Being a bird
South Korea’s Armed Forces Day is an annual event held on October 1.
The country’s military puts on a variety of displays that include performances by military bands, drills by honor guard contingents and martial arts displays by special warfare units. There are also air shows with helicopters and fighting planes. One of the highlights of the event is a skydiving performance by South Korea’s Special Warfare Command soldiers.
The South Korean Defence Ministry invited the media for an opportunity to cover the airdrop exercise from their helicopters. I was one of the pool photographers. I’ve covered these type of helicopter missions several times before, but I was still excited albeit with some tension.
On September 29, 2009, two days before Armed Forced Day, Special Warfare Command parachuting team members prepared for their airdrop exercise.
The group was made up of about 40 of the top soldiers and including female soldiers. Before riding in the helicopters, they discussed their operation plan and safety precautions. They separated and boarded two Ch-47 helicopters at an airfield near the event spot, the Gyeryongdae military compound, about 140 km (90 miles) south of Seoul.
With a roaring sound, the helicopters carrying the soldiers took to the sky.
During the flight to the drop point, soldiers checked their gear — parachutes, anti-wind glasses and altitude indicators. I also checked my gear – cameras, lens and bags. And there is one more important thing, the strap and the link. My body was strapped at the rear door of the helicopter.
Most of the soldiers in the helicopters have about 1,000 sky dives under their belts but a tense atmosphere was still evident. Even though they are experts, a sudden dangerous situation such as unexpected turbulence or wind gust, could come at any time.
About 10 minutes into the flight, the pilot opened the helicopter’s back door. We were at a height of almost 3000 feet (914 meters).
The soldiers walked to the rear and prepared for their jumps. I also walked to the tip of the rear door and lay on the door while a strong, cold wind hit my face directly. I could see the bottom when I stretched my head. I was a little scared.
They exchanged hand signals ahead of their jumps, where they would reach speeds of about 300 kph (190 mph) before deploying their parachutes.
And they jumped with posing for photographers. Their drops were so quick. It took just a few minutes.
Soon they were just dots that got smaller in the sky.
At about 2600 feet (792 meters), they released their colorful parachutes. And they made formations in the shapes of diamonds, fans and stairs. Perfect harmony between members is essential to maintain their formations through heavy winds. Even the tiniest mistake could spell disaster.
Two days later, they lit up Armed Forces Day again.
Pictures and text by Yonghak Jo.