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First let me say that I have always respected and appreciated the men and women of the US Army, and yet again they did not cease to amaze me. While many from “Gold Team” recently served in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan they seemed very comfortable as part of the US Army Parachute Team, fondly named the Golden Knights.
The Strategic Army Command Parachute Team or STRAC was formed back in 1959 by 19 airborne soldiers from various military units. This team would go in in 1961 to be recognized as the United States Army Parachute Team one of only three authorized DoD arial demonstration teams along with the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels. (and we have two of the three here at the Air Show this year!)
The Golden Knights have performed more than 16,000 shows in all 50 states along with 48 countries reaching more than 20,000 people per show. The 89 men and women who make up the Golden Knights are separated into eight sections – two demonstration teams (Gold and Black), a tandem team, three competition teams, and aviation detatchment and a headquarters section.
Well, we were not entirely briefed on what was going to happen during the media ride because of time constraints, so some of these items came as quite a surprise. I first entered the plane and sat down in a web seat next to a big door. SSG Reece Pendelton ran through a bullet list of information prior to take-off. The standard stuff. This is where the doors are, if you get hypoxia and start to act and feel funny we will pump some O2 into you, if you get sick please do so in the bag provided and finally please sign the release just in case something incredibly bad happens.
The seat next to the gaping wide hole in the C-31A troopship was made of lightweight webbing and SSG Pendelton buckled me in, reminding me that the belt is the only thing that will keep me inside the plane while in flight. Check and double check. As the team began to get their gold colored jumpsuits and black chute packs on the plane taxied down the runway. What a strange feeling it is to be taking off in a plane without all the doors and windows buttoned up!
Up, Up and Up
13,000 feet to be exact. And while we were briefed to bring a jacket for the flight I really didn’t believe that I would need it. I soon learned I was very wrong. Apparently for ever 1,000 feet you climb away from the earth surface you lose 3 degrees of heat. So in my head i did the math. Ground temperature was 96F. We were at 13,000 feet. Subtract 39 degrees and you get 57F. Well then we were travelling about 300MPH. I would estimate that with the wind chill it was about 30F at that altitude. I had a hard time working my camera because my fingers were so cold.
The Golden Knights worked as a team to both spot ground markers and then relay that information to the pilot who has very little to go on the way of ground location. Unlike a modern bomber where pilots have ground guidance and radar, this plane was literally guided to ‘center stage’ by eyeballing the markers and then relaying that information to the pilot (something akin to 5 degrees starboard) What an amazing feat. Some of the seasoned parachute demonstrators will log 500-600 jumps a year! That’s more than twice a day!
You could tell that each member of the Golden Knights had a different way of preparing for the jump. Some of them paced, others got really quiet and stoic, while some others joked and cut-up with other teammates. While they do jump out of planes ALL THE TIME, you can tell that they all still recognized the brutally honest risk of jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet, releaasing their chute and then letting off incendiary devices (think taping bottle rockets to your feet) as they decended to the ground.
The time had come
The flight chief relayed information for the team to jump. The all huddled near the opening of the plane and grappled parts of the webbing that made up their suits. It almost looked like a tightly packed ball of humanity rolling out of the plane at the same time. They had practiced this hundreds of times and performed it even more than that, which made the actual jump part of this ride so unchallenging to observe. In just a second they were sucked out of the plane in free fall, plummeting to earth.
Thank you Golden Knights
While it is easy to get caught up in how amazing the aircraft are at the Vectren Dayton Air Show, it really is the strength, commitment and fearlessness of our men and women in uniform that protect this nation and keep her safe. Thanks goes out to the United State Army Golden Knights for their hospitality and the once in a lifetime experience watching the Knights defy all that is ordinary to put on a performance that is so extraordinary.