The Clouds with the
US Army's Golden Knights Parachute Team
How do you describe the indescribable?
How would you explain to a friend who's never seen a cell phone how you're able to talk to someone halfway around the world from your car?
Imagine the clean air smell after a thunderstorm. Now try to tell someone about it.
As part of the 2003 Vectren Dayton Air Show presented by Kroger, the Army's Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, enable six lucky media representatives each day to experience almost everything about what it's like to jump out of an airplane above the clouds. Everything except the jump itself. Now, they would've let me jump, but couldn't guarantee a parachute. I decided to stay in the plane.
First, let's talk about the old myth about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 10,000 feet. One of today's jumpers explained it this way: "I've got two parachutes." Hmmm. We've got one plane. Who's safer? I guess it's a matter of interpretation.
From the first minute we arrive at the plane, everyone involved tried to make us feel like what they (and as a result we) were about to do was completely normal.
Except for the warning about my sinuses. It was made absolutely clear to me that there could be big pain ahead if I went up and my sinuses weren't working properly. Something about a blow-out. Hmmm.
But, they didn't know the whole story. You see, 23 years ago I was scheduled to go up with the Navy's Blue Angels here at the Dayton Air Show. It
was all set, and I was about to go to the planes when I was presented with a dilemma. At the time I was working for a radio station, and they needed me back at the station. Right away.
So I talked it over with myself. The chance of a lifetime on one hand. The obligation to my job on the other. I suddenly had two very heavy hands!
I asked friends who were also at the show what they would do, and got lots of advice. But it was my choice. I had about 10 minutes to decide, and it seemed like 10 seconds.
I went to work, and someone else got the ride with the Blue Angels. I've thought many times about whether I made the right choice. I think I did.
Now fast-forward 23 years. I had another decision to make. There's something about a "chance of a lifetime." It usually involves a decision to proceed. Sometimes, it's obvious. But how many times do we face a "chance of a lifetime," and not even know it?
I'm not the only one with a story on this plane, though.
As we begin taxing the guy with the video camera across from me tells his story. He says, "I'm not supposed to be here!" You see, three months ago Gerard Gallick was suffering from a blood poisoning disease, and was unable to move his arms or legs, and thought he was not long for the world.
Then a friend at his church began to pray for him, and within 3 days, he had started to recover, and in 5 days was pretty much back to normal! From unable to move, to zipping the LONG zipper in his flight suit, preparing to pierce the clouds with a metal tube, from which 10 U.S. Army Golden Knights team members will soon begin a show for those on the ground at the Air Show.
Sometimes three months can seem like a blink of an eye.
Today, he is holding two video cameras for viewers at a public television station in Cincinnati. Gerard lives in New Hampshire, but they invited him to come to Dayton because they admired his ability to tell a story with a camera.
So our plane begins to pick up speed, and we realize this is it. No more chances to change our mind. And a secret thought runs through my mind: do they have a bathroom on board? It doesn't matter, since we are strapped in, and will remain that way until "the airplane comes to a complete stop." Of course they've thought of some things we'd just as soon not. They've handed out earplugs (highly recommended!) and an envelope. It's not for writing a letter home, though. It contains the airsickness bag that we hope not to use.
There's a slight bump, and the ground gets further and further away.
The show hasn't really begun though. We have several thousand feet to go before we reach altitude. Before long, it becomes clear that we are going in large, upward circles around the airport.
Lots of things go through my mind. How can I best show you what I'm feeling? I look around, and do the instinctive thing. I take a picture out the window. Except this is a window without glass. For those of you that have flown on a commercial airliner, or have seen a picture of the President departing Air Force One, you probably have an image in your mind of what a plane looks like. But, this plane has the doors at the back of the fuselage.
From where we are sitting, you can get turned around. Since we are sitting by the door, it feels as if this is the front of the plane. At least until you look out the door and see the edge of the rear wing.
While we on the ground, we were convinced to put on a flight suit, since most of us media types have on short sleeve shirts. (It IS the Vectren Dayton Air Show, after all, with a long history of being hot and humid.) They tell us that at altitude it will be about 10 degrees. A side benefit is the flight suit makes us look so... official. So we suited up, and have been a little warm since. The team members have the advantage of movement, and are just now getting into their flight suits.
As you look around the cabin, the faces tell a variety of stories. Laughter on one, deep meditation on another. Calm reassurance is in evidence at the far end of the cabin. At this end, by the door, are gathered a group that doesn't feel quite so at ease. At least, that's what the faces say. But speaking only for myself, I suspect it has more to do with not wanting to miss anything than a feeling of fear.
Things are beginning to happen more quickly now, as we gain altitude. We've passed through the cloud layer, and the view is spectacular. Everywhere you look, it's like a picture post card come to life, with the afterglow of a terrific fireworks display in your chest.
Team members from time to time come back to the door and lean out and look down. I try to imagine why. Checking the clouds? Looking at something on the plane? Testing the wind? I'm still not exactly sure.
The team members are amazing the way the move about the cabin. The pilot has been slowly rocking the plane back and forth as we climb. He's not trying to test our stomachs, it's to allow us to get a better view out the door. After a while I got used to it, and was able to almost predict when a team member would come to the door to check things out. (I remember thinking, "Well, it is back to level, so something must be up.")
Now I'm no stranger to air flight. I've flown many commercial flights in my life, and have even been fortunate enough to experience the rear seat in a small private plane, and flown in a helicopter. But this is special. It is a group experience, rather than a personal experience. It involves more than just those on this airplane, too. There are thousands of people on the ground who are waiting for the Golden Knights to "fall from heaven," and create patterns in the air. They do this using small canisters attached to their shoes.
It's hard for me to imagine they'd remember to turn it on, since I'd be more concerned with the little rope that controls the parachute. But these men and women have trained well, and performed this so often, it is second nature. They jump out of planes and draw in the sky as easily as most of us get in the car and go to the market.
As we circle, the airport becomes a recurring companion. Each time around it becomes a bit smaller, and soon I am able to see the entire width of the airstrips within the frame of the door. It's another reminder that we're nearing "the time."
Team member SSG Paul Sachs has told us that once they are ready they'll gather near the door, and in a matter of a few seconds they'll be gone. I go through the list of what I want to do as they are leaving. Number one is get lots of pictures. So is number two, three and four. Have you ever tried to take pictures with a video camera in one hand and a still camera in the other? I have, and it doesn't work all that well. But in this case, the trade off is worth it.
The signal is given: "15 seconds." Very calm and matter of fact. But with a twinge of excitement hiding, suppressed by their professionalism.
So they gather by the door, and in a flurry of activity, they all begin to jump. And he was right, in a few seconds, they are out of my sight. My seat is second to the door, so I can't really look down, and I have a second to reflect on what is happening. We have just witnessed the U.S. Army's Golden Knights Parachute Team begin another show.
The mission of the Golden Knights is more than entertainment though. They are also hoping to inspire young men and women on the ground to choose the U.S. Army as a way of life. The men and women who just jumped out of this plane are leading by example. By making an extraordinary event seem easy, they demonstrate what discipline and teamwork can do. It is a measure of how good they are.
We "drift" back to Earth, anxious to share this experience with others. And that, after all, is part of their mission, too.
I seem to remember that after we landed they said the decent rate was 3,000 feet per minute. But that wasn't important.
As we descend through the clouds, I begin to think of the events of the last few minutes, and how I can put them into words.
Now, let's see, how do you describe the warmth of the sun...
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