Editor’s Note: In October 2010, Sgt. Jonathon Blank of U.S. Marine Corps 1st Force Reconnaissance Company lost both his legs in an improvised explosive device blast while deployed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Blank recently obtained his Skydiving A License, the certification required for jumping without supervision, through a program offered by non-profit Operation Enduring Warrior in partnership with AXIS Flight School in Eloy, Arizona. FLYING recently spoke with him about his skydive training and how he’s adapted to jumping out of airplanes as a double amputee. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space and clarity.
I was in the U.S. Marine Corps. I was a Force Reconnaissance Marine, which is Special Operations, and so a lot of our training is specialty schools in certain platforms, like freefall. So I’d been trained to jump before. It was something I really wanted to get back into, kind of as a tie to what I used to do.
[In the Marine Corps] I was a low-level static line jumper and also a high-altitude static line jumper with performance canopies, meaning that we jumped the square shoots that we see in skydiving, except I didn’t actually go into a freefall. You jump out and a static line pulls to deploy the parachute for you.
I lost both my legs in an IED blast in Afghanistan. One of my legs is amputated above the knee, pretty far, and I’m missing my other leg completely. They took my femur out of my hip, but I still have my hip.
I really enjoyed [jumping] during my military career. I had always dreamed about getting back into it but didn’t quite know how. It’s been just really amazing to have that connection back to something to my previous self, and what I used to do. And also, I guess I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and it just makes you feel alive.
I think for a lot of injured guys, it’s also important to just dive into your recreation and set goals, mainly to set goals in life. And always be challenging pushing yourself because it gives you a really great sense of accomplishment and is just overall great for mental health. It has been just an awesome sense of accomplishment that I had to drive and push myself to get.
An A-level license is just your beginning license. It’s your first stage. It’s basically like your first step, and it’s your license to learn. That’s what my instructors call it. They train you enough that you can go up there and they know that you’re going to be safe, and that you’re going to be safe with other jumpers, but it’s just the beginning of the sport.
It’s exhilarating. It’s also a new experience with the freefall portion of it. It felt like riding a bike, but it was really exciting because I hadn’t done that in a while. A lot of memories came back to me with my first jump. I was also really nervous, because I had two buddies die in training accidents in the Marine Corps in freefall parachute accidents during training. And also, after having been so significantly injured myself, I didn’t want to do something wrong and end up back in the hospital.
It is a great exercise in mental health. If anything, it’ll definitely boost your confidence, give you a sense of accomplishment. Physically, it’s very demanding, and you’re actually just increasing the odds of hurting yourself and getting injured if you don’t do things correctly. Accidents happen all the time in the sport.
I had been keeping my eye out for it. Then I learned that a recon Marine that was deployed with me that I watched get blown up the day before I was injured, I saw him skydive. I had been thinking about it so heavily, and then suddenly, I saw pictures of him flying through the air. I was like, where is he doing this? And I learned that was Operation Enduring Warrior.
[Operation Enduring Warrior does] a crawl, walk, run kind of approach. It’s really well structured. First they assess your injuries, and learn what you’re dealing with as far as physical limitations, and what you’re potentially risking. They also go into what kind of pain you experience on a normal basis, and they ask you what you think you would feel comfortable with. They let you know that it’s going to be at your pace, but also that they’re going to set down expectations and goals to reach, and that if they see that you don’t make progress, then they will drop you on the program. There’s a demand there to perform.
They sent me to a parachute expert who got a rig for me. The guy went over it with me and made adaptations to the chute to make sure that I would not come out of it and I would be safe wearing it. They modified the parachute harness to fit me–to my body, to my injuries–to make sure that I’m safe in it. [When training started,] they explained the flight of your body and how, basically, wind affects it and how movements will affect you in flight. We covered the basics of body positions… Then, they take you to the wind tunnel. From there, you just complete hours and hours of wind tunnel training. They teach you how to fly your body, over and over and over again, so that when you actually do start falling through the air, everything becomes instinctual.
Once they feel that you’re pretty solid in the wind tunnel, then they move you to ground school.
In ground school, they start covering canopy manipulations and safety rules, and identifying malfunctions and immediate action to correct that. Once they cover the ground school, they’ll take you up for a jump. With us, they have two instructors so they can observe you and someone can cover you and make sure they’re watching you and are ready to deploy the parachute if something goes wrong. Then you have another instructor watching you and giving you commands, different things to execute different things to execute in the air.
They’ll give you the command to pull, or they’ll want to see you pull at the right altitude and then deploy a parachute. It’s very basic. But from there, after you complete your first jump, and every jump after that, they’ll just add more stuff to it.
Eventually you’ll graduate to one instructor, and then they’ll make you do a solo jump all by yourself.
Since I have no legs, my landing has to be spot on. With the timing of my flare, it has to be just right. For me, my goal is to land like an airplane, come into a glide and then you kind of flare it nice and you just slide in. I used to come in and try to time my flare just perfectly where I’d stand it up. I would actually just come to a nice soft landing and stop, and kind of sit down or just land right on my leg, like stand it up. But I was thinking to myself, even when I do that perfectly there’s a little bit of an impact and over time that may build up… you’re kind of setting yourself up. What if I don’t do everything correctly and I’m setting myself up to kind of fall or actually impact? I figured that the best way for me to reduce that risk of having an impact on my tailbone, on my lower body, was to come in like a slide. If I do that correctly every time, I can land like a plane. There is no bump, there’s no bounce, there’s no impact.
I’ve been trying to jump a couple times a month because not only did I want to keep progressing with it, but I joined my company’s parachute team. I work for Black Rifle Coffee Company. We just started it. That’s a big incentive to keep progressing in the sport, but also, it’s just really enjoyable. I was really proud that my instructors were proud of me, that I did really well, that I accelerated really quickly and that I performed above what they expected. You know, I just want to keep making them proud. I want to pay back all that instruction with an active member hitting the parachute community.