Stories by Kevin Burke, Photos by Kevin Burke and Ian Langworthy
I attended the joint Base Andrews Air and Space Expo in September with the son of one of my air show friends, Ian Langworthy a future contributor to Photorecon.net and sister publications.
I made sure that we both noted on the media application form that we would be interested in any media flights with the US Army Golden Knights Parachute Team.
A week or so before the show I received a phone call from the Media Operation Section Chief of the 316th Wing Public Affairs, Ms Kylene Yumul asking if Ian and I would be interested in flying on the jump plane for the Golden Knights.
Without hesitation I said YES!
We went over a few details and she told me where we would need to be at 11:35 Friday morning.
Fortunately for Ian and I we had driven down to Joint Base Andrews on Thursday, so by Friday morning we were well rested and eager to get on base to get some photos of static aircraft and be ready for our flight. Waking up to a beautiful cloudless sky was a good sign that Friday was going to be a great day.
We got on the base early, and were on the flight line with enough time to get the photos we wanted to get. The ramp at Joint Base Andrews is quite large, so we planned to go to the opposite end of where we needed to be for the 11:35 meet up location and work our way back so as our show time approached, we were also moving closer to where we needed to be.
I didn’t have to keep an eye on the time; Ian seemed to be checking the time every 45 seconds.
We made our way to the Golden Knights Team at their plane, a De Havilland Dash 8, designated a C-147A and let them know who we were.
We were told they were waiting for two more passengers and then we will go on the plane to sign a waiver and get a preflight briefing, then we will come off the plane, and we will be waiting for GO time while the team does a dry run-through of their routine.
While some of the team ate lunch, we were able to watch one team member attach the Prisoner of War Flag to his parachute and methodically repack the parachute.
During the briefing we were asked if we have ever been on a plane that takes off and lands with the door open. I have a feeling finding out the door is left open for the entire flight may have changed the minds of a few potential passengers….
We were told they would be putting the passengers next to or across from that open door, this may have also changed a few minds.
We were also told that once you get in your seat and latch the seat belt, DO NOT TOUCH THE SEAT BELT, DO NOT TOUCH THE SEAT BELT, DO NOT TOUCH THE SEAT BELT, until the plane has stopped and propellers stop turning. (This was repeated many times, and each time it was said, it was said three times)
After the brief we observed the dry run-through the team did, and soon it was time to board the plane.
I told our briefer that I have flown with the team in the past so someone else should get the good seats.
I ended up next to the person sitting next to the open door.
That seat right next to the door must be a great spot for taking photographs, because that passenger’s camera ended up in almost every one of my photos.
Ian was seated across from the open door, in the second to last seat. I would say THAT was the best seat on the plane!
Although the temperature was about 80 degrees, we were told to have a sweatshirt, because it can be very cold at 10,500 feet, even colder when we briefly climb to 12,000 feet. Our briefer told us that there will be less oxygen at that altitude and if we do not feel right in any way to let someone know, at ANY altitude. We were also handed barf bags and told to remember the briefing even if we get sick, (DON’T TOUCH THE SEATBELT, times 3), DO NOT try to deposit your stomach contents out the open door, ” what comes on the plane with you, leaves the plane with you”.
Before we knew it engines were running and then I remembered my least favorite part of the flight, being dressed for 40 degrees when it’s actually 80 and the only airflow coming in through the open door before we started moving was the hot engine exhaust. Thankfully we started to taxi, or slowly move toward the end of the runway to prepare for take-off.
Sitting one empty seat away to my left was one of the Golden Knights. Just after we started moving he got my attention and asked me for Ian’s name. I gave it to him and he hurriedly called across to Ian, saying “Ian, I need you to do me a favor, I need to switch seats and come over to this empty seat!”
All I was thinking was, “DONT TOUCH THE SEATBELT”
The team member asking Ian to do this seemed like for some reason he REALLY needed Ian to switch his seat.
I felt so bad for Ian because I knew he respects everyone in the military and regardless of getting a free flight, if a member of the military tells him to do something, he is going to comply. I tensed up as I watched Ian think about what to do and then he said, “I can’t touch the seatbelt”.
The serious look on that Golden Knight jumper changed to a smile, and he gave Ian a thumbs up. The jumper then told me that was a common prank they pull on a lot of their flights with passengers. If Ian had reached for his seat belt the whole team would have been yelling, ” NOOO!”
We took off and smoothly climbed up to about 2,000 feet to drop the streamers out to check the strength and direction of the winds.
Then we continued to climb in circles until we were at 10,500 feet and it was our turn in the show box. Our prankster actually was a team leader, Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Robbins and was constantly looking out the door at the target and directing the flight crew where he wanted them to shift the orbit center.
There were so many things to experience on the plane from the songs playing on the radio that was strapped into a seatbelt, like locker room get psyched up music, to the ritual motions the team goes through.
I was able to capture a few interesting still photos from my perspective. Luckily Ian was doing double duty taking photos and videos at the same time.
Some jumpers exited simply by stepping out of the plane, one sat down in the doorway, facing in, and did a back flip, while holding his nose. One jumper climbed onto the fuselage behind the doorway in a “Mission Impossible” style.
It really was an unforgettable time. After the last jumper was out, we immediately started to nose dive and spiral down, even putting the landing gear down to increase drag and help slow our speed in the dive.
Usually, the Golden Knights jump plane does a high-speed low altitude pass before landing. Staying close to the ground setting up for the fast pass was the only bumpy part of the flight.
After the air show Saturday night Ian and I were having dinner nearby with fellow Photorecon contributor Dan Myers and noticed a young man at the table across from us wearing a US ARMY Golden Knights shirt. When he and his family and friends were done eating we confirmed he was on the team and thanked him for a great show. When we didn’t recognize him, he said, “I was the one who was KICKED out the door!” Ian and I simultaneously remembered that moment and said, “Oh Yeah!”
We expressed our gratitude, and I told him Ian will never forget it.
Even after a long day, he was more than eager to answer any questions we had. Not wanting to take him from his family or friends, we just thanked him again and discussed body positioning as they exit the plane and he told us they only fly the American Flag once per day.
At the end of September, I once again had the pleasure of meeting up with the US Army Golden Knights.
Most people that go to air shows on a regular basis know that the Golden Knights have a black team and a gold team.
I certainly was not aware there is a third jump team of the Golden Knights.
This team is called the Tandem Jump Team. This team travels the country as part of the tandem orientation program. At this location in northeastern Massachusetts, at Lawrence Municipal Airport, the Tandem Jump Team was working in conjunction with US Army recruiters from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine to spread the word about the opportunities the Army offers by bringing reporters and social media influencers on Tandem Jumps.
I just happened to notice a social media post with a link to a news paper article. I was able to locate a phone number for a Point of Contact, and was invited to photograph the team, plane and jumpers.
I mentioned I would like to get on a flight if that was possible.
My contact explained that most flights each day involved two or three sets of tandem jumpers, and the Golden Knights cannot accommodate any passengers on those flights because of the jumpers being tethered in pairs, it would be too crowded. However, the first flight of the day normally has two jumpers who will test the winds and jumping conditions. There is usually room for passengers, but how many is determined by the Golden Knights. I was invited to be in the briefing for the jumpers, and if the Golden Knights did not have room on the flight I was welcome to hang around and watch/photograph.
There were about twelve jumpers in the briefing, held in a hangar using a purpose built entertainment center with a large screen television showing photos and videos of the Golden Knights.
The video, and the Golden Knight giving the briefing, SSG Dusty Gebhardt explained that there is risk involved, and the jumpers had to sign a waiver.
SSG Gebhardt explained all the parts of the tandem harness and parachute, including mentioning that the reserve parachute takes two hours to repack!
The jumpers were told, “You will be in a yellow suit, you will look like a banana, we will need you to BE like a banana, you will need to bend yourself backwards and curve yourself just like a banana.”
The jumpers were told how they need to position themselves when exiting the plane, and how to position their legs when landing.
The ideal way to land is for both the instructor and jumper to land on their behind, and slide to a stop, keeping their legs up.
Roughly half-way through the briefing I was tapped on the shoulder and told I was good to go!
Having flown with the Golden Knights just a few weeks prior, it was a tremendous rush for me to fly with them again practically in my own back yard. Lawrence Airport is about a twenty five minute drive for me.
I had to sign a waiver and get another briefing with three other riders, and although it was not repeated three times, it was definitely stressed, DON’T TOUCH THE SEATBELT!
The Twin Otter used for the tandem jumps is considerably smaller than the Dash 8 the Gold Team was using at the Andrews Air Show, yet it was just as efficient in getting up to jump altitude, 10,500 feet. It also was just as smooth.
One difference is the Twin Otter has a roll up/down door. On the flight with me was the Airport Manager, who later offered to escort me to the grass infield at the center of the airport where the jumpers would land. Only one jumper got sick and just needed time to get his bearings straight. All of the others were over the top still flying on adrenaline with smiles from ear to ear with more “thank you Golden Knights” than I could count!