Soldiers master tough job of preparing landing zones in airborne ops

A U.S. soldier jumps out the back a CH-47 Chinook during the Pathfinder course at Grafenwoehr, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.


By MARTIN EGNASH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 16, 2017

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — When the U.S. Army needs to put troops behind enemy lines or quickly bring in supplies to a mountainous outpost, its answer is to bring them in from the above.

But you can’t have an airborne operation without setting up the drop zone. And learning to do that is tough work.

That task falls to Pathfinders.

Once a year, the U.S. Army Pathfinder School sends a training team from Fort Benning, Ga., to Europe to give soldiers stationed overseas a chance to join their ranks. This year’s three-week course, held in Grafenwoehr, ends on Friday.

“The Pathfinder concept was created to make airdrops more effective,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Jackson, the school’s senior drop zone instructor. “Pathfinders do everything necessary in order to deploy troops or equipment from air. They are the subject-matter experts on all airborne missions when it comes to getting from the air to the ground.”

The Army began the Pathfinder program in World War II, after a series of unreliable airborne drops in Sicily and North Africa left units up to 65 miles away from their intended targets. The Army realized it needed to put somebody in first to set up the drop zone for the rest of the soldiers.

Later in the war, specially trained volunteers were used extensively to facilitate airborne operations, including the D-Day landings in Normandy and the invasion of Italy. In Vietnam, the Pathfinders established landing zones for the numerous helicopter assaults that characterized that war.

As the course in Grafenwoehr is the only one in Europe until at least next February, soldiers came from across the Continent to attend.

“Having a soldier graduate the Pathfinder course is a big benefit to their unit,” Jackson said. “It gives them someone with the knowledge to make a successful air drop. When you’re dealing with men jumping out of aircraft, there is a very high risk factor. You want to make sure you have somebody who can make sure nothing goes wrong.”

The class started out with 70 soldiers, but the demanding course work means that only 47 will make it to graduation.

“It’s an extremely high volume of information in a short amount of time,” Jackson said. We generally have a 65 percent pass rate. Our students stay up late studying every single night they’re here.”

The students dust off their protractors and compasses to establish landing zones and determine the wind patterns before drops. They also need to memorize the nomenclature for all the aircraft they might work with and conduct a mock airborne assault.

Staff Sgt. Jeromy Spann, an infantry squad leader with 173rd Airborne Brigade, came from Vicenza, Italy, to attend the course.

“It’s mentally draining from day one,” Spann said. “Every day there is just so much information, and it’s important that you get everything exactly right. You have to commit yourself and put forth a real effort. I feel awesome that I’ve made it this far”

After graduating, the students will be able to inspect equipment loaded on and strapped beneath aircraft and help their command to plan airborne assault operations.

“I hear a lot of people questioning if paratroopers are obsolete, but if you want to secure an area that’s not accessible with tanks, and you’re worried that planes on the ground could become a target, you want to have the option of parachuting in,” Jackson said. “We can get more troops on the ground faster and safer.”


U.S. soldiers map out a drop zone at the Pathfinder course at Grafenwoehr, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.

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