Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dropping in with Pararescueman Zac Hoeh

When Zac Hoeh isn’t jumping out of planes or helicopters, he tries to spend time in San Diego, writing, and getting some running in.  He looks forward to surfing and snowboarding on vacations, along with hiking with his wife (sometimes that means trying to find her on a mountain in Austria).  He’s a born traveler and is always someplace new.  Thanks to Facebook, I was able to catch up with him this weekend and ask a few questions about how he came to be a pararescueman.

What made you decide to become a paratrooper?

Technically, we're pararescuemen. They call us para-jumpers.  That's where PJ comes from. What made me do it is simple: it is the noblest profession on this planet.  “These things we do so that others may live,” was something I wanted to live by. Parachuting was secondary.

Had you been parachuting before?

I had never jumped before. The thought was always appealing, but I was poor, and jumping as a civilian is expensive.

What was your first jump like?

I suppose I had two first jumps.

My first static line jump was easy. We'd been sitting around the hanger for five hours; everyone wants out of their harness; has to pee; wants to get this weight off their back; and the easiest, and fastest, way to do that is to jump out the door, and get to the ground. Nerves are a factor, but this is what we do. Your buddies wouldn't let you live it down if you didn't jump. Plus you'd lose your job.

My first HALO jump - that was awesome. The packs are more comfortable even though they're heavier, and the training is more detailed and personal, so you have a better understanding of everything. You know which buckles are supposed to hold you and how. So, after I spent a ten minute plane ride checking everything five times, I just had to admit to myself: I'm ready, this is doable. You have to have the courage to accept, and put into action, your ideals. You have to get out of your way, because your mind isn't designed to accept jumping from up there as a means of self-preservation. Skydiving is a physical analogy for how far we have intellectually come. We understand that we can overcome barriers. Our courage allows us to do that. So, after checking, and rechecking, I looked at my instructor as I was squatting in a door 12,000 feet over California, and all I could say was "Let's see if these works." Then out you go.

Static lines are over pretty quick, and you're at the mercy of who packed your chute: how it opens, how the winds are... lots of things. HALO is all you. You don't really understand the first couple jumps, but what happened was that you just spent 4-5 minutes doing absolutely nothing but 100% saving your own life. And that makes you focused. That's the rush people feel. Normally, it's hard to get things out of your mind so you can think for yourself. It's pretty easy to get a clear head skydiving. 

Best jump?

Easy. Perris Valley, CA. We went out as a stick, six or so, and me and my Capt. decided we'd try to meet up in mid air. For two relatively new guys to learn how to fly their bodies and meet up in mid air in less than 40 seconds, and actually shake hands is a pretty awesome "suck it, James Bond" kind of feeling.

Worst jump?

Any static line. Period. 

Aside from cutting your hair, what was the hardest part about the training?

Cutting my hair is still the hardest part. The second hardest was accepting the impossible as possible, and that you can actually do these things. You have to think of it differently. You have to respect yourself more.

Think you'll see combat?

See combat? Depends on your definition, really. We fly over combat zones, but the enemy doesn't actually engage in combat. They set traps and then hide. Despite their ideals, they're actually cowards, and they don't stick around. The places we're fighting in right now don't' really have a structured military. It sounds harsh, but they hit us with hit and run tactics. It's quite possible, but in general it's about a 50-50 chance. We fly over combat zones all day, but what we do is react when something goes wrong, and bring everyone back. It depends if there's still enemy there.

Future Plans?

Hard to say really. I want to get my masters eventually, and surf a lot, but the great thing about PJ is there's always someplace to go, and there always seems to be more opportunities for you to do things. Live in the moment, really. Military takes a lot of planning. I hate planning. I want to have money to live out of a backpack traveling the world without a schedule, or job, to reel me back. Complete freedom is my future plan… and drinking lots of rum. 

Sounds good.

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