After circling over Dayton, Ohio for 20 minutes, a jumper yells “HOT TARGET!” Having carefully watched streamers show them the intensity of the winds and having also monitored the movements of the first jumper who carried the American flag, all of their checks were complete and one by one they jumped from 12,500 feet. In the blink of an eye, they’re hundreds of feet from the plane in free-fall. These are the US Army Golden Knights, the best of the best at parachute jumping.
Formed in 1959 by nineteen airborne soldiers, the team was originally known as the Strategic Army Corps Sport Parachute Team. It later became the Army’s official aerial demonstration team in 1961, and picked up the nickname Golden Knights in 1962. Over the last 53 years, the team has performed over 16,000 times in all 50 United States and 48 different countries. The airshow portion of the Golden Knights is comprised of two 12-member teams: the Gold and the Black teams, representing the colors of the US Army. Each team flies in a Fokker C-31A Friendship jump aircraft, the only two in the country. This year, it was the Black team that performed in Dayton.
Before the flight, each team member remained calm and relaxed. Some drank Gatorade and socialized with other team members, while others took quick naps in the back of the plane. As show-time drew near, they began their usual routine. One team member read off the briefing on a piece of laminated paper. When this was complete, they split off and began practicing their routine by walking through it on the grass. For the formation jumpers this involved locking arms and twirling in the grass just like they would in free-fall. For the solo jumpers: a short walk. Just before boarding the plane they grouped in a circle for some motivational words, like a sports team just before the big game. We took our seats in the plane, strapped in, and were ready to go.
They warned us that at the altitudes we would be flying at, hypoxia could become an issue due to the air becoming thinner. Ironically the worst air we inhaled was on the ground while the engines were started up and the pilots performed their checks. The doors stayed open for the entire operation, from pre-flight to landing. This meant the lovely smell of engine exhaust for a few solid minutes. Fresh air flowed into the fuselage as we taxied out and made our way to the runway where we took off without hesitation.
It didn’t take long into the flight for team members to start looking out the plane to analyze their jump. While members of the media were strapped in and instructed not to touch their lap belt until the plane had landed and the engines had stopped, the Golden Knights walked freely throughout the cabin. Some gazed out the door as the aircraft circled over the air-field. Some went near the cockpit to talk among themselves. Some used the bathroom tucked away in a small door in the aft end of the plane: a small cabinet-sized room smaller than a port-o-potty. How they managed that with a parachute backpack on is beyond me.
The team uses streamers to determine how the winds are behaving. They are lightweight paper attached to an aluminum rod, designed to fall at the same rate as the parachutes worn by the jumpers. Each jumper’s goal is to land on a small target about a foot in diameter for a “tip-toe” landing from as high as 12,500 feet. A team member throws the streamers out the door exactly over the target, and watches as they drift on their way down. If they drift one mile to the east, the team will aim to deploy their parachutes one mile to the west of the target so that the winds will naturally carry them right to it. Once they’re released, the aircraft banks into a continuous turn so that the streamers remain in sight. Even in banked turns, the jumpers crouch near the open door, carefully watching for the effects of the winds.
After the streamer drop, the aircraft climbed a few thousand more feet and soon the first jumper of the day was ready to go. As quick as a blink, the jumper saluted, hopped sideways, and was immediately pulled away by the wind. He activated the smoke canister attached to his boot almost immediately to help the spectators on the ground below follow his fall. With that, the show was officially kicked off! We continued to climb and eventually lost sight of the jumper, but a circle of smoke was clearly visible over the airfield: it was Matt Younkin’s Beech-18 circling him during the National Anthem. Once he landed he took the microphone and began narrating the rest of the team’s performance.
The temperature drops approximately 3-4 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet of altitude gained, meaning it was cold at 12,500 feet. On this particular June day in the mid-70’s, temperatures in the aircraft reached near or below freezing temperatures. The air is also noticeably thinner; I could feel myself taking deeper breaths than usual. Even with gloves on I began to breathe warm air onto my fingertips (although this was still nothing compared to the Michigan/Wisconsin winters I’ve grown used to). None of this seemed to phase any of the jumpers who would soon also face a 120 mph wind chill during free fall.
Above each door is a pair of lights: one red that reads “CAUTION” and one green that reads “DROP – JUMP”. Most of the flight featured a red light, but it changed to green as we neared the target on a hot run. The jumpers who weren’t sticking their heads out the door sat patiently in their seats just like us passengers. One Knight smiled at me and showed me his altimeter which read 12.5 (measured in thousands). Just like the first jumper, the remaining team members stood next to the door, gave a salute, jumped sideways, and were gone in the blink of an eye. We turned away to get ready for our descent and as I looked down at the airfield I saw four tiny dots with pink smoke trailing from them. I’ve watched many Golden Knights performances in the past but I’ve never looked down at them!
As we descended it got warm. Fast. We reached a point where the humidity hit us hard and fogged up all of our camera equipment. The warm and humid air was refreshing for a good five minutes, and then the winter coats we were wearing became quite uncomfortable. The jumpers obviously landed well before us and by the time we finished taxiing back the next airshow act was already in the air.
This year the Golden Knights will be performing at 26 shows/events. I hope you will be able to witness at least one performance! I would like to thank the team and the Dayton Airshow for allowing me the opportunity to fly with them and witness their performance up close. And, as they announce at the conclusion of each performance; May your days be prosperous, and your nights Golden!