“If we don’t get in the air soon, I’m going to piss myself.”
The soldier next to me has been wriggling in his seat for the last few minutes, looking everywhere for some sign of relief. Every uncomfortable shift of his weight shifts me too. That’s because on a Hercules military aircraft, there aren’t really seats; it’s more like sitting in a big red cargo net.
Today, the Herc is hauling about 50 “jumpers” from the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The soldiers sit back-to-back in the net in a long line down the centre of the plane; their gear is strapped against the side walls below tiny windows. They are about to embark on Canada’s most northern military exercise. Exercise Arctic Ram is a joint mission between air and ground to prove our military is capable of securing every part of the country.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it, man!”
The soldier is screaming in my direction, but I still have to lean in closer to hear him. That’s how conversations go on a Hercules. Most people wear earplugs to cut out the constant roar of the engines. I forgot mine.
“This is the longest takeoff ever,” he yells again as he tosses his head back against the net in agony.
The soldier’s name is Wiggins — I can see it written on the strap of his huge backpack piled across from us. It’s written on his snowshoes and his rifle, too. I assume it’s also written on his parachute.
He’s right about the takeoff. We were supposed leave Edmonton at 8:30 a.m., set to land in Resolute Bay, Nunavut about five hours later. Well, I’m supposed to land in Resolute Bay; Wiggins is going to jump out the door.
Wiggins and about 200 other soldiers from 3rd Battalion are part of Exercise Arctic Ram. This particular simulation will have them parachute into a target area near Resolute Bay to secure a fallen satellite. Once they are on the ground, the soldiers must set up camp on the ice and complete their objectives. They will stay out on the ice until another group comes to relieve them.
But now, it’s 10:30 a.m. and the plane hasn’t moved from the runway. Parachuting seems like the furthest thing from Wiggins’ mind.
“Sorry, man, I’m going to have to do this,” he yells, holding up an empty plastic bottle with a shrug.
“Do what you have to do,” I yell back.
But Wiggins is already concentrating on getting the bottle past the white coveralls over his military-issue, olive green snow pants. Dressed to survive a mission in -50°C, I imagine he has on a few more layers besides that.
“We’re all good now,” Wiggins says a few minutes later. He gives me the same shrug as before, but this time, thankfully, he doesn’t hold up the bottle.
Soon, we find out the cause of the delay. The first Hercules to take off cracked its windshield and had to turn around. Once they land and reload everyone onto the two remaining planes, we’re on our way.
The delay will cost us what precious little daylight is available in Nunavut at this time of year. Wiggins and his unit will be jumping from 1,250 feet onto the Arctic ice… in the dark.
If the change in plans bothers the soldiers, they don’t show it. In the first few hours of the flight, most fall asleep.
Next to me in the net, Wiggins is on his phone.
“It’s called Geometry Dash,” he told me when we first boarded the plane. “It says it’s for ages two and up, but it’s fun and I like the bright colours.”
Two hours later, there is only one colour anyone is focused on. It’s the green light above the door that signals when it’s time to jump. The soldiers are fully dressed and the jump masters are carefully inspecting each one to ensure their parachutes are rigged properly.
I’m tethered near the back of the plane, with a view of the door and the light. There are actually two doors and two lights, one on each side of the plane, I can see them both.
The Hercules falls silent in the moments before the jump. The engines still roar and Arctic air rips through the open door. Still, all is quiet and the plane is calm. 3rd Battalion is all set: packs strapped on their fronts, parachutes on their backs. Under helmets, goggles and balaclavas, they all look the same.
The light turns green.
Days of preparation are tested in an instant. The first jumper steps to the door, grabs the frame with both hands and thrusts himself into the frigid night. The others follow quickly, their white uniforms in stark contrast to the black sky. Outside the plane, you can hear the pop of parachutes opening, too many to count.
Wiggins is the last through the door.
“What do you think about when you’re on the way down?” I’d asked him at the beginning of the day.
He smiled when he answered.
“Here comes the ground.”
*Global News reporter Kent Morrison and ENG photographer Brad Gowan travelled to Resolute, Nu. with 3rd Battalion Princess Patrica’s Light Infantry for part of Exercise Arctic Ram. Look for more stories on the parachute mission and why the Canadian Military is in the Arctic next week.
© 2016 Shaw Media