U.S. Army Parachute Team Takeoff
It takes a special kind of person to jump out of a moving airplane at nearly 14,000 feet, the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team will tell you.
For the adventurous souls that make up the unit’s Gold Demonstration Team, it’s something they do several dozen times a year. Still, each time the modified C-147A takes them above the clouds, the adrenaline-fueled excitement that fills the plane feels like lightning running through the veins of even casual on-board observers.
The award-winning demonstration and competition teams are based out of Fort Bragg, N.C. The demonstration teams perform at more than 100 events around the country per year. In more than 60 years in existence, the team, according to its website, has conducted more than 16,000 shows in 50 states and 48 countries, and has earned the U.S. Army nearly 4,000 combined medals in national and international competitions. Team members have also broken nearly 350 world records.
For the eight-person team, one of two demonstration teams the Golden Knights employ, the preparation begins long before the team takes to the air. Each of the team’s members has extensive skydiving training, and most have well over 1,000 free-fall sky dives under their belts.
In the hours before the team takes to the skies, the team runs through a “dirt dive,” an on-ground 15-20 minute walk-through of the intricately choreographed aerial routine.
As this takes place, civilians on-board are briefed on safety procedures dealing with a range of topics from safety restraints, to airsickness, to hypoxia, a common condition of low oxygen levels in the blood and tissues resulting from lower air oxygen levels present at higher altitudes. Sgt. Logan Maples said this condition is common, even in experienced jumpers. Because the plane’s jump door at the rear remains open from takeoff to touch-down, civilians on the flight are stringently instructed to remain buckled throughout the flight.
Whoops and shouts from the team echo through the 84-foot plane as the twin propeller engines roar to life. Once taxied, the plane is airborne in under a minute and air rushes through the open jump door. Buildings appear to become little more than board game pieces on the ground.
Once the plane takes to the air, much of the communication between team members is accomplished via hand and arm signals, as wind and the roar of the engines render verbal communication nearly inaudible, though shouted directions as well as occasional cheers can be heard through the plane as jump-time nears.
Once airborne, the plane goes into a series of wide upward corkscrew maneuvers, leveling out at different altitudes to test wind conditions. The goal is to determine at what altitudes conditions will be safe for the jumpers to exit the plane. Because wind speeds and directions can vary widely at different altitudes, the team takes detailed readings.
As the plane reaches higher altitudes, clouds that were once above are visible below the plane’s open door, and the fertile fields of Barton County become a vast checkerboard of shades of green and brown. Surrounding communities appear as little more than grids lined with buildings on the ground appearing as little more than specks. As the plane turns, communities from more than 20 miles away can be seen from the craft’s open door.
As the plane reaches jump altitude, temperatures of nearly 90 degrees on the ground give way to much-colder temperatures of around 40 degrees as the plane climbs to well over 10,000 feet. During Saturday’s jump, jumpers exited the plane at around 14,000 feet.
Two team members exit the plane ahead of the others, serving as narrator and videographer for the rest of the jumpers to follow.
Five other members soon follow as excitement reaches a fever pitch. Pre-jump tension and quiet preparation give way to raucous cheers and exhortations as the remainder of the jumpers gather at the open door, high-fiving and fist-bumping each other and the civilian passengers as they prepare to jump.
One by one, the jumpers disappear in the blink of an eye as they exit the plane and begin their decent. Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Robbins said in order for the jumpers to land at the prescribed site at the Great Bend Airport, they actually need to exit the plane several miles away from the airport, as the wind currents can carry the jumpers long distances.
In total, seven of the eight members of the team make the jump, while one remains aboard, calling out commands and guiding both the pilot and jumpers so the aerial acrobatics proceed safely. Once the jump is made, the plane is on the ground again within 5-10 minutes, following a stomach-churning tight corkscrew pattern much more rapid than the plane’s ascent. In all, from takeoff to touchdown, the plane is airborne for more than 45 minutes.
Descending from above, the seven airborne members of the team perform complex smoke-filled acrobatics as their gold-and-black parachutes carry them safely back to earth.