SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Helicopters buzzed above West Kingston Elementary School and paratroopers strung from wide-open canopies kept jumping one after the other.
It could have been an invasion, or a scene from an action movie. But in reality, it was a chance for some of the world’s most highly-trained soldiers to test and exhibit their skills at successfully falling out of a perfectly good aircraft.
Leapfest 2019 brought more than 50 teams of paratroopers to this tiny school to demonstrate how they jump and to compete for high marks on their precision and teamwork.
“It’s a training opportunity for soldiers in our company and with several of our NATO allies,” said Capt. Diana Rothermel, spokeswoman, for the Rhode island National Guard. Started in 1982 in Rhode Island by the Guard, Leapfest brought together national and international teams to compete in field exercises.
Adam Glanville of Glocester, stood watching with his children on the edge of a large green field behind the school.
“I wanted to bring the kids to watch. This is really cool stuff,” said Glanville, gazing up to the sky. He said he learned about it from a work colleague who is in the R.I. National Guard.
Rachael Bartlett of Branford, Conn., said she and her boyfriend were traveling along nearby Route 138 on their way to Newport when “we saw guys falling out the sky” and they had to come watch.
More than 200 people just ahead of them pressed against a marker roping off that area by several hundred yards where paratroopers were landing one after the other. Large Chinook helicopters, taking off from the nearby University of Rhode Island, circled the field above.
Wide open and gaping doors at the rear of the helicopters showed high above the field, as small soldiers in fatigues jumped out attached to a tethered line that pulled open a large parachute.
According to Rothermel, the skills tested involve jumping from the helicopter, floating to wherever the wind deposits the jumper — who maneuvers a steerable parachute — and then running in a timed sequence a large orange X in the middle of the field.
As in a real combat situation, it tests the jumper’s landing skills and then agility to reach the intended objective or location, she said.
Zach Lapierre, 31, of North Smithfield, a platoon leader in the Guard, trains jumpers and led his team of five other paratroopers in the two staged jumps. More than 50 teams competed, bringing 262 jumpers and representing 16 states and eight foreign nations.
“It’s what we do all the time and this was fun to do,” said Lapierre, who joined the R.I. National Guard in 2008. He explained what happens behind the scenes to get jumpers ready for this exercise or even a real combat role.
“It’s about muscle memory. By that I mean, you rely on instinct. You do it so many times in training you know what to do physically,” he said about the jumpers who all had a straight-leg pointed down form as they descended to the ground, bending their legs as they hit to absorb the impact and then stood up.
He also said that prior to a jump, there is a “pre-jump” review of instructions about safety, hazards, and any unique situations jumpers need to know. This is done before every jump with a team that is parachuting, he said.
“It’s always nerve-wracking, obviously. You really have got to not think about it. Your main focus is to exit (the aircraft). The big thing about jumping out is your exit. You need to do a proper exit in order to be safe jumping out of a plane or helicopter,” he said.
“If you thought about what you were about to do, you’d be a nervous wreck. So if you break it down to the smallest aspect, I need to do this, I need to do that. That’s what pre-jump helps with. I need to get a good body position to jump out of this plane. I’ve got to check canopy and gain canopy control, those kind of steps to do it safely.”
“They even tell you in the aircraft before you jump, your focus should be on the horizon. Don’t look down,” he said.
“Once you do it for the first time, you’re hooked. It’s definitely an experience, there’s nothing else equal to it,” he said.
Agreeing with Lapierre was Abdulla Al-Marri, of the Qatar Special Forces, who also jumped. “It’s quite enjoyable. I like it a lot,” he said through a translator.
Said Aberchane, a Moroccan military parachutist, said, “It’s the sensation, the excitement” that led him join this part of his country’s defense operations and do these jumps.
As with any parachuting event — real or exercises — wind has an effect on the game plan.
The jumpers anticipated completing three jumps during the competition. However, jumps stopped after the second round due to wind conditions exceeding the 13 knot cutoff, said First Sgt. Christopher L. Callan of the Guard.
One jumper was dragged by his parachute across the field because the wind caught under it and he was unable to stop to pull.
However, even the two rounds kept the devotees of flying, parachuting and military action attentive to the sky.
“It’s pretty neat. I like helicopters and it’s pretty cool watching people jump out of them,” said Brian Schaller of Connecticut.