DeKALB – Strapped into a fabric seat waiting for the go-ahead to jump out of an airplane thousands of feet in the air isn’t how most people spend their Saturday afternoon.
Most people would rather spend the afternoon cheering for the Northern Illinois University Huskies in the stands at their homecoming football game, not parachuting out of an airplane 3,500 feet in the air, about two-thirds of a mile high, to land on the field in time for the opening ceremony.
But members of the Golden Knights aren’t most people. The U.S. Army’s world-champion parachute team demonstrated its skills Saturday as members landed on Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium before the Huskies’ game against the Ohio University Bobcats. The demonstration commemorated the 50th anniversary of the NIUHuskie ROTCBattalion.
Team leader Sgt. 1st Class Keith Pierce was the first member of the team to land on the ground, for a “touchdown.” The homecoming game’s football was safely strapped across his stomach during his jump.
Other members of the Golden Knights parachuted with flags, including the American flag and the POW/MIA flag. Two jumpers joined together midfall to form a two-person-tall tandem formation.
Jumping from the plane and landing on the football field took about seven minutes, but preparation for the demonstration began hours earlier. Pre-jump preparation on the aircraft, the Fokker F27 Friendship, began almost two hours before the jump.
“We inspect the aircraft, fill and check liquids like oil and gasoline, clean windows and check weather and airspeed,” crew chief Brian Pronneke said. “The plane’s crew chief acts as the in-air liaison between the pilots, ground safety officers and the jumpers.”
Although the temperature on the ground was a slightly chilly,
45 degrees Fahrenheit, temperature drops about 3 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet above the ground. At 3,500 feet in the air, temperature is chillier than 30 degrees Fahrenheit – without the additional windchill.
“It’s chilly up there, and it can be quite dangerous,” pilot Edward Schemper said. “But our jumpers are well-trained, the equipment is top notch, and they have reserve parachutes. The sport of parachuting is inherently dangerous, but the Golden Knights are the best of the best. They know what they’re doing.”
Pierce said he has completed 1,541 free-fall parachute jumps, jumping almost every day. On training days, he jumps eight to 12 times a day.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and some people think that we’re crazy or adrenaline junkies,” Pierce said. “Personally, for me, it’s all about the challenge.”
But before their jump, the Golden Knights seemed as though they were about to ride an amusement park ride, not jump out of a plane. Most stood around and chatted nonchalantly. Some drank coffee, stretched or
prepared parachutes. Some even wore shorts.
After a cheer on the ground, the Golden Knights boarded the airplane and zipped into skydiving suits. After taking off and as time for their jump approached, they put on gloves, goggles and helmets. As the plane climbed to altitude, black and gold wind drift indicators were dropped, and the final preparations for the jump were calculated.
With five minutes to jump, the Golden Knights cheered, hooted and shook off nerves. Some looked out the open doors to survey the ground below. Others had huge grins on their faces, giving everyone high-fives and handshakes. Last-minute checks to shoelaces and the altitude were made. When it was time, they lined up in order.
Then they stepped one-by-one off the plane facing backward out of the plane’s two side doors. The wind quickly yanked them away from the plane and they became dots in the distance. Within seconds, they opened their parachutes, drifting down to the ground slowly and gently.
The Golden Knights were welcomed back down to the ground by the cheers of the crowd.
“Of course, there’s a little feeling of being nervous, but it’s also exciting,” Staff Sgt. Andy Sippl said. “Once you’re parachuting down, you can hear the crowd cheer as you get closer. It’s amazing. It’s such an honor to be able do this and to represent the U.S. Army.”
Pierce said that before the jump, all he felt was “cold.” The jump was the group’s first cold-temperature jump of the year, since they are based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“I always look forward to jumping,” Pierce said. “It’s such a great experience and a lot of fun. We appreciate being invited to attend the event, to be a part of the football game and homecoming celebration. We also appreciate the support everyone gives to the military, not just to us, but to all of the military who defend our freedom.”