Origin of the Capewell Release: Part I

Did you know that the same life saving hardware used on today’s troop parachutes is essentially the same tried and true device that’s been in service for over 50 years?

The best story of how the Capewell release came to be was written in the 1960s when the T-10 parachute was first adopted by the U.S Army. Read the original article in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine written by author Karl Fleming:

Part I

As the aircraft lumbered through the blue sky above the California desert and neared the target zone, the anticipated word came: “Drop conditions excellent; proceed with operation”

Inside the huge planes, 279 members of the 82nd Airborne Division, participating in a field training exercise at El Centro Air Force and Naval Parachute Test Area, got upon their legs and prepared to jump.

The plane droned evenly over the release point and on the green light the paratroopers piled out of the sky. Their chutes blossomed one by one as they popped out of the planes and floated gently toward the earth. There was no wind; it appeared the air-borne troops would touch down precisely on the target zone.

But as they descended to 250 feet above the hot desert floor, a strong wind and sand cloud burst suddenly out of the north. What followed was havoc.

On a normal drop free of dangerous wind, the canopies collapse when the chutists hit the ground. This time they didn’t. Instead, the troops suddenly found themselves being dragged swiftly along the dry, sparsely vegetated desert floor as the wind whipped in to their still-inflated chutes.

They were being pulled so fast that it was impossible for them to gain their feet and overtake their chutes to collapse them. Many soon lapsed into unconsciousness from fatigue and injuries. Even fresh, unencumbered troops not wearing parachutes were unable to chase down the helpless paratroopers. Finally, it required the efforts of vehicles to overtake the chutes and get them collapsed. The average distance the troops were dragged was one mile.

Of the 279 who jumped, more than 100 were injured. Many had been scraped across the hard ground so viciously that their bones lay exposed through gaping, dirt-filled abrasions.

That was on Dec. 5, 1959. On April 28, 1958, in the Suchon Drop Zone at Ft. Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division, 1,170 paratroopers jumped in a joint Army-Air Force maneuver called “Operation Eagle Wing” and met a similar fate.

As on the California jump, weather conditions were ideal as the planes approached the drop zone. But, again, as the troops landed, a sudden, unpredicted wind rose and hundreds of men were dragged helplessly for great distances along the ground. The casualties: five dead, more than 100 injured.

In another joint Army-Air Force operation held in the spring of 1952 near the Colorado River in the area of Ft. Hood, Tex., troops were battered by similar winds. In this operation, called “Exercise Long Horn,” airborne troops were to assault and secure bridgeheads which attacking ground forces could use for crossing the river.

Despite the fact prejump checks showed wind conditions safe for the operation, airborne troops left their planes and almost immediately were hit by strong gusts that came up out of nowhere. The result: 230 paratroopers were evacuated as casualties, and 196 of these were hospitalized.

Had these incidents taken place in combat the results could have been even more disastrous, since a paratrooper obviously is in no position either to defend himself against the enemy or to carry out an offensive action while being dragged prone along the ground.

The incidents, particularly the latter two, focused strong public attention on a deficiency of combat parachutes- a deficiency that the military has been painfully aware of since the first Army airborne troops completed training at Ft. Benning, Ga., in 1942.

The deficiency: A device with which the paratrooper could quickly and safely free himself of his parachute canopy when he hit the ground in a high wind.

To the outsider, it perhaps would seem simpler maneuver to float to the ground, jump up, run around behind the canopy and collapse it. The fact is that this is absolutely impossible in a strong wind. Imagine yourself dragged at the end of a rope behind an automobile traveling at 30 m.p.h., a not unlikely parallel, and you can see the difficulty.

In addition, even if the paratrooper could get to his feet and outrun his parachute under combat conditions, this would present another hazard: He would, while awkwardly chasing after his chute with a pack and bedroll between his knees, be an easy target for enemy rifleman.

So, for nearly 15 years it has been a “stated need” of the Army that a safe canopy release device be developed. Many have been tried. But until recently all of them had the same defect: While they provided the means for the paratrooper to release the canopy on the ground, they also were subject to being accidentally activated in the air – so that the paratrooper might be separated from his canopy while still aloft. Several concepts have been rejected by the Army for this reason.

But now at last an “accident-proof” canopy release device has been developed and soon will be used by all of the approximately 35,000 U.S. airborne troops.

With it, many officers feel, the Army now has a near-perfect combat parachute.

The Airborne-Air Mobility Department at Ft. Benning was the first Army unit to adopt the device, which is known as the “Capewell Release.” No training jumps have been made there without it since Feb. 23. It soon will be adopted by the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions and by other U.S. chute units.

…Stay Tuned For Origin of the Capewell Release: Part II

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