DAYTON — Our US Army Golden Knights elite parachute team dropped into the Dayton Vectren Air show and predictably, did a splendid job. My picture taking skills, not so much.
Other media people beat me to the good seats by the open doors of the C-31 A Fokker piloted by Ken Breeden, putting me three seats down. Not the best place to take video, however it did allow for a nice young man to sit next to me and try to chat in a loud, cold airplane.
Doesn’t say much for my social skills that he was eager to jump out of said plane.
While June in Ohio can be uncomfortably warm, I had to bring a hat, gloves, and winter coat to combat the frigid temps, though a low ceiling had them jumping at 4,000 feet.
Once the guests were buckled in, the team wisecracked and climbed into their jumpsuits, some singing along with Katy Perry. I heard someone ask who chose this playlist…? but they knew the lyrics.
As we taxied, one of the guys handed me a small tin and said, “Here, this might save your life.” It was full of Life Savers. My flight with a different group the prior day, I wore a life vest, parachute and crash helmet. This flight had complimentary mints.
The thing about being in a plane full of guys, I now appreciate more fully how great it is to fly with two back doors removed; farts dissipate quickly. Assuredly, this is not a case of who smelt it dealt it. Nor was it CE4 Felicia Marlow; she was up front with the pilot working the radio transmissions. A lovely, delightful lady.
We circled the airport while some of the Knights got down on hands and knees, keenly searching for the drop zone target and when ready, tossed out the black and gold streamers to gauge wind drift.
Virtually the whole flight, they were all smiles and ripostes. It’s amazing to watch people who love what they do.
Perhaps sensing me fuming at what I thought was a bad seat, SSG Ryan Reis slid into the seat next to me and tried to converse. Keep in mind the engine noise made conversation difficult. I asked if his family was okay with him doing this for a living and he replied that his mom was his biggest fan and was tremendously proud of him joining the team; he laughed and said his dad was just grateful he had a job. A job that he undeniably loves; he pulled out his cell phone to share pictures of his team and some of the people they’d met as Golden Knights.
“You know how we purposely screw up our ‘chutes?” he yelled. “Yeah,” I shouted reluctantly. I knew where he was going.
“You want to see it happen?” he hollered back.
“Probably not…?” Hey, I didn’t need to be traumatized.
With enthusiasm, he pulled off a glove and showed me video of a team member (camera strapped to his foot, facing upwards) and walks me through it. “He screws it up on purpose,” No, don’t do it. “OH, oh, there it goes…” the parachutist tumbles wildly in the sky. “Then he’s gonna cut that other side away,” dangling by one side of the ‘chute, the Golden Knight oh so casually uses fingers to count down 3, 2, 1…”Boom! He’ll go back into freefall,” I’m mentally numb watching this unfold, horrified “and then he opens the other parachute.” It’s good practice, he insisted. I could only stare, wide eyed, and nod.
Each soldier took his turn at the doors, leapt out willingly, and all had a smile on his face. Me, I’d have a grimace of abject horror on my mug, but they live for this.
On the ground and out with the public, we found SSG Reis having a young child help pack a parachute. Both were having fun with the job. The team had parachutes strung out and invited kids to walk through the repack. After, Reis took the time to help explain what it takes to be a Golden Knight, a premier ambassador for the Army. You have to have 100 free fall parachute jumps and a clean civilian/military record, and be released from your current unit.
How did SSG Reis gravitate to the Army? His childhood dream was to become an NFL player (Seahawks fan), however his size was an impediment. His mom knew he was heartbroken at not being able to play football professionally, but when he joined the Golden Knights a few years ago, the team had the opportunity to drop into the Baltimore Ravens stadium. When he called to tell her, “She lost her mind and said, ‘See, I knew you’d get into the NFL one way or another!’” He laughs, “And I said, I’m not quite in the NFL Mom, but she was super proud nonetheless. So, it was a great story that came about in a different way, and it worked out.”
What keeps this fun, despite the grueling air show schedule? The locations; it’s different every time they jump. They get to interact with the press, the military, kids. As he gets older, Reis likes to see more of the Unites States, “…and I start to realize what a great country this is. I also get to talk to people who might not have ever met a soldier, or who might have a misconception of a soldier, and see something different than what they might see on TV or in the movies. If they meet me and think, hey, he’s not that bad of a guy.” I assure you, he’s a great guy, especially since he joked that he’s not a Steelers or Yankees fan. But I digress.
A fun fact about the Army Golden Knights? “We’re all active duty Army. People don’t realize that; they think we just came in off the streets and come in and do this on the side. We are all soldiers first.”
Surrounded by aircraft, is there any other plane he’d like to jump out of? “The bigger the better! We are fortunate to have a great aviation selection-they fly three different aircraft for us.” (UV-18 Twin Otter, C147A Dash 8, and the C-31A Fokker)
While we were up in the Fokker, he pointed out the two sizes of parachutes. The smaller one, think of it as a sports car; it moves faster- it goes across the ground faster, turns faster. The demo parachutes they use are larger, much more docile, and allows the jumper to be much more accurate in landing. The smaller ones scoot across the ground much quicker, giving the crowd a nice show. To this day, parachuting is the quickest way to get mass personnel on the ground and was used as recently as the Iraq War.
At this air show, most of the military was represented. Why is the Army better than the rest? “Because Army wins Army/Navy every year,” Reis joked with a sly smile. “So in all seriousness, all the nameplates on our uniforms,” he puts his hand over his heart, “start with the U.S. So there’s U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy. There is the friendly rivalry among the services but we’re all on the same team, and we genuinely feel that way. We’ll rib each other, give each other a hard time, but we’re all workin’ together,” he adds with a nod.
To learn more about our United States Army Golden Knights, visit www.armygk.com.
The writer, a Sidney native, is a copy editor for WXIX-TV Fox 19 in Cincinnati. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.