When Durbin resident Don Jennings was 17-years-old, he made the life altering decision to join the US Army Airborne. The second oldest of six children being raised by a single mother, Jennings thought the Army would be a good path to take, and his mother agreed.
“So I was seventeen-years-old jumping out of airplanes in the military,” Jennings said. “I made it through jump school. The last thing that you did was a twenty mile run back then in your training. You’d run ten miles out and ten miles back, non-stop. These guys would fall off the side of the road, puke their guts out. They just couldn’t handle it. If you fell out, you were kicked out of jump school. You were done.
“I thought to myself, ‘They’re not going to run me out of here,’ and I made it,” he added.
Sixteen weeks into training, the teenage Jennings was doing jump simulations and jumping out of airplanes for training.
“They had a thirty-four foot tower, and it was a simulation of jumping out of an airplane,” he said. “You jumped out, and then your static line took you down a cable and you landed. Then you had to do five actual jumps out of an airplane before you got your jump wings to be a qualified paratrooper.”
The jumps are usually spread out during the training, but in Jennings’ case, there was a hurricane coming up the coast, so his class did the five jumps in two days.
“They jumped us twice on Thursday and three times on Friday,” he said. “The last jump I made was a night jump. In jump school, that is unheard of.”
When asked if he was frightened by the idea of jumping out of airplanes, he said it is something to get used to, but once you do, it’s a fun experience.
“If you weren’t scared, there was something wrong with you,” he said, laughing. “Once you got the first jump out – it’s very easy. You really don’t know what’s going to happen, and once that parachute comes out, you’re just drifting like Mary Poppins, and then you get ready for impact to hit the ground.
“Coming down, it’s a beautiful ride,” he continued. “I was looking at the landscape more than I was paying attention to what I was doing. The first jump – I thought – was the easiest – because you didn’t know what was going to happen. But once that was done, you think, ‘This is easy.’”
During this time in basic, Jennings was also trained in artillery, truck driving and to be an engineer.
After basic training, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, his permanent assignment. While there, he was sent to rigger school at Fort Lee, Virginia.
“I learned how to pack parachutes,” he said. “I learned how to repair them. I was sewing nylon on a machine – weaving webbing and everything like that. Then when I got back to Fort Bragg, I also learned how to do heavy drops. That consists of dropping the 105 Howitzer, two and a half ton trucks, ammunition, supplies – anything like that.”
Jennings was given the assignment to be a rigger, so instead of doing regular jumps, he was the one who prepared the parachutes – repacking and repairing them – and gathering them after jumps.
“I don’t know how many thousand I packed over a couple of years,” he said. “That’s what I did. We had to go to what they call a marshaling area, and you had to put the troops on the planes to make sure they were rigged up right – had all their straps done and everything like that.”
The worst part of that, Jennings said, was collecting the parachutes after the jumps. The paratroopers would leave them behind and the rigger crew would go in to gather them up for repacking.
Jennings took his job seriously, reminding himself that packing a parachute correctly was an integral task.
“Every time you packed a parachute, you had a man’s life in your hands,” he said. “You had to pack it right.”
Along with packing individual chutes, Jennings was also a rigger for the larger parachutes used to drop materials and heavy weaponry.
The heavy drop load parachutes were up to 100 feet in diameter with 100 feet of rigging.
“They have what they call a heavy drop shed, that looks like an airplane hangar,” Jennings said. “When you pull those chutes out – they’re well over a hundred feet long and they’re a hundred foot in diameter. So they have these great big fans blow the air into the canopy to open them up and then you fold them over.”
As the fans inflate the canopy, Jennings said he had precise folds to make – in a crisscross pattern – in order to properly pack the chute for use.
“You have to fold them a certain way, collapse the two sides together,” he said. “All the while you’re doing this, there are eighty pound break cords that you have to tie. The force when that opens, it pops those break cords like a rubber band.”
Although Jennings enlisted in hopes of being deployed to Germany, he said he doesn’t regret one moment of his time in the Airborne.
“I wanted to go to Germany,” he said. “That’s why I enlisted because they were sending a group over there. My buddy that I went in the service with was sent to Fort Campbell [Kentucky]. He went overseas with the 11th Airborne. I stayed down at Fort Bragg. I didn’t get to go.
“I don’t regret it,” Jennings added. “I had a lot of fun.”
While at Fort Bragg, Jennings met his first wife, Glenna, who was visiting from Charleston. Her cousin was stationed with Jennings. The two became acquainted and were soon married.
“I was eighteen when I met her,” he said. “I was nineteen when I married her. She had three kids, plus we had five more. We raised eight kids.”
In 1966, the pair moved to Charleston, and Jennings got a job as an inspector with Irving Bowman Architects. The first project he worked on was the Jennings Randolph Federal Building in Elkins.
“Jennings Randolph’s office was in there,” Jennings said. “Judge Robert Maxwell – his courtroom was up there. Then they dedicated it, they were all there. They flew the president [Gerald Ford] over, and that’s the only president I actually got to meet in person.”
After many years with the architectural firm, Jennings became an inspector for the West Virginia Health Department in Charleston.
While there, he met his second wife, Pat.
“Her dad was W.Q. Waters, and he used to paint at the observatory,” Jennings said. “He was one of the largest painting contractors in West Virginia.
“I was working for the state health department and my first wife and I were having problems,” he continued. “They hired Pat. They brought her around introducing her to everybody, and I looked at her. Here’s this woman – six foot one, attractive – and I told my buddy, ‘I’m going to marry her.’ We’ve been together forty-four years.”
Jennings and Pat raised five children, and when he retired, the couple moved to Durbin around 2000. Since moving to the county, Jennings has served as mayor and a councilmember in Durbin.
Although his life took him on several adventures, Jennings’ love for the Airborne never waned, and in 1985, when the West Virginia All Airborne Chapter was founded, Jennings joined and became its secretary – a status he continues to hold.
“We have monthly meetings at different places around the state,” Jennings said. “We have about a hundred sixty-five members.”
The Chapter isn’t the only way Jennings carries on his love of the Airborne. Roughly 20 years ago, he started skydiving again.
“I haven’t done actual free falls,” he said. “I do tandem due to my age. I still like to do it.
“The first jump I made out of the military was a static line jump down in Huntington. We jumped at three thousand feet with a static line. You have to get out on a step and hang off the wing. The jump master gives you the thumbs up and you go, and the chute’s automatically pulled out.”
That first jump was one to remember and would have possibly deterred lesser individuals from ever jumping again, but not Jennings.
“I’m out over the Ohio River and I thought, ‘I’m going to drown,’” he recalled. “So I finally got the chute turned – you can control them – and I landed between the trees and the end of the runway in a 75 foot section of grass. Otherwise, I would have been in the trees or the concrete.”
From that point on, Jennings went skydiving as many times as he could.
He went to an airport in Lesage, near the New River Gorge and jumped with one of his sons.
Before long, more of Jennings’ family strapped on parachutes and joined him on jumps. They now do most of their jumps at Skydiving Mountaineers in Morgantown.
This past July, Jennings had a special jump he had planned.
As a member of the 82nd Airborne, he wanted to jump at 82-years-old, and he did just that.
“This past jump, [the chapter] had our meeting up at Morgantown,” he said. “They got the idea, ‘Let’s get some TV out here – you’re eighty-two years old, and you’re in the 82nd Airborne.’ So they interviewed me and I said, ‘I”m eighty-two and I’m dedicating this to all our members that had passed away.’”
Jennings hoped to do a second jump while still 82, but didn’t make it in time. Now 83, he plans to continue skydiving for as long as he is able. He and several family members plan to jump this coming spring.
“I’ve had major heart surgery – replaced a valve – and they tell me I have the body of a fifty year old man,” he said. “I can’t lift anything above fifty pounds, but I don’t want to. I’m pretty active. I’d like to continue [jumping] as long as I can afford it.
The rush of traveling 125 miles an hour in free fall after jumping from a plane is too much to pass up for Jennings.
“When the shoot opens, it’s about fifteen to twenty miles an hour,” he said. “It slows way down and you can control it. When they jump like that, they go in big circles. When you get up there, that’s about the only time you can see the [West Virginia University] Coliseum and football field at the same time.”
As for why he has continued his skydiving adventures, Jennings can’t pinpoint one particular thing he likes the most.
“I guess everything,” he said. “I like to be the first man out. You’re sitting there in the doorway – on these small planes – you’re sitting there, and there’s nothing below you but twelve thousand feet and all of a sudden, out you go. You can see the clouds about four thousand feet below you and all of a sudden, you’re in the clouds and then you’re out, and then they’re above you.
“But my biggest thing is the military,” he continued.
“I’m proud to have been Airborne.”