The ageing Dakota transport lurched and bumped far above the Normandy beach. The Paratroopers inside wished they were already over the Drop Zone, it was hot inside and even with the door open not enough air was circulating. At least it had not been a long flight. The despatchers eyes watered as he peered outside the fuselage into the slipstream. Ahead was the town of Merville and to one side the coastal battery. He pulled himself back into the aircraft and took a deep breath. "Stand up". "Hook up".The Port stick struggled to their feet and snapped the hook at the end of their static lines onto the overhead cable. "Check equipment".
Each man checked his static line, his helmet fastening, his reserve hooks and flap covering the reserve chute handle. Satisfied all was as it should be, each man then checked the jumper in front, making sure the others static line ran clear and there was nothing visually wrong with the back of the Parachute."Sound off for equipment check" the despatcher shouted. "Twelve OK! shouted the last man and slapped the shoulder of the person in front.
This was repeated by each jumper until it reached the lead man. 'Number One OK, Port stick OK!" The despatcher put his hand to his headphones and pressed the cup closer to his ear to hear the pilots commentary better. "Two minutes" came the call from the pilot. The despatcher had another quick look outside the aircraft to satisfy himself of the Dz location and called "Action stations" at the same time pointing to the door.
The first man stepped smartly into the door frame, almost a drill movement. His left hand snapped the static line towards the despatched who grasped it firmly. His hand, now free was placed on the door frame to steady himself and his right hand rested on the top of his reserve. He looked out at the horizon and into the clear blue french sky. Behind him the rest of the stick closed up."Red on! He tensed, his mouth suddenly seemed very dry and it was hard to swallow."Green on, Go!" Number one stepped smartly into the slipstream and was tumbled away into the turbulence below the aircraft followed rapidly by the rest of the stick.
He gasped as the Chute opened above him and the pressure of his reserve threatened to squeeze all the air out of his lungs. The moment passed quickly and allowed him to check his canopy. Turning the chute he satisfied himself he was in no danger of a collision with any other jumper and looked for the DZ. 2000 ft below he could see the battery clearly marked out in the lush green Normandy fields. It was now time to think about his landing. Far below a dirty water filled ditch beckoned uninvitingly as he once again turned into wind and assessed his drift.
No, this was not the Normandy invasion,niether was it a scene from a film. The Pathfinder parachute group had just jumped onto the Merville gun battery in front of the survivors of the original airborne assault, The 9th Battalion the Parachute Regiment. This was there anniversary and for Pathfinder it was the second time they had jumped here at the personnel invitation of the Veteran battalions committee. 80% of Pathfinder are either serving or retired paratroopers from all over the world and so the honour bestowed on them by the 9th was appreciated.
Pathfinder was the brainchild of Sgt Roy Mobsby and Bdr (retired) Ron Ball.Roy had started off as TA Paratrooper in 10 Para and Ron had served with 7 RHA. They had both answered an advert to jump in Holland at Parcentrum Texel and earn their Dutch wings. Whilst there they were introduced to the IAAV,the International Association of Airborne Veterans run by Mike Epstein who had served with the US Airborne. This organisation used its contacts to attend parachute courses around the world and earn the host countries parachute brevets. With advice from the IAAV a small group of British airborne veterans were formed into a non profit Parachute club with the aim of following in their footsteps. The first year was a bit slow with only two small courses being jumped at Paracentrum Texel . Word passed slowly passed around that here was a group filling the gap between military parachuting and sport parachuting. The membership rapidly increased, not only from England but from abroad. Soon Danish LRRP,Japanees Rangers, Dutch, German,Estonian,French,American,Canadian soldiers both retired and serving swelled the ranks.
It takes a different type of bottle for static line and freefall and not many can achieve both. Paratroopers feel that 2000 ft is high whereas a freefaller will tell you that is their lowest safety high before they become a stain on the landscape. Pathfinder allows a retired paratrooper to continue jumping in the style has been trained in and without a weapons container or a three hour low level flight it becomes enjoyable. In order to jump safely and legally all jumps are carried out at civilian minimum drop height but are the 'Walk out the door" exits that paratroopers are used to. With nearly three hundred members spread over sixteen countries the "Airborne "really does exist. As many of the jumpers noted, jumping with Pathfinder is like being back with the Airborne.
Although Pathfinder boasts a Brigadier, several Colonels and Majors within its ranks no rank is used nor does it need to be. All jumpers no matter what rank or nationality are there for the same reason, to enjoy jumping round canopies. To jump in the style they were all trained in and to uphold the traditions of the Airborne in an age when it is fashionable to promote peace and unfortunately forget our veterans and their sacrifices whilst doing so. The group keep the military and the Paras in the public eye when the army cannot afford to do so themselves.
Until recently the group felt they were the only people who still had faith in the use of Paras in modern war. That was until the American Airborne jumped into Afghanistan renewing the MOD planners interest in Airborne assaults. Within the group are a few civilian jumpers who have never been in the forces. These are usually re-enactors from Airborne units who having portrayed Paratroopers wish to find out what it is really like. Pathfinder give these people the opportunity to experience the end result without having to suffer "P" Company like the rest of the group had to. These people do not consider themselves Paratroopers but have a better insight into what makes the airborne some of the best soldiers in the world.
In 1999 Pathfinder was given the opportunity and honour to jump with British Regular and TA Paratroopers at Ginkle Heath as part of the Arnhem anniversary jump. Two former Soviet AN2 jumpships were pressed into action and twenty five members from six countries jumped onto the heath. The jumpers were then carried by re-enactors in over 40 restored "Willies" jeeps around the battlefield area. Most of the jumpers had at the request of a British veteran bought WW2 battledress to make the jump more realistic. This was well received and as a result we had an invitation from the veterans of the 9th Battalion the Parachute regiment to jump at their anniversary onto the Merville gun battery in Normandy.
This was successfully completed in 2000 and 2001 putting out over 40 jumpers each time. A cargo drop was also carried out by 47 Air Despatch sqn and a bail out by the jump masters from a higher altitude as a tribute to the despatchers and aircrew who had died on these missions. The cost of all the displays was met by the jumpers who raised the thousands of pounds needed to hire the aircraft and chutes.
Several static displays have been carried out on Pathfinders behalf by re-enactment groups who portray "Pathfinder" units. Pathfinder only supports groups who's members are ex para or who have attended their basic course at Texel.The basic Dutch Military Parachutist course at Texel is used as a safety guide. All new jumpers must attend this course in order to maintain a safe standard within the group. With so many different member nationalities, all with different methods of training to achieve the same aim, it is essential to have a common syllabus for jumping. The British system is taught to all at Texel by Dutch instructors speaking better English than we do. So many courses have been taught at Texel that it has been adopted as the groups home DZ. The staff are all friendly, the training amongst the safest and best in the world and the area is ideal for jumping. British GQ canopies are mainly used for the courses.
Due to the BPA phasing out round canopies in England, Pathfinder cannot jump in its home country but is nethertheless welcomed in many other countries. All jumpers must be fully insured and thanks to a British based company have the best parachute insurance money can buy.
Pathfinder have jumped for Cromwell productions and Channel five's British heroes series.
In 2000 Pathfinder became affiliated to the EMPA,a predominatly German Para lead organisation with the same aims. This has now opened up the European military parachute circuit for Pathfinder members.
Next year will see the Airborne brotherhood spread to more countries by our members and we look foreword to bigger and better jumps.
For more info visit the web sites below or email Roy MobsbyCol Holemans International Para page
By Roy Mobsby