There are a number of professions in which "saves" are coveted. Baseball relief pitchers try to record as many saves as they can, keeping wins from turning into losses in the late innings of games. In both soccer and hockey, goalies are credited with saves for keeping the ball or the puck from going into the net. But perhaps nowhere are saves more valued, more prized, than in the parachute shop at Vance Air Force Base.
When the folks in the Vance parachute shop make a save, it means a pilot lives rather than dies.
Four riggers pack and maintain all the parachutes used by all T-6 and T-38 pilots at Vance. Parachutes are not used by T-1 pilots.
"It's definitely a trip to go home every night and know that tomorrow you may get a call saying somebody used your equipment and it saved their lives," said Jeremy Elmore, senior parachute rigger for PAE, which operates the parachute shop. "To have their family come up to you and hug you and thank you for saving their dad, that's a great feeling, to know that some son's going to go home to his wife, or his mother and father."
"We're kind of their last hope," parachute rigger Bill Cunningham said, "so we're pretty serious about our jobs."
Elmore has two saves, both coming when he was in the Marine Corps. Parachute rigger Ron Posey has two, one during his Navy career and one during his time at Vance. Cunningham has one and Ruby Riemann, the parachute shop lead, has four.
In all, 40 Vance pilots have safely parachuted from stricken aircraft since the base first opened in 1941. Their names and faces are preserved on one wall of the base parachute shop, all grateful members of the "Caterpillar Club," a reference to the fact parachutes once were made of silk, which is spun by caterpillars.
The first was Alfred W. Martin, who bailed out of a BT-15 10 miles east of the base on Aug. 20, 1943. The latest was 2nd Lt. Francis D.K. Lessett, who ejected from a T-6 on the runway at the south end of Vance during a solo sortie April 2, 2010. "They show up after an ejection," said Elmore. "With beer, cake, family. Everybody comes in the door. It's very rewarding. When I was in the Marine Corps I had a pilot's son and wife come and hug me, thank me for saving their dad. That was so rewarding, such an awesome feeling."
Occasionally, student pilots will stop by the parachute shop for a tour. "They usually thank us for what we do before they leave, and that's rewarding, too," Cunningham said.
Riemann, who has worked at Vance for 38 years, had two saves in one day when Col. Milton E. Branch Jr. and Capt. Matthew W. Heuer ejected from a crippled T-38 Sept. 12, 1993. On June 28, 1988, Capt. Robert Culhane ejected from a T-37 and floated to earth on one of Riemann's chutes, while 1st Lt. Harold Dillion did the same after ejecting from a T-38 Jan. 14, 1983. She still has the maintenance log books from the parachutes from all four of her saves. "These books are my keepsakes," she said.
"The best part of the job is when that guy walks through the door and thanks us," Elmore said.
Lessett ejected in a Martin-Baker Mk US 16 seat, which has "zero zero" capabilities, meaning a pilot can eject safely from a crippled T-6 when it still is sitting on the ground. "This one, let's say he's on the ground, he's on fire and he needs to get out of the aircraft expediently, he can be on the ground in two seconds," said Elmore. "It's a lot safer."
Lessett was Ron Posey's second save. The first came when he was in the Navy in the early 1980s, when an F-14 pilot not only used a chute he packed, but a life preserver as well, when flying off the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
Posey once went to the ship's hospital to visit a pilot who was forced to eject off the side of the carrier USS Carl Vinson. "I walked in the door and he said, 'So that's what you do,'" Posey said.
Posey has been packing parachutes for 48 years, 28 at Vance and 20 in the Navy. He says he got into the field through a stroke of luck. "When I joined the Navy they gave me five choices and rigger was my last choice," Posey said. "And that's the one they gave me. I'm glad they did."
Elmore became a parachute rigger in the Marines. "They told me I was going to be sewing," Elmore said. "I said 'Sewing, what am I going to sew? What could possibly need sewed in the aircraft field?' Sure enough, I'm sewing."
These days, all parachutes are made of durable rip-stop nylon. The Mk 16 chute is incorporated into the ejection seat. Until last month, T-38 pilots stepped to the flight line wearing BA-22 parachutes, which had been in use since the early 1960s. Now, however, their chutes will be built into the Martin Baker Mk US 16-T ejection seats installed in their jets.
It takes a week to pack the new parachutes, while the old ones took four hours, Elmore said. The Mk 16 chutes are folded, then placed into a mechanical press, where they spend days being compressed at three tons of pressure. There are three presses for the T-6 chutes, two for the T-38.
The old BA-22 chutes had to be inspected and repacked every 180 days, while the new parachutes installed in the ejection seats only have to be inspected and repacked every three years.
"It's because it's not exposed to elements like sun and rain," Elmore said. "It's sealed in there. We do about a T-6 a week. That means two parachutes and that means four riggers. It takes about 14 hours total (to inspect the T-6 chutes)."
Before chutes are repacked, they are cleaned by hand with Ivory soap and hung in the shop's drying tower for 24 hours. "We can't get any mold or mildew or anything that would deteriorate the material," Elmore said.
Parachutes must be repaired "every time we pack them," Elmore said. The process of packing the chutes is painstaking, with checks and double checks occurring every step of the way. "There's a lot of checks and balances when dealing with safety," Elmore said.
Once the chute is packed in what is known as a head box, it is taken to the base egress shop, which maintains and installs the ejection seats. Cunningham is the only maintainer in the Vance parachute shop who was not in the military, but he has more than 1,000 civilian jumps under his belt, and spent two years as a jumpmaster, teaching students to jump. "It was sure fun to watch their facial expressions when you opened the door on the airplane," Cunningham said.
The Navy required Posey to pack his own chute and make one jump. "When you do that, you want to make sure it's right," Posey said.
Besides parachutes, the shop maintains inflatable life preservers and life rafts designed to keep pilots afloat should they eject over water. The parachute shop also includes the fabric shop, in which three women - Joanna Gruntmeir, Mary Breshears and Claudia Perez De Marshall - sew everything relating to pilots and aircraft, such as parachutes, flight suits and G suits.
Gruntmeir, Elmore said, is a particular favorite of pilots. "The pilots just love her, she'll do anything for them," he said. "She takes good care of them. They come in and they need something done real quick, she'll do it for them. If it's cold outside, she'll stop what she's doing and fix up their coat for them. She keeps our customers happy."
"They bring her dark chocolate," Breshears said.
"By golly, it comes in," Gruntmeir said, "enough for everyone."
"They'll ask us what kind of beer we like," Perez De Marshall said. "And we'll say, dark chocolate.'"
Elmore said life in the Vance parachute shop has changed considerably in his eight years there. But one thing never changes. "Our mission has always been the same here, to keep the pilots safe," Cunningham said.