1981 Times: Killer Wind in the Mojave
Desert gusts maim paratroopers in mass airdrop
It was 6 a.m. The sun had just risen when a squadron of Air Force C-130's and C-141 Starlifters appeared over the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin, Calif., some 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles. From three landing zones on the desert floor, plumes of colored smoke began to rise. At that go-ahead signal, the sky blossomed with parachutes as 2,300 troops of the elite 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., began the first phase of operation Gallant Eagle '82, a massive $45 million mock invasion by the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. It was one of the largest peacetime airdrops ever. It would also prove to be one of the most tragic.
In the first seconds, ground observers spotted a "streamer"—a parachute that had not fully opened—and watched in horror as the helpless soldier wearing it plummeted some 800 feet to his death. Near the landing zones, powerful updrafts blew dozens of paratroopers off course and slammed them into the ground. One crashed into a military vehicle and was killed. The wind dragged other members of the 82nd, sometimes head over heels, across the rocky terrain when they were unable to pop safety catches to release their chutes. Said Army SP/4 Daniel Maynard, 24, of New York City, who suffered a fractured pelvis: "I hit the ground, rolled about three times and started to pass out." Five troopers were killed and 151 injured, many with head wounds and broken legs. All told, nearly 7% of the participants were hurt; an injury rate of 1 % is considered normal in such exercises.
Shaken military officials were mystified at first. The range officers who sent up the smoke plumes to signal safe jumping conditions had just clocked the winds in the landing zones at 6.6 m.p.h. to 11 m.p.h., well below the 15-m.p.h. safety limit for training jumps. By week's end military investigators had come up with a possible explanation. Taking wind readings where the ground checks had been made at the eastern end of the landing zones, they found gusts of only 9 m.p.h. But almost three miles away at the western end, where most of the injuries occurred, they were surprised to find that the gusts measured more than 20 m.p.h. Some investigators theorize that these winds had careened off a nearby range of low mountains and swept back across the desert, creating crosscurrents and general turbulence. Said 82nd Airborne Major John Dye: "Desert people have seen the phenomenon before. We had not, even though we jumped into this place four weeks ago on another exercise." The military investigation is expected to continue for several weeks. One grim lesson already has been learned—in the future, more complete wind measurements will be taken before those colored plumes are sent up.
"He was a SOT-A Soldier doing exactly what SOT-A's do," his commander said, "fighting alongside his special forces teammates in the most difficult, dangerous places while carrying heavy loads of technical gear that saves lives of our forces and takes the lives of our enemies."
1SFG(A) Commander speaking about Sgt Andrew "A.J." Creighton