The Blonde who Leaps from the Clouds
When the stranded Yankee pilot saw a beautiful woman floating down from the skv into the northern hush lie knew everything was okay. The RCAF wouldn’t pull that sort of stunt unless it was pretty certain the lady could he retrieved
ONA midwinter morning a couple of months ago a pretty girl stood in the open door of an RCAF Dakota circling fifteen hundred feet above northern Saskatchewan bush. Below, in a territory that has been described as the most desolate in the world, lay a survivor of a U. S. Army stratojet bomber that had exploded in midair. He was reported to be wearing a summer flying suit, designed for his destination in California, and the temperature was twenty below zero.
The woman watched the wheeling earth, keeping back from the lash of the slip stream past the open door. She crouched a little, waited, and at a touch on her shoulder jumped into space.
This represented the forty-third parachute jump Marion Macdonald has made for the Royal Canadian Air Force, a total that probably establishes a record for a woman in Canada. Marion is one of four women the RCAF calls a para-nurse, a regularly enlisted graduate nurse who has been taught to parachute into forests, fields or mountains under any weather conditions to care for injured survivors of an aircraft disaster until they can be moved. She is part of the air force’s search-andrescue division, which has six hundred men standing by at six centres in Canada. Only about fifty of the men and four of the women nurses are trained to drop by parachute. They are among the most adventurous lifesavers in the world; several have been decorated in the twelve years that para-rescue squads have been operating.
Marion Macdonald is a twentynine - year - old, green-eyed tawny blonde who wears her long hair in a pony tail, has a curious faith in fortune tellers and is afraid only of heights. It baffles her friends, who knew she was too frightened to climb a ladder, to learn that she jumps blithely from airplanes a thousand
feet in the sky. “It’s different,” she keeps explaining, waving her hands helplessly. “There’s no sensation of height in an airplane. Don’t look at me that way. There isn't!”
Flying Officer Macdonald is as unaffectedly friendly as a three-year-old. She is also stirred by a deep-rooted, old-fashioned patriotism. She has enlisted in the RCAF twice, the first time simply because she was eighteen and Canada was at war and the second time because she was a trained nurse and thought she would be needed in Korea. She was among the first women to volunteer to be a para-nurse.
Her forty-third jump was the most dramatic of her life. The two-million-dollar, six-engined U. S. jet that crashed had been making a training flight from California to Greenland and return, non-stop. The giant aircraft, a B-47, was designed to carry the A-bomb across oceans. At 7.30 in the morning of Feb. 12, one of its engines caught fire; seconds later, while the pilot was sending a distress signal heard by the RCAF, the wing was torn away and the aircraft exploded and spun earthward.
The co-pilot, Captain Lester Epton, whom Marion was to meet a few hours later, recalls nothing of the explosion and the resultant pressure that sucked him from the plane, rupturing blood vessels in his eyeballs and tearing his helmet of!'. One of the three-man crew was killed by the explosion; the other two and a passenger parachuted to widely separated points. The passenger, Captain Thomas Pittman, later had his lower right leg amputated as a result of multiple fractures suffered in the explosion.
Epton opened his blood-filmed eyes five miles above the ground to find himself on his back in mid-air looking up at the monster aircraft spinning lazily directly above him. He watched
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Marion philosophically returns to her earthbound duties
THE BLONDE WHO LEAPS FROM THE CLOUDS
in helpless fascination as the spinning motion carried it to one side and away from him.
The atmosphere five miles up is too thin to sustain life. In order to survive Epton calmly reasoned that he must resist the impulse to pull the ripcord of his parachute until he was nearer the ground. He allowed himself to fall mile after mile, unzipping his flying jacket and warming his hands against his body so that they wouldn’t be too numb to use. He pumped oxygen into his lungs by “grunt” breathing, dragging in a deep breath of the thin air and grunting to force it into his lungs. This kept him on the rim of consciousness.
Around two and a half miles up, he pulled his ripcord, the chute opened and he descended more slowly in the bitter cold, swinging gently from the shroud lines. His face was covered with blood and he had no sensation at all in his nose. He was certain that his nose was gone and it took him several minutes to summon enough courage to put his hand to his face. He discovered his nose was intact. A few minutes later he dropped in deep snow and immediately pulled out a heliograph, a mirror used for signaling, and examined his face. His nose truly was there. He lay back and a half hour later listened to the metallic sound of search planes not far away.
She Jumps in Flannel Pyjamas
Back at RCAF Station Winnipeg, Marion Macdonald had been performing her regular duties as an infirmary nurse when a telephone call at 7.50 a.m. informed her of a U. S. Army plane crash a hundred and ten miles northwest of The Pas. No parachutes had been sighted and it seemed unlikely that anyone in the three-man crew had survived. Nevertheless, ten minutes later Marion and four other para-rescue specialists, all men, were ready to leave for the search area, gambling on the hope of survivors.
For jumping, Marion—who is five foot five and weighs a hundred and twenty-three pounds—wears seventy pounds of equipment. Starting outward from her nylon underwear, she wears flannelette pyjamas, the type with cuffs at wrist and ankle, two pairs of socks, one thin and one heavy wool, a navy-blue turtle-neck sweater, her winter flying suit of dull-blue gabardine, lined with a synthetic called pylon, rubber-soled canvas boots with two wool linings and a woolen helmet that covers her hair and shows a lump behind where she tucks her pony tail.
Carrying her jump suit, crash helmet and two parachutes, Marion reported to the operations room at Stevenson Field a half hour after the B-47 had exploded. The five parachutists were divided into two jump teams and two of the men, trained in first aid and bush survival, took off in the first Dakota.
Marion and the two others waited for further information from the crash site. At ten o’clock they left for The, Pas more than three hundred miles northwest of Winnipeg. There the plane refueled and they learned that the first two jumpers had already dropped to the two survivors already located. The Dakota took off for the area where the survivors had been found, while Marion and the others buckled on their jump suits.
The RCAF jump suits are white canvas, so stiffly padded in the legs, seat and sleeves that they scarcely can bend. They are two-piece, with a foot strap at the end of each pant leg like that on a child’s leggings. If the jumper stiffens as he leaves the aircraft, the force of the chute opening is taken in the heelstraps and crotch of the suit, rather than in the groin. The jacket of the jump suit has a medieval stiff collar, protectively high at the back of the head and around the ears.
All RCAF jumpers wear two chutes. The one on their backs is opened automatically in two and a half seconds by a static cord connected to the inside of the aircraft. The other emergency chute, which no Canadian search-and-rescue jumper has ever had to use, is worn on the chest and opens with a handle at the left side of the harness. A knife and
scabbard, fastened to the outside of this chute, permit the jumper to hack away the loose lines of the first chute if these seem likely to get in the way of the second chute.
“We have forty seconds to work these things out before we hit the ground,” Marion once explained to another nurse. “That’s plenty of time.”
“Forty seconds,” gasped the other. “Only forty seconds if the chute doesn’t open!”
“Oh no,” answered Marion coolly. “That’s forty seconds when it does open. If the chute doesn’t open you still have time to open the emergency. Twenty seconds. You drop faster without a chute.”
In the baggy pockets in the legs of the jump suits, each jumper carries extra socks, extra mitts, a length of nylon rope to let himself down if he is caught in a tree, an air-force cap and ammunition. Around his waist is strapped a .38 pistol as a moderate form of protection against the fourfooted residents of the north. The jump helmet is leather, lined with sponge rubber, with an iron mask over the face. The helmet when issued to the para-rescue squads was black and white. In search of identity, the male jumpers painted their helmets with stripes of blue, yellow and red. Marion, naturally, chose pink for hers.
Epton, the U. S. Army co-pilot of the shattered jet, was resting in comparative comfort when he saw Marion dropping toward him. The first jumper to reach him, Cpl. Charles Cooney, had discovered that Epton had no serious injuries except frostbite and he had bundled the pilot into an RCAF sleeping bag.
The three new arrivals landed a few hundred yards from one another, while bundles of food and utensils, suspended from small orange nylon chutes, dropped around them. Immediately each jumper called to the others, “Are you all right?”
Epton turned a startled face to Cooney. “One of those voices sounded like a woman!” he sputtered.
“You bet,” Cooney answered with a grin, “and a good-looking blonde, besides.”
Epton later told friends that the sight of Marion Macdonald had been pretty encouraging. He reasoned that the RCAF wouldn’t be dropping a beautiful woman into the bush unless it was certain she could be retrieved.
The four parachutists set to work in practical application of the techniques they had learned in a twenty-week training course. Using materials from supply packs dropped around them, they built a parachute tepee over the downed flier, started a fire and fed him some soup and tea. Marion then
gave him a sedative and while he dozed she helped the other jumpers collect wood for the fire and prepare the camp for the night. They radioed that Epton was fine; they would wait and walk out in the morning. The group had learned by radio that the other survivor, Lt.-Col. Kenneth McGrew, had been able to walk with the chutist who found him to an aircraft waiting on a lake two miles away.
Captain Pittman, the badly injured passenger, who was believed dead, was found two days later. The lifeless body of the navigator was recovered later from the wreckage of the aircraft.
That night was eerie and exciting.
“We couldn’t find all the supplies that had been dropped around us,” Marion said later, “so we only had two sleeping bags. We had Epton in one, on top of a rubber air mattress, and the boys gave me the other. They planned to sleep with their chutes wrapped around them.
“Epton slept like a child under the sedation I’d given him but the rest of us couldn’t settle down. We sat around the fire and talked.”
The four jumpers were jubilant. Jumpers run a constant risk of broken bones, but none of them had been hurt. The survivor they had been sent to rescue was in good shape and they could hear the regular drone of RCAF aircraft over their heads in the darkness to keep them from feeling abandoned. They cooked some bacon and kept tea hot while
they smoked cigarettes from the supply packs. Marion, who doesn’t smoke, chewed chocolate bars instead. One of the jumpers brooded on the machinât ions of RCAF regulations that had caused the removal of two bottles of brandy, called spiritus fermenti by the quartermaster, from the medical kits. Marion brooded briefly on a problem of her own: her lipstick, which she had zippered into a pocket of her flying suit before she left Winnipeg, was a molten ruin from the heat of the fire.
Around three in the morning it was decided unanimously that Epton’s frostbitten toes would make walking two miles impractical. Over the portable radio one of the chutists carried with him, a helicopter was requested; the information was relayed by the aircraft radio above them that one would arrive at noon. When dawn broke they cooked breakfast and listened to Epton’s clearheaded account of his jump. He touched his nose again, still astounded that it was there. Marion examined his feet and found all the toes blistered from frostbite and one big toe sprained.
The helicopter hadn’t arrived at midafternoon, because of some mechanical difficulties. Around three the para-rescue squad requested that a toboggan be dropped near them by parachute. They also asked that a plane wait for them at the lake two miles away. Epton was given more sedation and strapped to the toboggan. They began a hike that lasted more than two hours. Drifts were sometimes armpit deep and the heavy toboggan was almost beyond the strength of the weary parachutists. Marion plodded in the rear, too exhausted to think.
Mounties and trappers flown in to the nearby lake met the group almost halfway and took their turn with the para-rescue team dragging the toboggan. Epton wakened only once, was given another sleeping pill and dozed off again. An RCMP Otter waiting at the lake carried the patient and his rescuers back to The Pas. Two days later Flying Officer Marion Macdonald was back in Winnipeg’s RCAF infirmary, taking temperatures and bandaging blisters, duties that form the main part of her job.
Station Winnipeg’s infirmary is a wide, one-story building with an eight-bed ward at one end and space for the station’s sick-parade assembly at the other. Although the station, which trains navigators and radio operators for the RCAF and for member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has a complement of twenty-five hundred, the eight-bed ward is usually only half full. All serious cases are sent to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Continued on page 68
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Potted plants and a pet (deodorized) skunk help enliven off-duty hours for the para-nurse
A Blonde Who Leaps From the Clouds
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hospital, Deer Lodge, just half a mile away.
Marion usually puts in an uneventful day. She cares for the patients in the ward, washes their dishes, and attends the sick parade, composed mostly of airmen with the sniffles. Air crew are grounded when they have colds and must join the sick parade. This is a precaution against having eardrums shattered because the nasal passages are too clogged to permit clearing the ears. Around ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, Marion and the other nurses and doctors break for coffee.
During these breaks Marion and the doctors often swap recollections of the students who have passed through Station Winnipeg as part of the NATO training scheme.
“Remember when the Portuguese were here?” Marion commented recently. “They wore those black box jackets with astrakhan collars and cuffs and looked as though they had stepped out of an operetta.”
“And the Turks who wore American uniforms and looked so dashing,” nodded a doctor in agreement.
“And the French with the red pompons on their berets who had all the airwomen on the station in such a dither.”
After exchanging a few more reminiscences with the doctors Marion set down her coffee, adjusted her nurse’s veil, and hurried back to work.
Marion’s nurse’s veil establishes as surely as gold braid that she is an officer, but the rest of her uniform resembles that of any hospital nurse. She is a flying officer, drawing flight pay of three hundred and sixty dollars a month because she is a parachutist, one of three or four women officers on the station. The station has five hundred male officers. “Three hundred and fifty of them are bachelors,” Marion once told a newly arrived woman officer, who brightened visibly. “But they’re all too young.”
She and the other women officers were eating together in the vast officers’ mess. As usual the dining room, with windows on two sides overlooking the airfield, was filled with the heavy babble of male voices talking flying, banking flattened hands to illustrate a manoeuvre and unconsciously following every landing and take-off on the runways. The women officers, who sit at a table by themselves, also talked shop.
“An airman who works in safety equipment told me the other day that he does parachute jumping as a stunt during his vacations/’ Marion remarked with a chuckle. “Gets a hundred and fifty dollars a jump from midway people and he told me I could probably get more.”
“Let’s see,” murmured another woman officer, making marks on the tablecloth with the tines of her fork. “At, say, two hundred dollars a jump, you’d have made . . . ah . . .”
The RCAF pays Marion an extra thirty dollars a month for parachute jumping, from which the government removes five dollars for income tax. To earn this extra pay, F/0 Macdonald has assembled an unusual assortment of information, for an attractive young blonde. During the RCAF para-rescue course at Edmonton and Jasper, she learned to send and receive fifteen words a minute in Morse code, and also learned that running water is usually safe to drink, which northern berries are poisonous, how to build a
raft without nails, how to climb a mountain, how to knit a fish net and make snowshoes, how to ski down a glacier. She learned that jumping into trees is more comfortable than jumping into a field, even though she had to learn how to chop down the tree afterward to recover her chute.
Most important for her personal survival, she learned to pack a thousand dollars worth of nylon parachute so that it will open in two and a half seconds. Every member of para-rescue teams packs his own parachute, mainly to attain peace of mind for that leap into space. The chutes are twentyeight, feet around and have fourteen pie-shaped gores, seamed on the diagonal so that a rip cannot extend more than a foot. It takes half an hour for an expert to pack a chute.
She also learned how to make a parachute jump without injuring herself. Jumping involves two separate shocks, the impact of the parachute opening and suddenly braking a hurtling body, and the impact of the ground. To prepare for the first, para-rescue trainees climb to the top of a twenty-foot tower, attach a harness to a ten-foot rope and simply drop. The resultant jolt is an exact equivalent to a parachute opening.
“I must have a longer neck than most people, or something,” Marion moans. “Every time I make a parachute jump, I get a stiff neck.”
The proper position for the jolt of the chute opening is for the jumper to be stiffened, with arms folded, legs together and chin clamped to chest. Marion can never manage this last position; on every jump her head is snapped back viciously.
In the forty seconds it takes a parachutist to drop a thousand feet, a great deal of activity is required. In order to arrive within a hundred yards of the target, the chute must be steered. Each chute has seven-foot slots that can be opened and closed with guide lines to turn left or right. To drop faster, the jumper pulls on some of the shroud lines and spills air from the chute; to drop more slowly, he manipulates the umbrella of the chute against the wind like a sail.
The landing is the most hazardous part of the profession. Amateur parachutists have broken their backs landing awkwardly and even among professionals broken legs are common. RCAF parachutists practice landing technique swinging like pendulums from a rope three feet off the ground. At a signal they let go. landing with their feet at right angles to the pendulum and falling instantly on the side of their leg, hip and shoulder so that the impact is absorbed evenly.
“They tell us that landing from a parachute jump can be compared with falling out of a car that is traveling eleven feet in the air at a speed of fifteen miles an hour,” Marion recently explained. “Besides the slamming you get on landing, you have to be quick to empty the air out of your chute or you’ll be dragged by the wind.”
Mr. and Mrs. John Macdonald, of Vancouver, did not raise their daughter Marion to jump out of airplanes, no matter how skilfully she may avoid being dragged by wind. One of four intelligent children—a brother is a Rhodes scholar—in the family of an accountant, Marion was trained to be ladylike, polite and considerate. As a child she enjoyed sports such as basketball and high jumping and won her letter at Kitsilano High School. When she graduated from high school, she joined the air force. Her sister Jessie was already in the women’s division and a brother was in the army. For two years her duty was at the side of a grid table in the basement of a
Victoria office building, charting the movements of all aircraft over the British Columbia coast.
Her sister, who was stationed at a flying field, arranged for Marion to have a few plane rides. When she was discharged, Marion had decided to find a career in the air. To become an airline stewardess she enrolled as a student nurse at Vancouver General Hospital and helped pay for her education with DVA credits. Afterward she had changed her mind about being a stewardess. She and a friend who was also a nurse planned a world cruise. They would work in a city six months, save their money and travel to the next city for six months more.
“It worked beautifully,” Marion recalls. “We got to California, planning Hawaii as our next stop. When the Korean War started everyone around us panicked. You couldn’t buy coffee or nylons anywhere. There was such a feeling of world disaster that I hurried home to enlist.”
A few months later she was one of the first five nurses chosen from volunteers to train as the world’s only paranurses. One woman broke her leg in her first jump and only four nurses finished.
Those four nurses became the most photographed personnel in the RCAF. “Every time a magazine or newspaper in Japan or Rhodesia wanted to write a story about the RCAF,” says publicrelations director Ron Dodds, “the story would be about our para-rescue work. And every picture they used was of a beautiful nurse. I’m certain the world has an impression that the RCAF is made up entirely of lovely women parachutists.”
She Went Up in the Chute
In peacetime, the RCAF’s searchand-rescue teams, of which the pararescue experts are part, receive a majority of the newspaper space accorded the service. The SAR, as it is known, has the task of finding missing aircraft from the U. S. border to the North Pole. When the terrain where a downed aircraft is sighted is too hazardous to land a plane and too remote for a ground party to reach quickly, para-rescue teams are dropped. Until 1951 para-rescue squads were made up entirely of airmen with first-aid and bush-survival training; since then seven nurses, five doctors and uncounted medical assistants have learned to jump.
Almost every one of Marion’s fortythree parachute jumps has been made during training or as part of an RCAF demonstration. The first ten were part of para-rescue training course and the next nine followed almost immediately when she was selected to be the first woman instructor on the course. During this course the RCAF decided never to accept volunteer para-nurses smaller than five foot five.
“One of the students was so light that she actually went up in a parachute,” Marion later reported. “She wasn’t far from the ground when an updraft caught her and took her straight up. She landed eventually in a wickedly fast-running stream, four feet from the edge. If she had been carried any farther out into the stream she probably would have drowned before we reached her.”
When she had finished a hitch of instructing, Marion was posted to Trenton, Ont., where she took part in her first operational jump. In the winter of 1952 a Sabre jet crashed in the Quebec bush north of Bagotville. Marion and men jumpers were in search planes that combed the area day and night for a week, looking by day for a trail of broken trees and by night
for flares or a campfire. Just as they were preparing to abandon the search, two Sabre jet pilots radioed the distress signal “Mayday” within a few minutes of one another. Mayday is the airman’s SOS. One man parachuted from his diving plane and was rescued soon afterward. The other decided to stay in his aircraft while it crashed—he couldn’ti be found.
The area of the crash was pinpointed on the map by experts and a three-man jump team, including Marion, was dropped as soon as it was light the following morning. Their aim was uncanny; they landed fifty yards from the tent the pilot had built for himself. His plane had slid into spruce trees that made it impossible to spot from the air. Marion treated the pilot for shock, giving him sedatives and wrapping him well in blankets, and the team waited for a groundrescue crew that arrived that afternoon.
It was decided that the pilot was able to walk out to the nearest settlement.
“It was eleven miles away,” Marion recalls, “and a howling blizzard was blowing. It took us fourteen hours to do it, led by some Canadien trappers who carried packs of better than seventy pounds to make our loads lighter. Once we had to take a short cut over a thinly iced lake. We slid our packs along ahead of us and with every step the ice cracked under our feet and the water bubbled through the cracks.”
Marion took a day off before she went back to her duties as a nursing sister in the Trenton, Ont., station hospital. Between the Bagotville operational jump and the one involving the jet last February, all of her jumps were practice.
She has been apprehensive about a jump only once in her life. This occurred more than a year ago when she was to jump as part of a demonstration over the Winnipeg air field. The night before the scheduled jump, she couldn’t sleep. She paced her room thinking of every parachute disaster she had ever known—-of the lefthanded jumper scratching for the ripcord on the wrong side, who clawed through his clothes and flesh to his bones in vain and died screaming; of the condition of bodies after a fall of a thousand feet with a streamer (a chute that doesn’t open); of the time a static line wrapped around her hand just, as she jumped and could have torn off her arm if she hadn’t been able to slip it off in time. She watched the sun come up and knew she was afraid to jump that day.
As it happened, weather conditions were such that the jump was canceled. Later in the afternoon Marion encountered an old man who worked around the station hospital.
“My, Fm glad you didn’t jump today,” he told her. “I had a dream last night that you would be badly hurt.”
Marion herself isn’t prone to superstitions, though she has been mildly captivated with teacup reading and astrology.
Marion Macdonald will receive her discharge from the RCAF in January 1957. She has been saving much of her salary to fulfill her ambition to see the world.
“This time I’m going to make it,” she promises grimly as she stomps around the women officers’ quarters in the evenings, watering the twenty or thirty plants that grow zestfully under her care. “I’ll lie in the sun on the Riviera and see rickshaws in Singapore.
“That is,” she adds somberly, “if Canada doesn’t get into a war again. Then, of course, I’ll come home and enlist.” it