Wings of Blue celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Air Force Academy cadets with the Air Force Wings of Blue Parachute Competition Team perform at the U.S. Parachuting Association’s national championships in Eloy, Ariz., Nov. 3. The “Air Force Intrepid” team took first place in the four-person intermediate free-flying event. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

Air Force Academy cadets with the Air Force Wings of Blue Parachute Competition Team perform at the U.S. Parachuting Association’s national championships in Eloy, Ariz., Nov. 3. The Academy celebrated the golden anniversary of the Wings of Blue parachute team May 16. (U.S. Air Force/Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Academy celebrated the golden anniversary of the Wings of Blue parachute team May 16 with an open house at the 98th Flying Training Squadron, a "Blue Suit" ceremony to induct new members, and a banquet attended by alumni and senior leaders.

There were five members on the original Wings of Blue -- four from the Class of '64 and one from '65. Two members, retired Col. Stu McCurdy and retired Lt. Gen. Jay Kelley, attended the events along with about 750 others.

"The day was filled with wonderful reflections on some events 50 years ago," McCurdy said. "The facility is awe inspiring -- especially compared to what we had long ago - but more so (was), the organization, personnel and very evident camaraderie shown by all.

Over the years, the program changed from an intercollegiate club to an official demonstration team that now conducts more than 22,000 cadet training jumps a year and awards 700 jump wings to cadets who pass through the Academy's Airmanship 490 Program. Cadets selected to be on Wings of Blue perform demonstrations, compete in national championships and instruct other cadets how to conquer their fears and parachute out of a plane at 11,000 feet.

"I think the events of the weekend sufficiently captured the significance of what the Wings of Blue program has meant to the Academy over the past 50 years," said Lt. Col. Sean McLay, the 98th Flying Training Squadron commander. "It's been the honor of a lifetime to command a squadron and team with such a proud and rich heritage. When I look at our achievements and how much the Wings of Blue have accomplished, I marvel at where the team will be after the next 50 years."

Cadets must jump at least five times to receive their basic wings. Cadets on the Wings of Blue team typically get in 500-600 jumps before graduating the Academy, according to McLay.

"When we didn't have class, we were at the airfield parachuting," said Dan Klubber, a 2009 Academy graduate. "In the beginning it's about having a cool mind, not being scared and just trying to learn. The next challenge is to teach new guys how to parachute and control a plane full of scared cadets."

The Wings of Blue is a leadership program, McLay said.

"Cadets have to trust in themselves, show the courage to believe in their training and leap out of a perfectly functioning aircraft," he said. "There is no one holding you or pulling your shoot for you. You have to trust in the instruction you've been given and be disciplined to execute in a stressful environment."

The Wings of Blue consists of a demonstration team, performing at football games and other ceremonies, and a competition team, who fly formations at collegiate and national championships.

"The demonstrations were fun but taking someone who had never jumped before, training them on the ground for not even 72 hours and then letting them out of the airplane, completely on their own, was by far the most rewarding part," said Troy Jeffers, a 2008 Academy graduate. "I remember how special it was for me to finally become a team member on the Wings of Blue. It's cool to watch the traditions now as alumni and watch cadets receive their blue suits."

McLay, a 1994 Academy graduate, said it's amazing what the team is able to accomplish while also being full-time students.

"For other professional demonstration teams such as the Air Force Thunderbirds and Army's Golden Knights, it's their full-time job," he said. "These cadets have to focus on their classes as well as invest in the Wings of Blue to perform well. They must follow military instruction but also instruct their classmates and work hard to remain national parachuting champions. It's pretty extraordinary."

The 50th anniversary has given all involved with the program a chance to reflect on its growth over the years McLay said.

"I'm sure the next generation of cadets and leaders will take the program even further than I can imagine right now," he said. "We've come so far so it's hard to imagine that going forward."