HIGH POINT, N.C. — On March 23, 1994, Pvt. Richard Clapp was with the 82nd Airborne at Pope Air Force Base, preparing for what he refers to as his “cherry jump” with the division.
By all accounts, it was a picturesque day for it.
Clapp and other paratroopers had gathered at the Green Ramp, which was located west of the southern end of Pope’s main runway. An F-16 fighter jet collided with a C-130 cargo plane, sending the jet slamming into a C-141 cargo plane on the tarmac, igniting 55,000 gallons of fuel. A ball of fire and shrapnel overtook the paratroopers as live rounds went off, sending bullets toward them.
Clapp didn’t make it to safety. The fireball swept over his body, severely burning him.
Twenty-four paratroopers were killed. More than 100 others were injured.
In 1997, Clapp was medically retired because of his injuries. The day of the disaster would have been his sixth jump, but his first with the division.
“I retired from the military in the 82nd Airborne, never having jumped in the 82nd Airborne,” he said.
Twenty-three years later, he was asked to go back to do a symposium for some doctors who had come in since. There, he met a man who would later give him the chance to jump once more, at the X35 Airborne School in Dunnellon, Florida.
“I accepted immediately without even thinking about that I needed to talk to my wife. But after her initial shock of, ‘Are you crazy?’ and ‘What are you talking about?’ she understood and she was OK with it,” Clapp said.
There, he met Al Ferguson, a High Point police lieutenant, who served in the 121st Infantry’s Company H, where he had jump status from 1988 to 1994.
About three years ago, the urge to jump once more led Ferguson to X35.
“Told my wife I was gonna look for a group that jumped out of planes and she said, ‘You’re crazy,’” he recalled.
Together, they learned of an event planned for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day; DAKS Over Normandy.
A once in a lifetime event, the two were able to be a part of the 300 people able to join in the event, where the skies over Normandy, France, would once again be filled with Douglas DC-3/C-47s, which were used in WWII.
“It’s the largest assembly of original warbirds since D-Day,” Clapp said.
On June 5, those men and women boarded the aircraft in the United Kingdom. Just as the members of the greatest generation had 75 years before, they flew across the English Channel and jumped into the historic drop zones of Normandy.
“It’s gonna be a very emotional time for all of us,” Ferguson told FOX8 the week before the event.
With D-Day veterans in attendance, the participants completed the jump wearing replicas of Allied uniforms while using WWII military-style parachutes.
One of them was 97-year-old World War II D-Day veteran paratrooper Tom Rice.
“Beautiful jump, beautiful flight, everything was perfect,” he said.
Clapp and Ferguson had different reasons for finding X35, and in turn, DAKS Over Normandy.
But their reason for jumping on the 75th Anniversary was the same.
“Most of the veterans that served on D-Day are no longer with us,” Ferguson said. “We get to look them in the eye and say thank you.”
“This may be the last event where we can actually go and see them face-to-face, hear their stories and thank them for their service,” Clapp added. “I’m not jumping for me. I’m jumping in honor of them.”