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Re-living historyRe-living history

Team continues World War II’s Airborne mission

In October 1943, thousands of young American men were training in the U.S. Army Airborne School—better known as jump school—as they prepared to parachute into Normandy on what would be D-Day the following June. In October 2018, nearly two dozen men and women labored through the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team’s rigorous jump school in Frederick, Oklahoma, learning to jump in the Airborne tradition. Some of them hope to parachute into Normandy this June, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day.

Jump School I

  • Jump School I
    At dawn, the flight crew of a World War II Airborne Demonstration Team Douglas C-47 waits for paratroopers to don chutes and complete safety checks, in advance of an early morning formation jump flight. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Dressed in authentic garb, down to the 101st Airborne Division "Screaming Eagle" patch on his shoulder, a member of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team prepares to jump before dawn. Today's 101st is a helicopter-based air assault division but the logo survives. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Retired from the Air Force after flying jets for 27 years, Brad O'Connor now flies C-47s for the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team. Here, he counts blades as he starts the left engine of"Boogie Baby" In the past, he flew F-111s and F-117s. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Airborne Demonstration Team members leap from the C-47 "Boogie Baby" in one of the organization's first formation jumps. The CAF's "That's All, Brother"--which led the D-Day air armada in 1944--trails. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Paratroopers jump from the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team's two Douglas C-47s during one of the organization's first formation drops. ADT held its fall jump school in Frederick, Okla., during October 2018. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    World War II Airborne Demonstration Team members descend under canopy into the jump zone. They're using round MC1-1C parachutes that look like original WWII chutes but unlike their predecessors, can be steered by the jumpers. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Reunited for the first time since World War II, two Commemorative Air Force C-47s that flew over Normandy on D-Day--"That's All, Brother" (foreground) and "D-Day Doll"--rest on the ramp. Three CAF aircraft came to Frederick, Okla., during the Airborne Demonstration Team's fall jump school to practice formation flying; these two are slated to return to Normandy in June 2019. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    World War II Airborne Demonstration Team cadets listen to last-minute instructions as they prepare for their first jump. ADT jumps from World War II-era aircraft using parachutes that look almost identical to WWII chutes. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Airborne Demonstration Team cadets sleep in this authentic WWII-era dorm at the Frederick, Okla., airport. The airport was built during the war to train pilots in multiengine aircraft, and was deeded to the city after the war ended. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    The World War II Airborne Demonstration Team's two Douglas C-47s warm their engines before an early morning jump flight. ADT's hangar (background) can hold three of the big taildraggers. "Boogie Baby" is in the foreground, with "Wild Kat" behind. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Members of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team watch as CAF C-47 "That's All, Brother" starts its engines. Some of them got to jump from the historic airplane--which led the D-Day air armada in 1944--in its first jumps since the war. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Flying in formation, WWII Airborne Demonstration Team C-47 "Boogie Baby" leads the Commemorative Air Force's "That's All, Brother." Both are preparing to drop jumpers near Frederick, Okla., during ADT's October 2018 jump school. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    World War II Airborne Demonstration Team jumpers float earthward as the five Douglas C-47s that dropped them clear the area. Three CAF aircraft came to ADT's fall jump school for some formation practice; two of the three are slated to fly to Normady for the 75th anniversary of D-Day duirng June 2019. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Members of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team reenact all roles, from riflemen to chaplans to machine gunners. Shown here is a medic, with face darkened for a night jump. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Jump School I
    Recently rescued and restored, the Commemorative Air Force C-47 "That's All, Brother"--which led more than 800 other transports over Normandy on D-Day--rests at twilight on the Airborne Demonstration Team's ramp in Frederick, Okla. The historic aircraft, which came to ADT's fall jump school to practice formation flying, will return to Normandy in June 2019. Photo by Mike Collins.

There was a significant difference between these classes, however. Most of the men undergoing this training in 1943 had been drafted, and had little say in the matter. Students learning the same techniques in 2018 were there by choice, paying for the privilege.

Members of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team (ADT) come from a wide variety of backgrounds, for equally varied reasons.

“I missed jumping,” said Bo Hill, 70, of Fayetteville, Georgia. In the U.S. Army he qualified in Airborne, Special Forces, and as a Ranger—then transferred to Army aviation. Hill served as a ground controller for AC–130 gunships in Vietnam, and flew Huey and Cobra helicopters. “When I came here, I hadn’t jumped in 39 years. And I was not the oldest guy.” Because of his prior military experience he could have opted for an accelerated class, but he was glad he chose the week-long school.

Today Hill has more than 100 jumps with ADT. He jumped into Normandy in 2012, and plans to jump again in 2019. During the October 2018 jump school, he was the second person to jump out of the Douglas C–47 that led the D-Day invasion fleet—That’s All, Brother—since its recent restoration by the Commemorative Air Force. “I never thought I’d jump from That’s All, Brother,” he said. “That’s All, Brother is a national treasure.”

The restored C–47 is based in San Marcos, Texas. It and two other CAF ships, D-Day veteran D-Day Doll from Riverside, California, and the similar Navy R4D Ready 4 Duty from Lancaster, Texas, flew to Oklahoma to practice formation flight during ADT’s jump school. That’s All, Brother and D-Day Doll are slated to fly to Europe this summer for the seventy-fifth anniversary.

Rodney Roycroft of Pensacola, Florida, was in Normandy with his family for the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day and saw ADT jump; he thought they were active duty members of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. “I’ve been a World War II history nut all my life. When I found out I could do this, I had to come out here and try,” he said. “I had never jumped in my life.”

The former U.S. Navy pilot and current Delta Air Lines international first officer completed ADT’s jump school in 2005. Today he’s a senior jumpmaster, master jumpmaster, and ADT’s officer in charge of the 2019 Normandy trip. Roycroft has made 162 jumps. “If I hadn’t become a jumpmaster, I’d probably have 300,” he said, laughing.

ADT uses the MC1-1C parachute, once a primary military chute and now used for some Special Forces missions. These round parachutes are similar in appearance to World War II parachutes, but they can be steered. “These are a larger diameter so you come down a little more slowly,” Roycroft explained. “It’s such an honor and a privilege to show today’s world what that world looked like.”

When Kat Healey’s brother went through ADT’s jump school in 2008, women weren’t allowed. Healey, 46, of Morristown, New Jersey, was born on June 6—D-Day. “That spurred my interest in World War II. I have passion for this. I have passion for the veterans.” She was accepted for the July 2014 class and now has 134 jumps; she was the first female to earn her senior (50 jumps) and master wings (100 jumps).

How? OSS. During the war, the Office of Strategic Services—a U.S. intelligence agency that was a precursor to today’s Central Intelligence Agency—trained female agents to jump behind enemy lines to help the resistance. Women jumped in coverall jumpsuits over French peasant dresses; after landing, the OSS agent would remove her jumpsuit and slip into the local population. “Little girls go to the airshows, too,” Healey said. “So many times I’ve heard a mother say, ‘Look, there’s a girl!’ I feel I can be an inspiration. They need to know they can do that, too.”

Jump School II

  • Jump School II
    Photography by the author
  • Jump School II
    Members of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team jump under round military parachutes that look very similar to World War II round chutes.
  • Jump School II
    However, the MC1-1C can be steered by the jumper, unlike WWII parachutes. They have a larger diameter, so jumpers descend more slowly.
  • Jump School II
    Field-packed parachutes are passed from a truck to be cleaned, inspected, and repacked.
  • Jump School II
    ADT members relished the opportunity...
  • Jump School II
    ...to jump from the historic CAF airplanes.
  • Jump School II
    Two Commemorative Air Force C–47s, both veterans of D-Day, join the Airborne Demonstration Team’s two C–47s on the ramp.
  • Jump School II
    World War II Airborne Demonstration Team jump school and formation flying clinic with CAF C-47s
  • Jump School II
    World War II paratrooper Dan McBride, who served in the 101st Airborne Division, answers the questions of public school students visiting the Airborne Demonstration Team’s Frederick, Oklahoma, facility during jump school.

Kaitlin Harriott, 22, of Silverwood, Colorado, first came to jump school with her dad, an active World War II reenactor, when she was 17 and too young to participate. In January 2014, at 18, she completed jump school before graduating from high school. “My friends thought it was weird,” she said. “Nobody that age understands anything about World War II.”

Today Harriott is an ADT instructor, teaching proper parachute landing falls in a sand pit. Other phases of training include suspended harness, where students develop muscle memory for various emergency procedures, and mock door training where exiting the aircraft is drilled.

Jacob Stottlemyer of Bunker Hill, West Virginia, said his first jump was “sensory overload, seeing the first couple of people go out in front of you. And it was a vacuum noise, like something getting sucked up in a vacuum cleaner, whenever anyone went out the door. Then it was my turn.” He earned his wings after five jumps, and has jumped two times with ADT since then. “I enjoy the camaraderie. It’s just like when I was in the Army,” said the former cavalry scout.

“I’m proud to be a part of the team, and to meet the veterans that I’ve met,” Stottlemyer added. When he jumped in Virginia in December, he met Norwood Thomas, a 101st Airborne Division veteran who jumped into Normandy on D-Day. “Norwood was saying it was a great honor to meet us, but really, it was an honor for us to meet him.”

C.J. Machado said her first jump was “terrifying. It’s a lot of pressure, and your life depends on making a proper exit” from the aircraft, she said. “On the first jump you don’t know what to expect, because you’ve never done it.” Each jump got easier for her, however, even though her suspension lines tangled each time—something she attributes to her light weight and exit technique. Tangled lines are one of many potential issues jumpers are taught to resolve, in this case by cycling your legs as if you’re pedaling a bicycle.

A photojournalist from San Diego documenting the program, Machado said the training was excellent—and intense. “We had to learn a tremendous amount of information in a limited amount of time,” she explained. “The instructors were determined and dedicated to helping us succeed.”

The high point for her? After completing five jumps, World War II paratrooper Vince Speranza—who served in the 101st and fought in Bastogne, Belgium—pinned on Machado’s ADT jump wings. “That was the biggest honor of my life,” she said.

Jumpers usually parachute from one of ADT’s two C–47s. Brad O’Connor retired from the Air Force after 27 years of flying jets, including the F–111 and F–117, and he still teaches in the Northrop T–38. “After retirement the Cessna wasn’t going to do it for me, so I joined ADT as a C–47 pilot. Over many, many years I worked my way into the left seat, and now I’m training officer for the group.” His C–47 checkride took a year and a half, thanks to two engine failures.

“This is just an entirely different animal. Not only in size—the fact that it’s a taildragger with big radial engines out there. The technology is 1935 technology,” he said. “When the jumpers go out, it’s impressive as all get-out. You feel it in the controls. The rudder will kick off to the side a bit; you feel the tail go up and down as the weight shifts. When every jumper goes out the door, you can feel the pressure change in the airplane as they block that wind.”

O’Connor loves the mission. “It’s a great way to honor the veterans. When I first joined, there were still a dozen World War II veterans who would come out for the entire week, and they’d tell these amazing stories,” he said. “Now we’re carrying on that heritage.”

Army artillery veteran Kevin Ouellette of Frederick, Oklahoma, completed jump school in January 2015. “Something like this will draw you in. How can you not be involved? And you meet some amazing guys and gals,” he said. “The mission statement is a great one: ‘Remember, honor, serve.’” Ouellette said the airport was built during World War II for multiengine training, using Cessna AT–17 Bobcats.

ADT even has its own chaplain. Robert “Padre” Starr, 71, of Racine, Wisconsin, became a deacon in the Catholic church in 2003 and first visited ADT in 2012. “It’s helped me to grow in an ecumenical community, and bring out the spiritual basis,” he said. “It’s a great place. The camaraderie is wonderful.”

Raymond Steely of Chandler, Oklahoma, had retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after serving 38 years in Special Forces when a friend asked if he would like to again jump from a military aircraft, using a military parachute. Steely hadn’t jumped in 18 years. “It was so exciting, so exhilarating to step out of that World War II aircraft, in the footsteps of so many World War II veterans—and some that didn’t come home,” he said. “It was awe-inspiring.”

That was 10 years ago. Today he’s ADT’s chief of staff, coordinating operations and adherence to ADT’s mission: to remember those who fought and died to preserve America’s freedom; to honor the memory of those who gave their lives, as well as those who survived; and to serve by entertaining and informing the public of the sacrifices made by America’s warriors.

Why? For veterans like the late Bobby Hunter. In 2009 Hunter accompanied ADT to Europe for the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day and Operation Market Garden and on a battlefield he would pause, look around, then slowly walk again. Finally he stopped, then said, “That’s it. That was my foxhole.” He vividly described the first enemy soldiers he shot, Steely recalled. “[His son] Robert leaned over to me and said, ‘Dad’s never told me that.’ So many of these stories, that they could share with us, die with them.”

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ADT has been based at its World War II-era facility in Frederick, Oklahoma, since 2005. Jump schools are held each April, July, and October. For more information about the organization, visit the website.

Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.

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