" I wanted to become airborne..."
That's the answer often given by parachute riggers when asked why they entered the field. Recruiters tell people that becoming a rigger is a guaranteed way to become, and stay, airborne. Having achieved those goals, the 43E is presented another: becoming eligible to join the ranks of the 5,000 Club.
The 5,000 Club originated in 1979 when the 82d Airborne Division began keeping individual packing statistics. Members of this special group are riggers who have packed over 5,000 successive malfunction free parachutes. Currently, only 55 riggers are part of this elite group, but three more are expected to join them in the near future.
According to SGM Delmar Spencer, the Rigger School's senior enlisted soldier at Fort Lee, Virginia, Fort Bragg, North Carolina has the only 5,000 Club in the Army, "No one else packs the volume of parachutes that the division handles." Riggers arriving at Fort Bragg can apply records of chutes packed in other assignments towards the 5,000 chutes packed goal.
To become a qualified rigger, individuals of all ranks and branches must go through the Rigger School at Fort Lee. The course lasts about 12 weeks. Each student must pack a T-10 parachute in one hour, and then jump that chute as a final requirement to graduate.
Factoring in new packers and veterans, the average rigger at Echo Company of the 407th S&T Battalion (Now E Company, 782nd Main Support Battalion) in Fort Bragg needs approximately 17 minutes to pack a T10 parachute. About four weeks are needed until a new packer is able to pack 25 in one day.
"Initially, it takes a good 45 minutes to pack a parachute, but after a few thousand you get better and faster," explained a two-year veteran of the pack platoon who has packed more than 5,100 parachutes, SPC James Perrill.
Now working as a final inspector of parachutes, SPC Perrill notes that packing is very physical. He calculates that each rigger walks a minimum of 2.7 miles each day packing parachutes. A rigger's hands are particularly subject to abuse; in the beginning they are often torn until calluses form.
Still, despite its strenuous nature, the physical aspect is not the most difficult part of being a packer. Getting motivated and remaining mentally alert receives that distinction. Mental preparation is an important part of packing because of the repetitive nature of the task.
"It's really important to stress to the younger soldiers the importance of being careful in packing and inspecting parachutes because you're dealing with someone's life every step of the way," said SPC Perrill. "I will be sure always" is the Rigger motto and we all take it seriously."
Different incentives are used to motivate and mentally prepare the packers of the 407th. The 5,000 Club is one of those. A soldier who meets the challenge and joins its ranks is recommended for an Army Commendation Medal.
Other incentives involve competitions to determine packer of the month, quarter, and year. To vary their duties, soldiers also rotate between heavy and light pack and among other platoons. Good packers also get the opportunity to go on temporary duty (TDY).
Those soldiers aspiring to the 5,000 Club set other goals to help them make the mark. The person holding the record for packing 5,000 chutes in the shortest time is SGT Willie Sledge who took only 13 months. Sledge has since rotated to the Heavy Drop Rigging Site to work with the Air Delivery Platoon. In order to set the record, Sledge often packed up to 15 extra chutes per day after completing his normal quota.
Most members of the 5,000 Club have taken an average of two years to achieve the mark. Contenders for the record have their eyes set not only on Sledge's 13-month record, but on being able to pack 5,000 malfunction-free chutes in one year.
To the new rigger, the thought of packing 5,000 consecutive malfunction-free chutes can seem like an overwhelming task. For most of the riggers of the 407th it is a major challenge, but the achievements of the 55 soldiers who've made the mark serve as a reminder that the goal is attainable. "I wanted to be the best." That's the answer given by riggers when asked why they aspired to the 5,000 Club.