2012 US Airshows

JUN 08 2012
Airshows >> USA: US Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are a regular feature of air shows and other appearances across the United States throughout the year. They are the US Army’s parachute demonstration team and are on the road throughout the year spreading the message of the possibilities of a career in the US Army. The events at which they appear can be major air shows or smaller local events as they try to cover as much of the country as possible.

Based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the team is actually quite large. There are actually two demonstration teams, the Gold Team and the Black Team. Gold and Black are the colours of the US Army. In addition, there are competition teams for various disciplines that participate in competitive sky-diving events around the world. It is the Gold and Black Teams that are the ones that most members of the public will be familiar with though.

Being based on the east coast means the teams have a lot of travel to get to the whole of the country throughout the year. Their travel is achieved courtesy of their jump ships. The last two Fokker F-27s off the line were acquired for the team, initially on lease but are now wholly owned. They are designated C-31 in Army service and provide support for moving the team as well as jumping into displays. Both aircraft are now showing signs of age and a replacement strategy will be needed in the next few years but they aren’t going away too quickly. Since they aren’t the fastest aircraft in the world, a trip across the country can take two days to achieve. However, the team members have become quite adept at finding ways to make themselves comfortable on the long transits.

The aircraft are equipped with two large jump doors, one on each side of the rear fuselage. This allows them to make a swift exit from the plane with a lot of jumpers in one go when required for the demonstration. These doors can be sealed quickly for transit flights to allow the aircraft to be pressurized. Different types of display can be flown and for some events two or more jumps will be made. These can involve formation free-fall, close canopy work, passing of a baton between jumpers in mid air, demonstration of a failed canopy (it is deliberately failed on one side, cut loose and a second canopy deployed) as well as precision landing. The team uses quite large canopies which allow them to land on target with virtually no forward speed.

In the run up to the display, the team will gather at the jump ship for the “dirt dive”. They will run through the type of jump involved, the positions that each team member will take up, how the manoeuvres will be performed and the directions each jumper will head off afterwards. Even though the team has been working together for many jumps, this process is done every time to make sure everyone knows their role for a given display. When the team talk is over and the little pre-jump traditions are undertaken, they will suit up to jump. Since jump altitude is 12,500’, there is quite a difference between ground temperature and at that altitude. The suits are not bad for this but it is still quite cool running up to the jump in the aircraft with the doors open and below freezing air temperatures. It seems a long way from the summer temperatures on the ground!

After take-off, the first task is the streamer drop. Crepe paper streamers, weighted with a metal bar are dropped at the altitude at which the chutes are supposed to be opened. This is about 3,000’. They are dropped directly over the target landing location. They are designed to descend at the same rate as a jumper under their canopy. This allows an assessment to be made of the wind direction and strength and this will be added to the final jump location to allow the team to end up back on target. Then it is time to climb on up to jump altitude.

The first person out will be the narrator for the rest of the jumpers. They will be the one to determine the jump location. The flight crew will have the location set in their GPS and will fly to the target. However, the jumper will be looking out of the open door and giving hand signals for line up adjustments. This can mean some quite quick direction changes on the final run in. A second jumper will be watching this process as they will then be responsible for the future runs since the narrator will be on the ground by then!

When the narrator is satisfied, the run will be live and they will stand up, snap a salute to the team and step sideways out of the aircraft. Then they are gone. They will descend to open the show and, if it is the beginning of the airshow, they will have a large American flag that hangs from them as they are under the canopy. This will be caught as they land and they will then take up the microphone to tell everyone in the crowd about the rest of the display.

The jump ship will then make further orbits as required to time the departures of the other jumpers with any position adjustments deemed necessary based on the previous jumps. If the group is going as one, only one other pass will occur. If there are several parts to the display, several orbits will be needed. Once everyone is away, it is a rapid descent back to the airfield for the jump ship – far more rapid than your everyday regional turboprop operations!

Once all of the jumpers are on the ground, they are introduced to the crowd and, if it fits with the overall show, the jump ship may make a low flyby. Then the team members will spend time with the crowd telling them about their work and career opportunities in the US Army.

The team is on the road a lot during the summer months particularly but, in talking to them it is clear that they really enjoy what they do. Many team members will stay long beyond the minimum three years they are required to do. The team is closely knit and they know how to have fun together. They need to. It is rare for someone to not fit in but if they don’t, it is a big hurdle to safety in what they are required to do so they can be removed if necessary. This doesn’t happen very often but it does happen. Being on the team is not particularly beneficial to an Army career. Those that want to progress in the Army will usually head back after their three years since more than that time out of the “real” Army will be a problem. The rest will stay as long as they enjoy it or until an alternative role in the Army presents itself outside the traditional career routes.

The Golden Knights are a regular feature of summer events throughout the United States. They are a very successful recruitment tool for the Army and are popular wherever they go. As they say at the end of each display, “May all your days be prosperous, and your “knights” golden!”

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