Falling Down on the Job

Using training including how to fall properly without injury, a French special ops unit successfully completed a dynamic hostage rescue.

On December 24, 1994, an Air France aircraft was hijacked by four terrorists while preparing for take-off in Algeria. Using training including how to fall properly without injury, a French special ops unit successfully completed a dynamic hostage rescue.

At Marignane airport, Denis de Favier, the commander of France's Groupe D'Intervention Gendarmeire Nationale (GIGN), gave the signal. Teams of eight Gendarmes positioned on three mobile staircases began climbing the steps as they converged with the plane.

The first Gendarme to reach the aircraft from the stairway immediately grabbed the hatch and held the door open with his body. He remained hanging in the air from the handle as his teammates rushed inside. He then let go of the handle and fell approximately 20 feet onto the flight line. Having used his parachute training to relax his legs prior to impact, he landed uninjured. He immediately recovered and rushed into the cabin of the airplane to assist his fellow operators.

The same procedure was followed as the eight Gendarmes in the second assault wave rushed in. Gendarmes and terrorists exchanged fire. While all this was going on in the front portion of the aircraft, other GIGN men were moving the 159 passengers out the back of the plane and to safety.

During the assault, the plane's navigator made his escape. He ran to the open side window and jumped out of the plane. Upon his impact with the flight line 20 feet below, he suffered a broken leg. The pilot and co-pilot remained in the cockpit beneath their seats, trying to keep their heads down. When it was all over, a bomb explosion was averted, five Gendarmes were wounded in the battle, and terrorists were the only people killed.

Preventive Training

Special operation units, be they national HRT or local SWAT, train to handle a wide variety of situations. A good portion of this training places operators in dangerous positions. From ascending and descending ladders, to rappelling and bridging techniques, to just working in an elevated area, operators can quickly find themselves in a position for a potential fall, or as one operator once put it "a deceleration accident."

While safety is always a concern, during a dynamic assault when adrenaline is flowing and the "fog of battle" is in full effect, the operator may suddenly find himself in a situation in which there is only one way out: down.

Many teams train on how to fall if knocked off your feet, but how many of us train on fall­­-ing from great distances? Training in the technique of the Parachute Landing Fall (PLF) teaches how to do just that. While our team was fortunate enough to have an operator who was a U.S. Marine Corp trained parachutist, the te­ch­­nique itself is relatively easy to learn.

The Parachute Landing Fall (PLF) is a technique designed to slow the speed of the body to a point where the human anatomy can tolerate impact with the ground without injury. Long ago, this technique became necessary to balance the need to get parachuting infantry on the ground quickly, minimizing their time as airborne targets, while ensuring they remained uninjured and able to continue the mission.

The developers of the technique understood that it is not the fall itself that causes injury; it is the quick deceleration of the body and its too-rapid absorption of energy that causes excessive trauma. Done properly, the PLF lengthens the time between the body's first contact with the ground and its final dissipation of energy, resulting in a period long enough to allow the body to absorb the energy without injury.

Overcome Instinct

Under normal circumstances, when a person jumps to the ground from a short distance he looks straight down and spreads his feet shoulder-width apart for stability. He plans to land on his feet by flexing his knees at the last possible moment.

In altitude jumping, this "natural" method is all wrong. Instead of crashing like a crushed aluminum can and absorbing all the impact immediately, the PLF allows the jumper to land like a tipping bowling pin, using his feet, legs, hips, torso, arms, and fists to absorb the impact more slowly. Remember the image: a tipping bowling pin that begins to rotate over its top.

Before giving specific instructions for executing the PLF, let's cover the most important rule in altitude jumping: Keep your feet and knees together at all costs. The two "twigs" you walk on, kept tightly together and slightly bent, can tolerate quite a lot of abuse. Apart, they'll snap, leaving you susceptible to serious injury and vulnerable to attack. Even under the worst circumstances where the PLF can be little more than a controlled crash, keeping your feet and knees together will get you through.

To execute the PLF, follow these steps. Practice slowly at first, allowing your body to become accustomed to the movements.

Step One

Jump "away" from your point of origin to gain some sideways movement. Lateral mov­ement is key to the technique. Try to have the "side" of your body lead. This will expose your entire side (ankle, leg, hip, torso, arm, and fist) to the surface of the ground as you later slowly collapse and flop like a tipped bowling pin. By "slowly" I mean any speed slower than the crushing motion of the top of your body collapsing straight down on your ankles. Your knees must be slightly bent, but tight together.

Step Two

Immediately af­ter jumping "aw­ay," make fists with your hands. Place both fists together (palms toward your body) and cover your face by cradling your head in the crook of your arms, chin in your chest. Your fists protect your forehead and eyes and keep your fingers from being damaged in the fall.

Do not look down to anticipate the collision. If your chin is properly tucked you will not be tempted to stare at the approaching ground. By ignoring the ground you prevent your body from "tensing up" before contact and avoid the natural tendency to spread your legs apart exposing your "twigs."

Step Three

When your feet hit the ground, immediately bend at the waist with your hips and knees pushed out in the direction of your lateral travel. (This is a common position for a skier as he changes direction). This flexing will allow your body to continue to travel in the direction of your jump even though your feet are stationary, having already made firm contact with the ground.

Step Four

Fall down sideways making contact first with your ankles, then your knees, then your hips, next your torso and tucked-in arm, and lastly the
side of your fist (protecting your eye). Keep your knees slight­­­ly flexed but not totally collapsed. Slightly flexed knees will still allow your body to rotate properly but will prevent a knee-compression injury.

Allow your body to rotate end-over-end like a bowling pin until it stops moving. Keep this semi-rigid position until all body motion has ceased. The longer the distance of the fall, the more energy that needs to be dissipated, and thus the more of a rotation your body will do.

Mastering the Fall

Begin to master the technique by simply getting into the proper position and tipping over to one side and onto the ground. Your body won't "rotate" very far, of course, because you are not jumping from any distance. However, when you begin to add vertical distance the amount you rotate will increase. As you master the technique you will begin to hear the "flopping sound" of your legs as they rotate over your shoulders and tucked-head and strike the ground.

Next, jump from a chair or table and practice the technique until the steps are very fluid and your body begins to rotate end-over-end. Next, jump from a distance of 4 feet, then 6 feet, then 8 feet, and then 10 feet, mastering the technique at each distance. The technique, once mastered at 10 feet, can be successfully applied at greater distances; there is no point in practicing at excessive distances and running the risk of unnecessary injury should your technique be imperfect.

The parachute fall landing technique works extremely well. It prevents serious injury to the body when injury is otherwise likely. On rapid-descent parachute jumps we have seen Marines rotate one complete revolution over the top of their head and onto their other side without injury. Use care in mastering the technique. But once mastered, you'll have the confidence to jump and know you can continue the mission.

Glenn McGovern is an investigator with the Santa Clara (Calif.) DA's office. Tom Sparks is a retired Marine Corps major who currently works as a full-time police officer in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

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