PERRIS, Calif. — As our 737 jet crossed the western end of the Mojave Desert into southern California, blue skies gave way to a blanket of white clouds that seemed to swallow the San Bernardino Valley. Not ideal conditions for a proper tandem jump.
Brimming with anticipation, I had accepted an invitation weeks before to participate in a tandem jump and leap from a military aircraft at 13,500 feet. But at the moment, our chances for skydiving didn’t look good. A cool, brisk wind greeted us as we landed at John Wayne Airport in Orange County on this early fall day. The low-hanging snow-like clouds often frequent the region, a Soldier would later tell me.
The overcast conditions continued to hover after we drove 60 miles west to the Perris Valley Airport in Perris, California, where the Army’s Golden Knights, the service’s parachute demonstration team, would perform and take guests thousands of feet into the air. I travelled with three members of our Army media team to cover Army Recruiting Command’s outreach event.
USAREC brought in a decorated war vet, Robert Friend, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen who served during World War II, to participate in a swearing-in ceremony of new Army recruits.
They also invited to the event 16 former military veterans who as civilians had risen to success as businessmen, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. They hosted the Army’s Golden Knights tandem team to entice new recruits and showcase one of the military’s most dynamic careers.
A tandem skydive at 13,000-14,000 feet would be a routine jump for an experienced skydiver. But for a first-time skydiver, like myself, it seemed like climbing Mount Everest.
Well into my 30s, I have never ridden on a roller coaster or done any extreme sports. During childhood trips to Great America and Disney World, I had always avoided any winding rides. So understandably, I felt the butterflies in my stomach. I calmed my nerves the best way I knew how: working. I continued to shoot photos, take notes and conduct interviews as a way keep my mind off my possible impending doom.
I could still change my mind. My co-worker Kayla, had already declined her opportunity to jump. Fears began to swirl in my brain. What if something goes wrong and I am paralyzed? What if the equipment fails and I break my legs, or even worse, lose my life? During the brief training period, we’d signed waivers promising not to sue the Golden Knights should we suffer injury or death.
The clouds continued to linger as I continued snapping pictures.
Later, as I sat in the café of the Perris Valley airstrip, I noticed the clouds over Riverside County begin to break. The holes in the sky grew wider and wider. I may get to jump after all.
Any nerves I felt were alleviated by the Knights. Courteous and professional, I see why the Knights represent the best the military has to offer. One could argue they reinforce the impossible stereotype, of the benevolent G.I. Joe superhero depicted in films and recruiting commercials.
But the Knights didn’t carry themselves that way. They joked with their guests. They made them feel as comfortable as they possibly could by getting to know them. My tandem jumper, Sgt. 1st Class Tom Melton, humbly explained how to safely tandem jump and land with a canopy.
“Everyone sees us jump out of airplanes. And that’s awesome,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Sealing, a tandem parachutist. “That’s how we get the American public’s attention … but the job really starts when you’re on the ground interacting with the American public.”
They walked me through the training and provided for me tips on how to be safe, and even on how to look good for the video camera that would follow me from the plane back down to the ground. I should remember to arch my back, they said. I should lift my knees and feet upon landing. And also, they said, make sure to smile for the camera. It all seemed simple enough.
Then, we boarded the military plane that would take us into the air for our jump.
As the plane climbed higher and higher, my heart sank to the floor. The tandem instructor said in the classroom hours earlier that we could change our mind and choose not to jump at any time during the flight.
“But remember,” he said. “‘No’ sounds like ‘go!'”
They pulled open the hatch and a queasy feeling filled my stomach. I tightly clutched the black straps fastened around my shoulders as a drop of sweat rolled down my forehead.
“Just do what they tell you to do, when they tell you to do it,” said Greg Bishop, who sat on the plane next to me.
Every fiber of my body wanted to stop and sit back in the fuselage. But before I knew it we had jumped from the plane, and I could feel the dry desert area against my face.
An avalanche of fear welled up inside my head, then suddenly I felt at peace. As I gazed at the world below, life seemed to slow to a crawl. The Perris airport looked like a small speck on the ground.
At 13,000 feet it did not feel like a straight free fall, but like gliding on a cushion of air. For a moment, it seemed to distance the mundane everyday problems I worry about.
While still descending through the sky, we practiced landing. Pull up your knees first, then your feet. An instructor told me a Golden Knights’ team member should have their feet touch ground first, so that the guest jumper has a smoother landing.
Sgt. Melton ensured I had a safe landing — and a fantastic jump.
More than 200 days out of the year, the Golden Knights fly to different locations in the U.S. and sometimes overseas. They travel to air shows, professional sports stadiums and recruiting events. Their stop in Perris, one of many on their busy schedule, didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. If they had grown tired, they didn’t show it.
After our jump, the Knights continued to laugh and joke with their guests. They happily accepted every photo and interview request, knowing that the public watches every action they take.
“For me I get the same feeling after every single jump that I did on my first jump,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Hackett. “It’s excitement. It’s a thrill — words can’t really describe what it feels like. It’s something that I personally love to do and I will do that as long as the Army will allow me to do that.”
And as long as the clouds and weather will allow it.