members, execute daily.
"For pararescuemen, we mainly pack parachutes which are specialized for premeditated jumps out of aircraft," said Merrill.
Besides parachutes, aircrews need a variety of equipment to carry out tasks such as deep strike combat search and rescue, casualty and non-combatant evacuations, and humanitarian assistance. Jumpers train to execute missions at any altitude, over land or sea, and day or night.
"We also maintain oxygen bottles, masks, life preservers, altimeters, and night vision goggles," added Tech. Sgt. Matthew Michels, 31st RQS AFE assistant NCOIC.
The 80-pound parachute pack must support not only the weight of jumpers, but also their weapons, armor and ruck sack. Aircrew flight equipment Airmen ensure no details get overlooked during safety inspections.
"We have eleven different checks just for packing the chute," said Michels. "Then somebody who isn't a packer must examine it again using their own checklist, and finally the PJ's perform another inspection on jump day."
Jump day can occur at any time, requiring members to maintain constant readiness for unexpected rescue or recovery calls. The AFE team ensures parachutes and equipment can be used at a moment's notice.
"Every month we pack and maintain between twenty and thirty parachute packs, as well as having about two dozen of them ready to go," said Michels.
The total number of parachutes the team maintains extends into the hundreds.
"Among all the different types of parachutes, there's about 200 packs we maintain, and if you consider the reserve chutes as well, you can add at least 100 more to that," Merrill added.
Depending on mission needs, Merrill and Michels pack a variety of differently configured parachutes from 30,000-foot freefall chutes to ones designed for deployment as close as 800 feet from the ground.
"Ones used at 800 feet are known as static line chutes, which are hooked up to a line in the aircraft, and when the PJs jump out, it automatically pops the chute," said Michels.
In addition to ensuring jumpers have reliable equipment, AFE Airmen also monitor training and jumping exercises.
"We conduct malfunction officer duty, or MALO, where we go out to the training area with a camcorder to observe jumpers," said Michels. "In the event they have to cut away from their main and use the reserve, we can troubleshoot the incident by examining both the video and the chutes."
By observing their chutes in action, Michels and Merrill benefit from job perks giving them a sense of accomplishment.
"My favorite thing is getting to see my equipment used, it’s like the ultimate trust fall," said Michels. "It is instant feedback, and I get to see first-hand how my job affects the mission."