The Golden Knights
When the last airplane is put away and all the airshow fans hunker down for a long winter, life doesn’t take a break for the performers. Although there is usually a little time off, it is short lived as everyone starts gearing up for the next season. This applies as well to the U.S. Army Golden Knights as they head out to Yuma, AZ, the home of their Winter Training Headquarters. The first stage is to select the new members, which is not a simple task. During six or more weeks, those that have been accepted to tryout show up for what becomes a grueling and demanding session. Each applicant must have a minimum of 150 jumps and although once required to be enlisted army personnel, can come from any branch of service. They must however transfer into the Army if selected. Through these long weeks each person is judged by his peers who are current members of the team. After the tryouts, each new member of the team leaves with an additional 250-300 jumps, sometimes jumping as much as 15 times in just one day. In 2007 they set a record of 16-17 jumps in a single day and that is just the beginning of what must come before they even jump their first show.
In January-February, the team spends another six weeks in Yuma preparing and practicing for the upcoming show season. From early in the morning to late in the day they pack and jump only to repack and jump again adding 6-8 jumps to their logbook each day. The props on the airplanes are continually turning as they haul load after load of members of your United States Army Parachute Team “The Golden Knights.” There is very little rest as one team packs while the other is coming down from the sky. This continues as the teams alternate throughout the day. When training is over each member of the team has accumulated another 250 jumps. Between the Black and the Gold Team they will have made approximately 5,000 jumps during the Yuma training session.
The canopies the demonstration team uses are not made for speed, but for accuracy. And this is not more evident than when watching the endless target landings they make during training. Every landing is targeted to land in the center of the X and each landing is given a score between 0-5, 0 being both feet dead center. Every day they are scored and the Knight with the highest score is given laundry duty. This is not a simple task because after a day’s worth of jumps the suits are soaked with colored smoke. But it is crucial to make the point how critical these spot landings are and how imperative it is that they hit their mark every time, especially when jumping in tight venues such as a parking lot or ball games. Everything is practiced, over and over. What you see at the show is the final outcome of finely tuned and intensely rehearsed maneuvers. From numerous baton passes to countless canopy relative work, these solders know each and every maneuver at a skill level untouched by any other. Even the heart-stopping cutaway maneuver seems effortless as the Knight detaches the canopy only to deploy another. It is not just the jumped that must be rehearsed, but even the narration is gone over in detail. They have even enlisted the coaching of professional airshow announcer, Rob Reider to help them reach the pinnacle of perfection.
It is not just the Gold and Black team you will find in Yuma. Even the Tandem team is practicing through the day. The tandem team is another group of the Golden Knights that travels with them to give others, such as media personnel, the experience of falling through the air. Having smaller and faster canopies, they are located on the other side of the drop zone (DZ) in order to have a longer landing area. They too must continue to perfect their maneuvers and keep their skills at top form. Swooping in from the skies their approach is much different from the demonstration team. Their small canopies allow them to reach speeds up to 67 mph on final approach. This was a speed that was actually clocked during my visit to Yuma. Sliding in they make some of the most exciting landings you will see. Spending a week with the team was an experience I will treasure. They are soldiers first, and airshow performers second. They are a class act and incredible people to be around. You will not find a better group of people on the airshow circuit to represent our armed forces. The next time you are at a show and you seen the Golden Knights you will be watching a team that has perfected their skills and is all about showmanship and professionalism. I am truly proud and honored to have this group represent our country.
By Jane Wicker