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Paul Klee: Jump! Air Force skydivers a gold standard

By: Paul Klee
January 21, 2017 Updated: January 22, 2017 at 9:46 am
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DENVER - It was Parents Weekend at the Air Force Academy when Adam Fly jumped out of a perfectly good airplane and his parachute malfunctioned.

A senior at Air Force, Fly had been free-falling to Earth at the speed of a Jon Gray fastball - plus 20 mph - and one of his brake toggles crapped out.

Don't worry. He didn't.

"I waited on it until 1,700 feet," Fly says. "Then I thought I better do something."

Introducing the gold medalists of Colorado's skies: the Wings of Blue. They play "Twister" while zipping up to 200 mph through the air. They lose the brakes on their parachutes, and instead of flipping their lids, they do something. They are the national champions of the Air Force skydiving team. I think they are out of their minds.

"Well, there was one time ." gold-medalist Brandon Bylina begins. A bunch of their stories begin that way: There was one time. It's also how shark wrestlers, tornado chasers and George Clooney's matchmaker begin their stories. Bylina's one time arrived long before the Wings of Blue won four gold medals at the National Collegiate Parachuting Championships earlier this month; before Fly was named collegiate competitor of the year; before a pool of 150 applicants was trimmed to 25 of the highest-achieving cadets in the military to form the squad; before Bylina found that jumping from airplanes cured his adrenaline fix better than what he used to do, jumping Motocross bikes.

"I kind of like going fast," Bylina says.

Surprise: After graduation he's off to Sheppard Air Force Base to become a jet pilot.

"I'm kind of scatterbrained," he says. "Hairy situations help me to focus in."

His one time arrived half a mile above the Earth when something called a tension knot spun his parachute out of control. He waited to see if it would fix itself. It didn't.

"It just kept turning and getting more and more violent," Bylina says. "I ended up spiraling toward the ground. But I got it figured out."

The men and women of Wings of Blue - and Wings of Green, what they refer to as the JV outfit - would sip iced tea if it rained rattlesnakes.

"I go to bed at 9 o'clock. I get up at 4:45 in the morning," Bylina says. "There's really no time for moseying around."

I know who I'd want running my million-dollar business: Fly, Bylina, Connor Livingston, Megan Shenk, Min Je Kim, Maria Volodkevich, Jordan Wesemann and Molly Ferguson. Together they piled up a string of gold medals at the biggest collegiate skydiving event in the world, and you know what they're telling me afterward?

"I never went into this to become an awesome skydiver," Fly says. "I went into it wanting to be a good teammate and to help my classmates and be the best leader they can be."

Kids these days, right?

"The tryout itself doesn't involve skydiving at all," Bylina says.

Instead, according to a couple of guys with over 1,400 career jumps, the early testing focuses on certain character attributes: leadership ability, how they carry themselves and speak to a crowd, that sort of thing. "They want to know if you're quick on your feet," Fly says.

Because when your feet aren't on the ground, you start stories with, There was one time. The normal cadet routine is demanding. Add skydiving? Life consuming.

"We meet at 5 in the morning to jump out of a plane," as Bylina says.

That's every other weekday. Last year the Wings of Blue had roughly 300 training jumps. Spent 18 hours in a North Carolina wind tunnel. Spent many Sundays in a Denver-area wind tunnel. Spent their breaks, Thanksgiving and Christmas, in competitions and training.

"Why do I love it? Good question," Bylina says. "I love it because these are 50 of the highest-performing cadets we have at the academy. They're crushing everything they do."

They love it enough, and each other, that Bylina's wedding party will include three Wings of Blue skydivers. Have to ask: Is the entrance what I think it is?

"If it works at the venue, we're going to jump in," he says. "It would be freaking awesome."

OK, OK. Coloradans are always up for new thrills. What's the first step?

"Once you make the Wings of Green, the first thing you learn to do is pack your own parachute," Fly says.

Ah, accountability.

"Your first jump is on your own pack job," he says.

How fast are you spinning, flipping and falling from a perfectly good airplane again?

"Anywhere from 120 to 200 miles per hour," Fly says.

You folks have fun. I'm good.

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@bypaulklee

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