It’s the end of an era for the US Army Golden Knights Parachute Team and airshow spectators across the country; following 34 years of service, the team’s last C-31 Troopship has flown her final jump run with the team!
Bearing the name “Excalibur” but more commonly known as “Golden Knight 608” after her tail number, the aircraft wrapped up performances this fall before returning to the team’s home base at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Her sister ship, “Ambassador” AKA “Golden Knight 607”, was retired in September 2018 and already resides at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. Both aircraft have been autographed by team members and passengers inside as a farewell.
I was fortunate enough to take one final C-31 ride with the Golden Knights during the Cleveland National Airshow in Ohio, where the jumpers of the Black Team invited me on board during a morning mass jump. Unfortunately the wind direction kept our holding pattern mostly over Lake Erie, but the large open doors – one on each side – still provided a thrilling vantage point to observe downtown Cleveland and watch the highly trained soldiers free fall toward the crowd below.
The C-31 is better known to civilians as the Fokker F-27 Friendship, a Dutch-manufactured twin turbo-prop airliner that first flew in 1955 and saw wide success with airlines. Both C-31s entered service with the Golden Knights in 1985 and have been mainstays of the show circuit ever since. GK608 alone has flown over 17,000 flight hours with the team in support of an estimated 600,000 freefall jumps during her career.
The C-31s are being replaced by more modern Dash 8-300s, which in Army service are designated C-147As. The flight crew on my Cleveland flight explained that the newer aircraft offer improved performance, comfort, and reliability compared to the older airframes they replace. Many casual observers likely won’t even notice the difference as the external appearance and paint scheme are very similar, but the C-147s feature a jump door on only one side. Fittingly, the new aircraft carry the numbers 609 and 610.
Following retirement, GK608 was put up for sale by the Army and purchased by the Flying Dutch Cultural Heritage Foundation in the Netherlands. As of this writing, she is being prepared for the flight over to Europe. No firm plans for her future have been announced, but it seems likely that she will continue flying for spectators into the future.
Thank you to the US Army Golden Knights and the Cleveland National Airshow for facilitating one last flight!