Photos & Story by Tom Demerly, Jan Mack with Assistance from Lance Riegle & Eric Hanson.
Thanks to: U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team.
I’m freezing, maybe airsick and questioning the buckle that stands between me, an open door and 12,500 feet of oblivion. I’m also one of the only people on this aircraft with no parachute.
It’s early morning, Sunday, 4 September and we are two miles above the Burke Lakefront Airport on Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio with the U.S. Army Parachute Team, The Golden Knights. I sit a couple feet from the open cargo door of a U.S. Army Fokker C-31A Troopship. It is one of only two in Army inventory. Yesterday the other one made an emergency landing here on one engine. I’m hoping this one does better.
Our aircraft has spiraled above Burke Lakefront Airport climbing to 12,500 feet to open the 2016 “Roar Over The Shore” Cleveland Airshow. The U.S. Army Parachute Team, The Golden Knights, will put on a freefall and canopy relative work demonstration later today. Right now we’re performing what is the most important ritual of any airshow around the world- we’re jumping our country’s flag in to open the show as our national anthem plays.
Sergeant First Class Jennifer Espinosa from Thousand Oaks, California will open today’s airshow by jumping in the flag for over 100,000 spectators as our national anthem is sung on the ground.
For anyone who has ever been to a major sporting event or airshow, this is a huge moment; A massive hushed crowd, hands on their hearts, hats in their hands, eyes turned skyward as Sgt. Espinosa plummets at 180 MPH from 12,500 feet to deploy her square canopy steerable parachute. She will open her parachute exactly on the opening notes of The Star Spangled Banner, and, with military precision, her foot will hit the ground on the closing note, snatching the unfurled flag before it can hit the ground in a ritual that dates back to the earliest U.S. airshows.
Me, I’m not quite as squared away as Sgt. Espinosa. Even though I have more than a handful of military parachute jumps I haven’t been in a jump aircraft in over 20 years. I’m also a trifle edgy being next to an open aircraft door with no parachute. Put a ‘chute on my back, I’m fearless. Give me a seatbelt buckle that look like it belongs on the Enola Gay, and I’m a bit pensive about leaning out an open aircraft door while looking through a postage stamp viewfinder into a 150 MPH wind blast to get just the right shot.
Back on the ground prior to our flight we met with the Golden Knights media liaison. He provided a detailed safety briefing for our flight. Two other reporters, one from a newspaper and one from a local radio station, are joining us.
“No loose equipment. We can’t have anything near the open door of the aircraft. We’ll secure your cameras to the aircraft for you if you don’t have an adequate harness for them.” The sergeant tells us during the safety briefing.
“What about me?” I ask the man with the precise haircut, black Golden Knights T-shirt and shorts with Adidas GSG-9 jump boots on.
“You’ll be fine, you’re tied in…”
Our Fokker C-31A Troopship is, as it turns out, meticulously maintained. Both engines turn without fault as the flight crew spiral upward above the restricted airspace called the “airshow box” to jump altitude. We climb to an interim jump altitude, deploy streamers to gauge wind direction and speed, then continue our ascent to jump altitude at 12,500 feet.
It’s cold up here. I’ve got on a heavy insulated Arcteryx LEAF military parka, a hat and Nomex flight gloves. The Golden Knights are wearing only team shorts and T-shirts under their jumpsuits. “We’ve jumped when it was -30° Fahrenheit up here. This is tropical!”
This is a reality check that military aviation isn’t all about flashy Hollywood movies and Kenny Loggins songs. What these guys and girls are doing is tough, often uncomfortable, sometimes scary work. But even at altitude in cold, rapidly thinning air they move with measured precision and relaxed demeanor. Whether it’s an airshow demonstration jump with the Golden Knights or Rangers jumping into a drop zone in Afghanistan military parachuting is demanding and unforgiving.
Jumpers “rig in the air”, a ritual of donning jumpsuits and parachutes that can be difficult even on a much larger, crowded C-17 Globemaster filled with members of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division or one of the Ranger battalions, who parachute into crisis areas around the world as the “President’s 911”. Operational Army parachute operations are often conducted under the cover of darkness, the interior of jump aircraft bathed in an eerie red light that does not compromise paratroopers’ night vision.
Inside our C-31A Troopship there is bright sunlight and room to move for the Golden Knights. They don freefall parachute rigs with safety deployment devices. Each jumper carries two parachutes, a main and a reserve, except for one jumper who wears three parachutes to demonstrate how jumpers deploy a reserve parachute in the rare instance of a parachute failure.
Accidents are rare in parachuting, and even more uncommon among elite parachute teams like the Golden Knights, but skydiving as with all aviation is inherently unforgiving. On August 17, 2015, 32-year-old Sgt. First Class Corey Hood, of Cincinnati, Ohio, a member of the Golden Knights, died when he collided with a member of the U.S. Navy parachute team, the Leap Frogs, at the Chicago Air and Water Show. SFC. Hood was likely knocked unconscious in the midair collision with the U.S. Navy jumper. His reserve parachute was deployed by an automatic safety device at a pre-programmed safe altitude, but Sgt. Hood collided with a building during his descent and did not survive.
The team deploys a series of lightweight, brightly colored streamers from the aircraft. As the streamers unfurl at altitude they drift on the prevailing winds. The Golden Knights watch out the open cargo doors, following the path of the streamers as they descend to determine the best release point over their target, a large fabric “X” at show center in front of the crowd line. Jumpers use a series of hand and arm signals to the flight crew in the cockpit to make last minute adjustments in the aircraft’s position over the drop zone.
The Golden Knights are consummate “sky gods”, the term reserved for skydivers with hundreds, or thousands, of freefall parachute jumps. They have trained in military, freefall and competition skydiving with many of the Golden Knights competing in international parachute competitions. Some are from the special operations community, but others come from the regular army, reflecting the diversity that makes up the U.S. Army as well as the opportunity available in the modern Army. Since the Golden Knights were activated on June 1, 1961 the team has performed over 15,000 shows around the world jumping into airshows, sporting events and other public appearances. As an international team, they have performed in 48 countries around the world. Some of their shows have over a quarter million spectators.
The view out the jump doors of the aircraft is spectacular. You don’t get this sense of flight inside an airliner locked behind thick plastic windows; the vaulting euphoria of altitude. The wind howls outside our C-31A’s large jump doors, the horizon tilting wildly as we spiral above the drop zone. It is brilliant outside, cold and blue with Lake Erie and all of Cleveland sprawling below us. The Blue Angel F/A-18s parked two miles below us look like souvenir toy planes sold by vendors at the airshow. Any fear of falling is replaced by the euphoria of being free, detached from the ground, skimming air and seeming to defy physics. This is flying, not just riding inside an airplane. I remember now, decades later, why young men and women volunteer to jump from a “perfectly good airplane”. However ephemeral flight may be, this is freedom. It is no wonder our youth, and even a middle-aged veteran, are inspired by flight and by parachuting. In every way, it is a miracle of our intellect to have- at least temporarily- defeated gravity.
Sgt. Espinoza kneels next to the jump door, glancing forward toward the cockpit, gesturing to make small corrections. Even from two miles high getting over the release point is a relatively precise affair. I feel the tail of the C-31A skid slightly with minor corrections from the rudder pedals.
She waves her arm back and forth in a rhythmic cadence above the engine noise: “Ready! Set! Go!”
Sgt. Espinoza is a blur, launching out the left side cargo door and rendering a sharp salute in midair for a split second as the 140+ MPH wind blast and gravity take her. It’s bizarre- she just vanishes.
Below us Sgt. Espinoza achieves a stable freefall position and spots her target. An altimeter on her wrist unwinds as her altitude drops and she reaches terminal velocity, the maximum speed a jumper in her body position can achieve, about 130-180 MPH. She steers her body in freefall toward an “X” on the ground at show center. On a silent que she deploys her parachute. “Ohhh, say can you see….”
The United State flag unfurls as her canopy opens. All of Cleveland sees her display from below, but only a couple of us get to experience it from 12,500 feet. If you love aviation, this is church. We kneel at the altar of the sky.
We will fly one more race track pattern at this altitude before releasing the rest of the team, a mass jump where the Golden Knights herd out the jump door as though they are one long caterpillar. Despite the remarkable view I’m glad we only have one more pass. It is getting cold up here. The jumpers will beat us to the ground by a substantial margin. We’ll be cold for a few more minutes as we make our descent back to the airfield.
One jumper, the designated cameraman wearing a full size video camera, grabs the rear door jam of the jump door and swings outside the plane, hanging on to the outside of the aircraft as the other jumpers crowd the exit. I make sure nothing I am wearing is snagged on any of them, as fun as it looks, I don’t want to join any of them going out the door.
Jumpers exit from both sides of the aircraft. Some track away in freefall, while others conduct “relative work”, building a formation of jumpers holding on to each other as smoke streams from smoke grenades rigged to a special mount on their boots. The sky is filled with falling bodies, red smoke trailing some of their feet, others clustered together in a symmetrical formation.
The mass exit happens so quickly, less than a few seconds, that it seems odd to be inside the aircraft with no jumpers. Suddenly it’s just us reporters, gawking at each other with huge grins until we realize we need to check our cameras to see if we got just the right shot. I mostly made sure my focus and exposure were right and held the button down.
Part of the demonstration is a tricky aerial maneuver called “canopy relative work”. Two or more jumpers meet in midair, one jumper placing his feet in the risers of the other man’s parachute. It’s a tricky formation since the upper parachute can steal lift from the lower ‘chute if forward velocity isn’t maintained. The two jumpers steer as one toward the ground, separating at the last instant before making a standing landing on the “X” as they turn back into the light wind.
On the ground the team lands perfectly centered on the crowd line. Unlike the big jet team acts like the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, are more accessible to the crowd. They land, gather up billowing parachutes, walk to the crowd line and shake hands and distribute postcards, often signing autographs to wide-eyed kids.
Back in the jump aircraft we’ve spiraled back down to the airport. On que with the announcer our Fokker C-31A Troopship makes one low, fast pass in front of the crowd line. A colorful crowd over 100,000 strong flashes by the open jump door. One more circuit and we are down, taxing past the Blue Angel FA-18’s on the way to the parking ramp on the airfield.
Flying with the U.S. Army Golden Knights provided an insight into the precision, rigors and skill of a military airshow demonstration team. More importantly, it provided a glimpse into the difficulties of military parachuting. Take our show jump, done over an open drop zone on a sunny weekend in front of thousands of thrilled spectators and change the setting to a black night over an unfriendly country where the drop zone is difficult, uneven terrain and the people on the ground aren’t cheering spectators. That is what U.S. Army Airborne forces train for. Today we got a convenient glimpse of how demanding those operations are.