You couldn’t wipe the grin off cadet John Stanley if you tried.
The Air Force Academy sophomore from Chanute, Kan., let out a celebratory scream following his first free fall and solo parachute jump earlier this month during a week-long airmanship course.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Stanley said, while stuffing a bright yellow parachute into a bag. The class “was a lot more intense than I expected but given what they just had us do, I’m kind of happy it was.”
Three days of intensive classroom instruction followed by five jumps each over two days earns cadets their jump wings.
“They had us doing repetitive movements over and over,” Stanley said. “We had to memorize them down to a T. They would string us up on these hooks and spin us around and they would give commands and we’d have to give responses within five seconds. And we’d have to do it perfectly. I’m glad that they did it as hard as they did.”
The computer science and applied mathematics double major is also studying Arabic at the Academy and would like to go into intelligence. Stanley said he loves the language and would like to work with it daily.
Fellow computer science major Danny Kennedy of North Kingstown, R.I., was also all smiles after completing his first jump.
“I’m an adrenaline junky and when I heard I could jump out of a plane by myself, I had to jump on that,” Kennedy said. “It was everything I’d imagined. I left the plane and was totally free. It is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
After graduation, Kennedy wants to be a combat rescue officer so he can help people.
Some junior and senior cadets who have proven themselves amongst the best become members of the Wings of Blue, whose primary role is running the basic freefall parachuting course, Airmanship 490.
The cadet-led class attracts roughly 75% of all cadets and is the only certified jump program in the world where students’ first jump is solo.
“Free fall is very unique, but we try to make it as familiar as possible for our students,” said Corey Eisert-Wlodarczyk, a senior from Erie, Penn., who would like to be an intelligence officer.
Part of the training includes wearing virtual reality headsets to get the perspective of free falling, being suspended from a harness to learn how it feels being under canopy and visiting a wind tunnel in Denver to experience the amount of airflow.
Eisert-Wlodarczyk understands that most cadets won’t be parachuting much during their military careers.
“The goal of this program is not to make you a good skydiver … it’s to get you to stand in the door, to do something that you don’t want to do," he said. "But because there are other people relying on you and you have to be brave in that moment, you have to have a clear mind, rely on your training and overcome that fear. That’s the whole point.”
Cadets who began parachuting in 1962 without the Academy’s approval or knowledge ended up winning a national gold medal in a skydiving competition. As a result, a campus club started in May 1964 and the first parachuting course began the spring of 1967, according to the Academy website.
More than 50 years later, there has never been a fatality
“We have a pretty impeccable safety record,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Amig, director of the Academy’s parachute team.
Each year the school hosts as many as 24,000 jumps, according to Amig. That's most in the Air Force.
Cadets at the Academy jump from any of three UV-18 Twin Otter aircraft, which have a large square opening for easy exits.
The Wings of Blue has both a demonstration team and competition team. Both show off their skills at events throughout the world.
The demonstration team is scheduled to perform Saturday, July 31 as Colorado Springs celebrates its 150th birthday with an 11 a.m. parade on Tejon Street downtown followed by a festival from noon to 8 p.m. on Vermijo Avenue between the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and the Pioneers Museum. Look skyward for them as the parade begins.
The Wings of Blue competition team competes against other schools and civilian teams.
“We are the most decorated collegiate team in history,” Eisert-Wlodarczyk said.
The team trains three days per week with jumps scheduled from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Some of the smartest people I know are here on the team,” Eisert-Wlodarczyk said. “I think the rigor of it and the intensity of the team definitely attracts a certain type of people. This type of opportunity is unbeatable.”