Published: December 28, 2013
The Air Force Academy is looking to defend its record with another national championship.
Winning it is as easy as falling. Out of an airplane. Two miles.
The academy's Wings of Blue will greet the New Year in Florida at the National Collegiate Parachuting Championships, seeking its 34th win in 50 years.
The string of victories, which makes Wings of Blue the winningest team in the history of U.S. military academies, doesn't gain much notice in the cadet wing.
"They know we compete and they know we do well," said senior Cadet Meredith Wilmer, who will compete in the championships in Florida.
Best known for flying the American flag into academy football games, the skydivers are seen as an important part of the school's training programs. More than 700 cadets earn jump wings annually through a classes and jumps taught by fellow cadets.
"You have cadets teaching cadets parachuting, which is amazing," said Lt. Col. Sean McLay, a fighter pilot who commands the 98th Flying Training Squadron, which includes the academy's parachute programs.
McLay said commanding the unit has made him a convert.
"No lie, I love skydiving as much as I love flying the F-15," he said.
Cadets enter the parachute program in their sophomore year through a basic program that gives them five jumps and the wings to note the achievement. The program is certified by the Pentagon, and the wings are a permanent uniform addition, just like the ones the Army awards at its Fort Benning, Ga., jump school.
Cadets who fall in love with falling from the sky can move on to become parachute instructors and members of Wings of Blue.
"It definitely gives them a leadership responsibility," McLay said. "They are the primary instructors of kids who have no jumps. That's a huge responsibility."
The most visible accomplishment of the parachute team was put on hiatus by budget cuts for much of 2013.
The Wings Of Blue is considered a demonstration team, like the Air Force Thunderbirds. Sequestration grounded the Thunderbirds and the skydivers, known for showing off skills at football games, air shows and festivals.
But they're back on track for 2014.
"They're not just representing Air Force Academy, they're representing the entire Air Force and, as such, we have been given 23 events this year where we will represent the Air Force," McLay said.
On Jan. 3, jumpers from the team will fly into Florida's Orange Bowl with the American flag.
But first, there's a little championship to win.
The Wings of Blue has flown so far above its competition that the collegiate championship is almost seen as a given. The team's biggest contest of the year is the U.S. Nationals where the cadets compete against parachute enthusiasts, including professionals. The cadets took two silver medals and a bronze at the 2013 Nationals.
For new members of the team, the collegiate contest is a chance to test their mettle.
Junior cadet T.J. Mullins will be in his first competition, "freeflying." The event involves Mullins and a teammate dancing in the sky as they fall, sometimes headfirst, at speeds that can top 160 mph.
"I'm definitely ready," he said. "We have been training hard for it."