Thursday, October 1, 2009

Memoir: Parachutes for the Korean War, 1950

Meyer Moldeven

This memoir recounts a decision I made at the start of the Korean War and its context. The issue was an urgent priority for the acquisition of 50,000 aircrew emergency bailout parachutes for USAF operations in Korea. Chronology and types of USAF aircraft operating in the Korean Theater at the time are based on personal recollections and references available from public libraries and the Internet. Opinions are those of the writer and not necessarily those of military or civilian personnel of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.


The technical design and operation of military man-carrying parachutes evolved rapidly after World War II, as did parachute servicing, packing and maintenance methodologies. The Korean War, five years after the end of WW II, began generally with WWII weapons and equipment, mostly overage and obsolescent. Where significant shortages of vital support equipment existed or were otherwise considered certain to occur, urgent procurements were initiated, taking into account implication of ongoing conversions of certain types of USAF inventory aircraft from propeller- to jet-driven, manufacture 'lead time,' and compatible supply and maintenance pipelines to the field.


Rather than procure the 50,000 aircrew parachutes as complete assemblies, e.g., in which the canopy's suspension lines are permanently linked to the harness and, through the harness, to the canopy container (pack), as in the past, the procurement I initiated in 1950 was by major components. The components would subsequently be assembled into standard types of complete parachutes by certified technicians at Air Force Materiel Command supply and maintenance depots or certified parachute maintenance shops to meet priority needs in Korea and other support activities worldwide.


In 1949, the Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson cut back radically the U S Armed Forces' programs for weapons and support systems. The Korean War, in which the USSR and Communist China openly supported and militarily joined North Korea against the United Nations, was launched the following year.

In the early '50s, Hqs AFMC had Command jurisdiction of 8 major industrial depots and at least an equal number of sub-depots and special activities throughout the continental U S and in foreign countries (Europe, Philippines, Japan, Middle East, North Africa, etc.)

For several years following the end of WWII and creation of a separate U. S. Air Force the logistical missions, organizations, and personnel policies for active duty military and civil service personnel experienced significant changes in command, management, location, and performance of functions. The changes were reflected in chain of command, consolidation and/or wholesale reassignment of materiel property classes, Hqs components and field organizations, transferring or eliminating low priority workloads and assuming new missions and industrial workloads. Concurrently, the worldwide Cold War and its effects steadily increased in scope and intensity throughout Europe, Africa, and the Far East. Widespread and ongoing post-WW2 reductions-in-force among military and civil service personnel accompanied a nationwide conversion from war to civilian economies.

Shortly before US military action in Korea began (see June 30, 1950 under Time Line), I was assigned to supervise several supply technicians at Hqs, Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The primary function of my group was to determine USAF worldwide requirements and distribution of aircrew emergency survival equipment which included parachutes, aircrew (flotation) life preservers, emergency survival kits and their components, and other aircrew personal emergency gear for USAF-worldwide.

Parachutes in the possession of USAF field commands and in back-up supply warehouses at that time had been procured for WWII, and had ended in 1945. Unknown quantities of parachutes in warehouse storage had been declared excess/surplus to requirements or were close to their maximum authorized 'years in service since dates of manufacture' (the date of manufacture was stamped on the canopy). At the 'maximum' age of 7 years, aircrew parachutes were, by USAF regulation, to be removed from further service for aircrew emergency bailout, although they could be used for cargo drops.

Computing quantities of serviceable parachutes and spare parts to be on hand for the USAF active and programmed aircraft inventory was made by type of parachute, e.g., seat, back or chest as applicable to aircraft types. Parachute selection depended on crewmember or passenger stations in the aircraft, space available in cockpit and cabin, access to and through emergency exits, and the aircrew member's weight, e.g., aircrew or passengers above a certain total weight (body weight plus flight clothing, emergency kit, flotation gear and the parachute) were entitled to a parachute that incorporated a larger diameter canopy.)

Based on type of aircraft and aircrew stations (or special circumstances) the harness of a 'quick attachable chest chute (QAC) might be the choice and the canopy (packed) hooked to the harness before bailout.

Requirement computations for parachutes took into account quantities in service by type (back, seat, and chest), in the pipeline, and in back-up warehouse storage (serviceable and repairable). Information on quantity and condition of parachutes in storage was not reliable in the years immediately following the end of WWII.

Transforming a requirement into acquisition called for justifying funds, ensuring that procurement and manufacturing specifications and tech data were current, and initiating and monitoring acquisition documents. New production parachutes from a commercial source received an acceptance inspection before being shipped to a USAF regional or property class depot or directly to the base supply activity where the requirement existed. There, the parachutes were scheduled to the base parachute shop (part of the Maintenance function) where it received an Air Force directed technical inspection, aired, pre-pack scrutiny, packed for service, a post- pack inspection, and returned to 'Supply' to complete the requisitioning transaction.

USAF parachutes procured from a commercial contractor (manufacturer) are normally shipped unpacked (that is, with the canopy rolled up loosely in the canopy container (pack) and the 4 webbing harness risers permanently connected to the canopy suspension lines by 4 stainless steel links; six suspension (shroud) lines tied and permanently stitched to each link. When suspension lines and harness webbing are so stitched, undoing the stitches weakens reliability at vital points; (technical orders require that damaged suspension lines and harnesses must be replaced.)

Upon requisition for a 'packed-for-service' parachute the Supply warehouse sends the (unpacked) parachute to a base maintenance parachute shop where it is inspected to ensure that all required parts are on hand and free from damage and defects, and current with latest technical and modification instructions. Normally, the parachute canopy is aired for at least 24 hours in a parachute loft, re-inspected by the certified rigger who will personally pack it for service. A security breakaway-thread and lead seal is pressed over a knot where the forward ripcord pin passes through the pack-closure flaps-retaining cone.

The servicing and packing log, marked with the same USAF serial number as the parachute pack and canopy, is signed by the rigger and inserted in a pocket on the pack assembly. The packed parachute is inspected externally by a certified inspector and/or supervisor and returned to supply as 'ready for service.' During WWII and on into the '50s USAF military and civil service certified parachute riggers accomplished these procedures.


The following events on the Korean War time line had logistics implications.

-- 1948 April 8 - US troops ordered withdrawn from Korea on orders from President Harry S. Truman.

-- 1949 June 29 - Last US troops withdrawn from South Korea.

-- 1950 June 30 - President Truman orders US ground forces into Korea and authorizes the bombing of North Korea by the US Air Force. US troops are notified of their deployment to South Korea.


The morning following President Truman's order to the Armed Forces to initiate military action in Korea the military chief of the Hqs AFMC Equipment Division, Directorate of Supply, strode along the 'supervisors' row in the office where I worked. My Branch Chief who was responsible for specified categories of military equipment and supplies, including those assigned to me, accompanied him. Pointing to each supervisor (or desk if it was unattended at the moment) the Division Chief briefly consulted with the Branch Chief, then read off a dollar amount from a spreadsheet he held in his hand. The dollar amount for my area of responsibility was $25 million -- as a starter.

Immediately upon the Division Chief's departure, the Branch Chief assembled his subordinate supervisors and directed that the $-amounts cited were mandatory totals for Purchase Requests (PRs) from each responsible supervisor to be his office at the start of business the following day. He would review them and, upon his approval, have them hand-carried to the Division office. The PRs were to be for most urgently needed equipment and supplies to support current and 'programmed' USAF operations in Korea, and if possible, USAF worldwide.


My highest priorities for USAF in Korea were aircrew parachutes, aircraft emergency life preservers, aircrew emergency bailout survival kits (attached to parachute harnesses), oxygen masks, and components ('components,' for instance, took into account that inflatable life preservers are not much help to an aircrew member floating in the sea if the CO2 inflation cartridges had not been checked and installed or had been discharged for an unauthorized purpose. Life vest checklists directed that inflatable life vests would be examined by the wearer or a certified technician before donning to ensure that the mouth inflation tube connections and CO2 cartridges and emergency inflation levers were correctly installed and intact. It was not unusual to find that the CO2 cartridges were missing or the cartridge seals punctured.

Insofar as personnel parachutes were concerned, 'components' double-checked included ripcords (pins not bent, pull cable without burrs or kinks), pilot chute spring action, harnesses, canopy containers (packs), seals on emergency kits, etc.

As US-UNCommnd forces in Korea intensified combat operations, the urgent need for parachutes, aircraft life preservers and other survival and escape-and-evasion gear increased. The United Nations Command (UNC) included the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Belgium, Greece, Canada, Thailand and other nations.

USAF aircraft in the Korean Theater included the P-51, F-80, F-82, F-86, B-29, KC-50, C-46, C-47, C-54, C-82, C-118, C-119 and C-121 and more.

The F-51 (Mustang) role in Korea was ground attack. The F-80 (Shooting Star) was the first operational American jet fighter and a major weapon system of the Korean War. The F-80 recorded the first USAF aerial victories in June 1950. The F-80's high accident rate in the early years of the war was attributed to pilots familiar with propeller-driven aircraft transitioning to the faster and more powerful jets. The F-80 was used for ground support after it was replaced by the F-86 in air superiority tactics. In effect, the USAF was experiencing a major transition from relatively slow propeller-driven to much higher speed jet aircraft - in the middle of an intense air war. The transformation involved upgrade training for jet aircraft air and ground crews, line and support shops technicians were in practically OJT (on the job training), revamping test and maintenance facilities, acquiring and shipping maintenance new tools and equipment, adjusting skills, procedures, tech data, etc. Among these drastic and far-reaching changes, parachute compatibility with aircraft was one detail among thousands.

The F-86 jet had entered service in 1949, about one year before the start of the Korean War. Hundreds of F-86s and other aircraft, as well as aircraft support and personal equipment were provided to allied nations under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP).

The total additional quantity required for USAF's immediate needs in Korea and for other developing or programmed USAF operations worldwide was 50,000 parachutes plus spare parts. The U S was well along in its conversion and retooling to a civilian economy that would concentrate on meeting the pent-up needs of the populace. A one-shot relatively short-duration production program for a distant 'police action' did not represent a sound investment to industry.

Considering the time required by prime contractors to reactivate (actually to recreate) product lines, install manufacturing equipment plus acquisition of materials, parachute hardware, manufacturing tools and skills; acquire components through outsource or in-house-manufacture, and lead time to integrate production and assembly, and ship complete parachutes, etc., was much too long. It got down to how many of each type parachute (seat, back or chest) was most urgently needed, and how could we get the right types and number of parachutes to where they had to be. What was the mix of parachute types to be procured commercially, checked through the USAF internal quality assurance process, and shipped (packed or unpacked based on circumstances) to meet Korean Theater needs in a combat environment and rapid changes in the Theater's types of aircraft?

A 'complete' parachute, as procured during WWII consisted of all of its components assembled and permanently connected to each other, except for the pilot parachute, ripcord, and 6 bungee/hook assemblies, all of which were installed by the rigger during the pack-for-service process. When the shroud lines, canopy and pilot 'chute are folded into the 'pack' (container) and the flaps brought up from the sides and over to enclose the canopy, the ripcord pins are inserted through holes in the cones that were brought up through grommets.

The bungee (elastic) cords are hooked to eyes along the packs frame so that they snap the flaps back when the ripcord is pulled to clear the way for the pilot 'chute to eject and draw the main canopy out to full extension. The ripcord cable is run through a sleeve of which one end-ferrule is fastened to the harness webbing and the other to the pack side flap in line with the canopy release cones. When the ripcord is pulled, the direction of its withdrawal is from the canopy pack across the wearer's chest.


(My experiences in parachutes and survival equipment employment and improvisation generally during WWII included priority use of parachute canopies to air drop supplies to isolated military groups and civilian communities. 'Korea' was well underway and the same circumstances prevailed.)

I concluded the best approach would be for several contractors to provide USAF with canopies, harnesses and packs as components. Ripcords, pilot chutes, bungees, etc., could be procured independently from qualified sources and from the tens of thousands of each item that were still new in USAF supply warehouses, excess from WW2. The AFMC depot and/or operating wing's Supply function and Maintenance certified parachute riggers would take it from there and connect the canopies to the right harnesses and packs for the job, pack for service, and get the parachutes to where they were needed, including supplies air drops.

I initiated the Purchase Requests, and received quick coordination on technical accuracy of procurement data from the Wright Air Development Center (WADC) parachute engineers and AFMC Maintenance Technical Services. The Purchase Requests, to my knowledge, were approved by oversight authorities.


Some weeks later, I was criticized by top management for my initiatives and notified (informally) that an 'action' against me was likely. As it turned out, I was 'transferred' to the Hqs AFMC Directorate of Maintenance to review draft Air Force specifications for 'maintainability' on new types of survival equipment for which procurement was planned, to analyze deficiencies reported from the field on aircrew emergency gear, and to write field maintenance manuals and technical orders.

About a year or so after my transfer from the Directorate of Supply the employee who replaced me on the 'parachutes acquisition for Korea' project, told me, in the presence of my former co-workers, that my 'decision' had been 'right.' I didn't ask for details.