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Parachute training returns to Misawa

By VINCE LITTLE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 9, 2009

Parachutes opened recently in the skies above Misawa Air Base for the first time in 15 years.

It was part of combined training the Air Force hopes to conduct monthly at the airfield in northern Japan.

The jumps involved two survival, evasion, resistance and escape — or SERE — specialists based at Misawa and a SERE instructor and pararescueman from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. They all bailed out of a C-130 Hercules flown by a crew from Yokota Air Base’s 36th Airlift Squadron.

Staff Sgt. Benjamin Thomas, a SERE specialist with Misawa’s 35th Operations Support Squadron, said jumps are required every quarter in his career field, and they help prepare them for certain contingency deployments.

"We teach emergency parachute training for the pilots and aircrews," he said. "We use the parachutes they’re going to use, so this helps us teach them how to do it safely. It also helps test all the emergency parachutes and equipment … and validates the procedures we’ve been setting up."

Thomas added: "For us, we continue to maintain the proficiency that’s required without having to go to Yokota or Kadena for the training. Previously, we had to travel to meet that requirement. There are limited drop zones over Japan."

After the Gulf War, the 39th Rescue Squadron conducted regular drops over Misawa between 1992 and 1994 when it flew search-and-rescue missions in and around Japan. The unit later moved to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

Misawa officials want to make parachute jump training a permanent fixture.

"The goal is to schedule the jumps once a month," said Maj. Scott Jewell, the 35th Operations Support Squadron’s SERE flight commander. "It’s a very valuable asset and ability to have in order to get more drops and experience in the future."

Jewell said Misawa pilots face annual training on the Virtual Reality Parachute Simulator. It’s led by the base’s two SERE instructors.

On Jan. 22, the real thing took place as the four specialists from Misawa and Kadena jumped from the C-130 at 1,250 feet. Thomas was one of three who did it twice that day.

"It’s an intimidating feeling looking out of the open ramp, realizing you’re going to step off the edge," he said. "Once you’re out of the aircraft, it’s a quick process. When you fall out and reach a certain separation from the aircraft, it automatically deploys the parachute. … The ride down and landing are fairly smooth as long as everything goes well.

"You’re aiming for a certain point. You use the steering capabilities on the canopy and try to land all four people in a tight group, close to the intended target."

Thomas made five previous jumps during Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga. This time, he said, the parachute was far more maneuverable.

"You had more control over your landing and trying to judge the winds to hit the target," he said. "That’s only going to aid us in becoming more proficient in emergency procedures and more comfortable with the whole process."