A day with the U.S. Army Golden Knights

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11515198305555.jpg’, ‘Photo by James Thompson’, ‘The U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team prepares to jump from 12,500 feet June 10 at the Southern Wisconsin Air Fest.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11515198435555.jpg’, ‘Photo by James Thompson’, ”);

A journey to 12,500 feet (and back) with U.S. Army Parachute Team

About a month ago, I was having a beer with my friend Jim Thompson, who happens to be a photographer with The Rock River Times. He told me he was covering the Southern Wisconsin Air Fest in June, and he would be flying on a plane with the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team. Jim asked if I’d be interested in joining him on the flight, and writing an article to accompany his pictures. I told him I needed time to think about it. He said: “What’s to think about? When will you get a chance to do this again?” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Saturday, June 10, we head out to the Air Fest. We’re scheduled for a debriefing at 10:45 a.m. to prepare for a 12:30 p.m. flight. We deal with several parking lot attendants who don’t know where we’re supposed to park (“All I know is you can’t park here”), eventually get our press credentials and find our way to the debriefing.

The debriefing takes place on the plane, a Fokker C31A, capable of carrying up to 50 fully-loaded paratroopers. Specialist Jared Zell is our “tour guide” as well as a jumper. He immediately tells us where to find the airsick bags. (I think lunch can wait until after we land.) He also mentions that the seat belts are good for 10,000 pounds (as an engineer, I can appreciate that safety factor), and if we need it, they can provide oxygen tanks. I don’t immediately grasp the weight of that last statement, until Jared tells us that the doors will be open during the entire flight. It will be loud, windy and very cold.

After the debriefing, I go out to get some pictures of the plane, while the jumpers proceed to munch on Subway sandwiches. Since it’s going to be cold up there, I go to my car to get a sweatshirt. I get back just in time—they’re about to take off! (I thought it was a 12:30 flight, but it’s a 12:30 jump.) They rush me onto the plane, strap me into my seat, and before I know it, we’re in the air. As the plane leaves the ground, the Knights are yelling “Ahhh!” with feigned looks of fear. This job obviously brings out the kid in everyone, and these guys love to clown around.

Looking out the open door, I can see the farms below and the Rock River. My hair and my camera strap are blowing in my face. Even with the earplugs, the roar of the engines and wind are overwhelming. Talking requires yelling in the ear of the person next to you. As we gain altitude, the ground looks like a colorful checkerboard with the Rock River snaking alongside. I’ve flown in commercial airliners without the slightest bit of queasiness, but I’ve never been 6 feet from an open door while in flight. I quickly learn not to look out the door during banked turns; look at the ceiling instead.

Before long, we’re above the low-level cumulus clouds. A glance at an altimeter tells me we’re at 5,000 feet. At that time, the Knights unstrap themselves and begin walking around the plane, often leaning out the open door to take a look at the ground. (I wonder whether anyone has ever fallen out by accident.)

As we climb, the temperature drops and the wind becomes fierce. We’re now at 8,000 feet, well above the stratus clouds. Jim tells me that we’ll reach 12,500 feet before the jump. I start to think about the thinning air, and now I understand why they said they’d bring oxygen if necessary. Around 10,000 feet, I begin to feel lightheaded due to lack of oxygen. The temperature is about 35 degrees. The Knight sitting to my left asks, “Getting cold?” Determined not to show any sign of weakness in front of 10 soldiers, I smile and reply, “No problem.” Between the lack of oxygen and the adrenaline rush, the cold doesn’t bother me at all. I’m not afraid of falling or crashing; I’m just hoping not to pass out or get airsick. Fear of embarrassment supersedes fear of death.

I’m watching the Knights as they pace up and down the aisle. Some are looking out the door, others are taking oxygen. (A lightheaded passenger is OK, but the jumpers need all their wits about them.) I can feel the tension mounting. The jumpers look like performers waiting in the wings before going on stage. One may have performed a play, song or jump hundreds of times, but it’s never routine. And amid all the joking, let’s remember that jumping out of a plane at an altitude of 2.5 miles is dangerous. I see no fear in the Knights, but a definite sense of anticipation. If my own adrenaline meter is high, theirs must be off the scale.

Finally, the altimeter shows 12,500 feet. It’s below 30 degrees—as cold as a walk-in freezer. As we approach the jumping point, they tell us the plan. One man (Steve) will jump first, then the plane makes a dry run while he completes his jump. When Steve reaches the ground, he’ll pick up a microphone and tell the crowd what the other jumpers are doing. After the dry run, the other 10 Knights will jump together. The lone jumper is ready to go, but he gets a signal from the crew chief: “No jump—we’re taking a dry run.” The soldier next to me jokes, “Steve gets a little nervous, so we sometimes do an extra dry run for him.”

The team members are sharing high-fives like football players before a game. They check each other’s equipment to make sure their gear is securely attached. As Steve heads toward the door to make his jump, he shakes hands with all six reporters and says, “Thanks for flying with us.” (He’s thanking us?) “Thanks for taking us,” I reply. Steve gets the signal, and without hesitation he’s out the door.

I look down the aisle and see one jumper wearing a helmet-mounted camera, an eyepiece and a microphone. He’ll be recoding the jump for posterity. (Some jump videos are available at their Web site, www.armygoldenknights.com.) He and the rest of the team head toward the door, and in a flash, they’re gone. All that remains on the plane are six reporters and three non-jumping crew members.

Our descent is, to say the least, rapid, like a roller coaster after its initial climb. At some point, my stomach repositions itself into its proper location, my ears clear, and I can see the runway ahead. Moments later, we are on the ground. As we depart the plane, the crew chief says, “Hope you enjoyed the flight.” Ah, a true gift for the understatement!

In closing, let’s remember that while this team has fun at work, they are still fully trained soldiers. Today, they are jumping into air shows, but they’re also prepared to jump into a battlefield if the need arises. So thanks, gentlemen, not only for the ride, but for much more.

From the June 28-July 4, 2006, issue

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