Monday, October 31, 2016

Florida International Airshow: Flying with the Golden Knights

Being the only girl on the Army plane, soaring up to 12,500 feet, I was privileged to watch the Golden Knights prepare to descend towards the crowd of the Florida International Airshow in  Punta Gorda.  Pulling on their suits, strapping smoke cartridges to their ankles, the guys explained how they use their digital altitude meter on their wrists, and another meter with a needle, which shows when they are in the white, yellow or red when falling towards the earth.  They alternated from joking to almost somber, and showed me how to do their handshake, which is more of a sliding hand slap, followed by a fist bump.

“The first trick we do is a baton pass, which is unique to the Golden Knights,” said sergeant first class Justin Little, 35, from Texas. The display of parachutists culminates with a diamond pattern jump comprised of four jumpers simultaneously free falling.

Dan Buchanan, a paraplegic hang glider that was featured in the air show, said “I’ve done a few tandem jumps with the team, and it gets cold up there that high in the air. Not only do they have the doors of the plane open for the jumpers, but the temperature gets cooler the higher you go up.”

75-year-old pilot Gary "Psycho" Ward poses with Rebecca and her daughter, Alex Oates and his stepfather, and paraplegic hang glider Dan Buchanan

I was lucky enough to talk with Buchanan at Hurricane Charley’s in Punta Gorda the night before I was able to fly along with the Golden Knights, as he advised me to bring a sweatshirt or something with long sleeves.  Even with a my heavy hoodie, my toes got cold through my shoes and socks, and my hands were freezing.  The Golden Knights were generous enough to offer me some gloves when they noticed me rubbing my hands together to try to keep them warm.

On Friday night, the first day of the airshow, Buchanan had fireworks blazing from his hang glider, illuminating the sky. Saturday and Sunday, he had a trail of smoke following behind him, complete with balloons raising up. The smoke trails are very similar to the smoke use by the Golden Knights, as they also had a trail of sparkler-like fireworks as they fell towards the earth.  The difference is that the parachutists strap the pyrotechnics smoke, which is comprised of two canisters, to their ankles, and Buchanan had the smoke affixed to his hang glider.

In order to become part of the Arm’s elite Golden Knights team, there is a vigorous assessment selection process that is two months long.  “You earn a spot on the team,” explained Sergeant first class Cory Rush from Indiana, who recently joined this team of elite jumpers.

“After my first skydive, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, and I found out about the Army’s Golden Knights,” said Rush, who has been in the military for 13 years and was previously stationed in Germany.

The daredevil activity does cause injury, as Rush well knows after tearing a tendon in his ankle in February. “Stress can cause issues, so relax and do the best that you can.”

Doing tandem stunts as well as free falling from 12,600 feet, the jumpers learn to communicate without talking, as they cannot hear each other when falling from the sky.  Even on the plane, it is easier to use hand signals, especially since most have earplugs in to drown out the loud sounds of the plane and the rush of air from the open doors of the plane.  Rush said the best part, “is camaraderie with the team. It’s a difficult selection process for the team, and it’s a very tight-knit family.”         

“It’s neat to see the transition of their thought process of jumping. One minute, they will be jovial and joking, and in a flash, they will be very serious with no talking,” said Buchanan on Saturday.  On Sunday, I was able to see for myself what he had described.  Before take off, the guys are inspected for safety, making sure they are okay to jump, then they gather in a huddle, heads down in somber seriousness, then they explode in a cheer.

It’s business first, as they ensure things are where they need to be, that everyone who is riding along, such as myself, is strapped in according to their satisfaction.  Cameras and cell phones are also strapped in, to ensure equipment does not go flying out of the open doors of the plane.  As they are taking off, the guys turn and each make sure each other’s pack is strapped up safely, then they explode into a quick chant and cheer as the plane leaves the ground.

The view from the open door is much like looking out the window of any other plane taking off, but what is different is that these daredevils stick their heads and other body parts out of the open door.  They encourage us to stick out a hand to see what it is like, ensuring that we are strapped in tightly, even though they walk around the plane like it is on land, not fearing the open door or the tiny specks of land below – probably because they are wearing parachutes.  The houses get smaller, and the Gulf of Mexico looks like a pretty blue splash from that high.

As the plane rises higher, and the temperature gets colder, the Golden Knights stick their heads out the open door and scout their mark to land.  To test the winds, they drop a series of gold and black ribbons out the door, watching to see where they land, so they know how to compensate for any wind speeds.  SSG Kevin Severin, 33, of Arizona, makes notes of the locations, and he spots for each of the jumpers, calling out, “hot target,” before they jump.

When he pops up from kneeling, the parachutists know that it is time.  “Ready” is called out.  In the blink of an eye, the Golden Knights are sucked out of the open door of the plane.

It happens so fast; it is hard to get a good picture.  Any hesitation from the camera will cause a photographer to miss the shot, as there is literally only a second of one of the Golden Knights leaning out and getting sucked down towards the earth by gravity.  One second they are standing there, and the next thing you know, the plane is getting emptied, as they’re gone.

There is a slight suction sound that can be heard as the winds grab hold of their bodies and suck them out the plane.  Some salute as they jump.  Others have this wicked daredevil smile.    

Next after the airshow, the Golden Knights traveled to Winston-Salem, NC, for the Wake Forest versus Army football game.  They travel around the country to different events, but they don’t often jump in the snow and ice, due to the potential for injuries, so there is a season for them to perform.  In the off season, they can often be found in Homestead, FL, practicing their jumps.

As a former resident of Homestead, living only three miles from the Airforce base, I often saw parachutists falling from the sky.  One time, my mother and I saw more than a dozen jumpers, and as we watched in awe at their gracefulness, we became horrified when we saw one’s parachute twist, and the skydiver began plummeting towards the earth.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, this is actually a trick that the Golden Knights perform, as they imitate a chute that has not opened, and they recover with another cute, packing a total of three parachutes for this stunt that they regularly perform.

While the Golden Knights learn to communicate without words, relying on hand gestures and becoming as close knit as a family, other acts in the Florida International Airshow are more of an actual family affair. Bill and Scott “Scooter” Yoak, as well as Joe and Jim Tobul are two pairs of father and son pilots.

“Dad and I bought our plane in 1981, along with a trunk load of parts. It took us 10 years to build, and our first flight was December 7, 1991. It’s been a labor of love,” said Jim.

His father taught him how to fly when he was 9-years-old, sparking his interest in warbirds. Jim joined the Air National Guard in South Carolina, and he is set to retire this week, as he moved to Wyoming. He recently opened a hydraulic cylinder business in Wausau, WI, selling  telescoping cylinders. 

The pilot of Dracula also learned to fly from his father. “I’m the third generation of flyers. This year marks 50 years of my family flying, and it marks 20 years of me flying is a pilot,” said Kyle Franklin of Franklin’s Flying Circus.

 So many of the pilots make flying look easy, but the sport is quite dangerous. Herbert Mairzedt from Austria is a survivor of a plane that crashed in 2015, by Orlando, just south of Leesburg, landing in a forest.  He said he was nervous to try to land in the water, not knowing if there were alligators lurking in Florida, so he aimed for the trees when the gas line of the plane malfunctioned.  Lucky to survive with only minor scratches, he was back up the air only a few days later, and he said he felt a kinship when he met the pilot who had landed the plane in the Hudson River.     

“There's not many people can land a plane with mechanical malfunctions and live to tell about it,” he explained.  For more on Mairzedt, and some amazing photos of his mangled plane, visit 

For more on the Florida International Airshow, visit  For more by Marisa, visit and

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