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Pentagon awards money for Joint Base Charleston's high-altitude parachute mission

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Air Force Special Tactics airmen perform a high-altitude, low-opening military free fall over Hurlburt Field, Florida, on June 27, 2018. Joint Base Charleston will be getting a mission support center to help with training for high-altitude airdrops like the one pictured. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Victor J. Caputo

A special operations mission at Joint Base Charleston that trains covert airmen to skydive from 20,000 feet, plummeting to the ground at more than 120 mph before landing safely is getting an investment from the Pentagon.

By September 2021, a new $3.8 million building solely dedicated to "High Altitude Airdrop Mission Support" will be constructed on Charleston's Air Force Base, according to the Department of Defense. 

“We’ve been looking forward to this project award since 2018 and are elated for the center to finally have a permanent home at Charleston,” Lt. Col. Peter Baldwin, commander of the 628th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, said.

High-altitude jumps have been popularized in many Hollywood action movies in which secret agents have to sneak into enemy territory under the radar — like when Tom Cruise jumped out of a C-17 in "Mission Impossible: Fallout" or when Pierce Brosnan hurled himself over the ocean as James Bond in "Tomorrow Never Dies."

While overdramatized on the silver screen, the reality of the Air Force's high-altitude mission support program isn't too far off. At Joint Base Charleston, technicians are trained to provide in-flight operational and physiological support to aircrew, ground personnel and Special Ops forces completing jumps.

These service members often work on top-secret missions with Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and national security agencies. The team even flies missions in support of NASA and the Missile Defense Agency. 

Technicians who assist with these jumps were trained at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas until 2018, when the mission was moved to Charleston. The first group to graduate from the program was in April 2019.

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Charleston's 628th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron is now home to the training and mission support center.

Spokeswoman Diana Cossaboom said "teams train with Joint Base Charleston aircrew and perform training missions" for high altitude airdrops. They help monitor vitals and prepare for the unexpected when jumping from 20,000 feet in the air.

Unpressurized high-altitude flying can produce a deficiency of oxygen in the body. This deficiency can lead to intense health issues, such as hypoxia, hyperventilation, gases trapped in the gastrointestinal tract, decompression sickness and even death.

Each year, there are nearly 500 high-altitude airdrop missions conducted around the world, according to the Air Force.

Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southeast, based out of Florida, awarded the multimillion dollar contract for the new mission support center.  

NAVFAC Southeast Project Manager Georgios Paspalaris said since the technician training was moved from Little Rock, the operation "has been scattered across multiple locations" at Joint Base Charleston.

The first part of the contract involves designing an office area, which will be for the support staff, management and classrooms. The second part is creating a space to work on and also store the high-drop parachutes, along with storing aircraft pallets and create devices for training.

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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