No, I didn’t jump out of an airplane and that is just fine with me. I like being strapped in safely while a plane takes off and lands, but I am always up for an adventure. So when I got an invited to fly with the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute team, of course I said yes. Flying in an airplane to watch soldiers jump out of it seemed like the next best thing to actually jumping myself.
This adventure was going to take place at the Bell Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, which is one of the largest and longest running civilian airshows in the nation. Voted one of the top three “Best Air Shows” in the 2019 USA TODAY 10Best Readers Choice Contest, I saw this as an additional perk – seeing some Top Gun action in person is a great way to spend the morning.
U.S. Army Golden Knights
The parachute team started 60 years ago and serves as “Ambassadors of the Army.” They are part of the public relations and recruitment leg of the Army which bridges the gap between the general public and recruitment.
“We help our recruiters with the 1% of the nation that is actually eligible to join the armed forces,” said Sergeant First Class Rich Sloan. “Kids today are not in the prime physical condition or have the mental acuity that we need. The Army uses so much technology, and it is much more advanced – the infantry men of today are not the infantry men we saw on TV when we were young.”
Although public relations and recruitment are the main focus of the Golden Knights, making it onto the 86-member team is quite a feat. Members have to be active duty soldiers in the Army, have (or be willing to complete) at least 150 hours of airborne school, and have performed 100 military or civilian free-fall jumps. Each year between 15 – 25 soldiers try out, and only half of those make it after a grueling six days of both mental and physical tests sometimes starting before dawn and lasting well into the night.
“We are able to jump, pack up our parachute, and then talk to people about what being in the Army is really like. I love being able to talk to those 17 or 18-year-olds that are interested in joining the Army.” said Sloan. “When you are a Golden Knight you are not just representing the Army, you are representing the United States. The best thing about it is that I was able to go to school for free on the Montgomery GI Bill, get two degrees, and now I am working on my third.”
As one can imagine while doing anything as a civilian with the Army – there are a lot of rules. Rules about clothing, about what you can touch, and where to put your things. There are also rules about what happens if you get motion sick. Yes, whatever is on the plane stays on the plane including the contents of your barf bag. The only time I got nervous was when I was handed my motion sickness bag – I, the only female flying that morning besides the pilot, did not want to get sick on a plane full of men. Although there are currently two women in the Golden Knights, neither of them was on the team that I was flying with that day.
For about an hour prior to takeoff the soldiers prepared. They had a safety meeting, practiced stunts, and inspected the air craft, a Fokker F27 (C31 Alpha). Each had a pre-flight job to do and the mood was very focused. Once they were given the signal for takeoff there was a huddle, a chant, and we were off.
Once in the plane, the soldiers put on their gear which included a jump suit, helmet, and goggles. All were wearing special boots that protect their ankles and add extra cushion when landing. The team also had smoke canisters attached to their boots which are ignited during their descent. From a spectator’s point of view, the jumpers appear as small specks until they deploy their parachute or ignite their smoke canisters.
Flying at 14,000 feet next to an open exit door goes against everything you’ve ever been taught. We all ignore the flight attendants during their safety briefing on commercial flights, but I am 100% positive there is an entire section on what to do if the door opens. It was very windy and noisy which made communicating difficult and hand signals necessary. It was also cold. For every 1,000 feet of altitude it got 3-4 degrees colder.
The team had both high tech and low-tech ways to measure distance and conditions to their target, and once the conditions were perfect, they began jumping. It was stunning to see them each take off, and happened so fast I would have missed it had I not been filming. They are airborne for 50 seconds, and in that short amount of time are performing stunts with one Golden Knight holding the American flag during descent.
After the team was off the plane, we circled a few times and then landed. It was amazing to see these soldiers prepare and then execute with such precision. I was full of adrenaline and was just a spectator, but for them it was just another day on the job.
“I love what I do. I feel lucky that this is my job, and I get to call these guys my family,” said Sloan. “I didn’t plan for this to be my career, but I am lucky to a part of this tight knit unit.”
Photo Credit: Gabi De la Rosa