Published October 05, 2009
Cadets at the Air Force Academy have an opportunity to learn about the military application and sport of parachuting. While never losing its fundamental drama, parachuting has progressed to become much more than jumping from an airplane, pulling a ripcord, and hoping and praying for the best.
Parachuting at the Air Force Academy began more than 30 years ago. Each year, 500 cadets complete five freefall jumps in the basic freefall parachuting course and earn the parachutist badge and rating. The Air Force Academy parachute team is one of two places in the Department of Defense authorized to issue the basic parachute badge. The Air Force Academy also has the only school in the United States authorized to allow students to perform unassisted freefall delays on their first jump, without any prior static line training.
Additionally, the basic parachuting course teaches freefall parachuting skills that could be needed in an emergency bailout from a disabled aircraft. These procedures and techniques include the fundamentals of high altitude freefall, the use of steerable parachutes, parachute landing falls and emergency procedures. The basic parachuting course focuses on the individual's ability to overcome natural born fears and perform under the extreme stresses of potentially life and death situations. The individual learns that through adherence to strict standards of performance learned in an atmosphere of professional instruction, natural born fears can be conquered, and that they can perform safely and competently in the face of life threatening situations. Such lessons are especially valuable to military professionals who may ultimately be called upon to discharge duties quickly and competently in the stresses of combat. Additionally, the parachute program builds on the individual's personal standards of excellence. Such is key to the individual's development of character above reproach ‑ the foundation of effective leadership: without a solid foundation of unquestionable character, an individual cannot function effectively as a leader in the eyes of subordinates and superiors alike. In addition, this course is one of the premier sources of character development at the academy. It is one place where a cadet can face the stress of combat and learn to overcome. The lessons learned in the parachute program serve the Academy well in developing individual character and personal standards of excellence.
It is a rigorous training schedule with heavy emphasis on safety. Before cadets make their first jump, they are drilled in ground school for more than 33 hours on proper parachuting procedures. The repetition is intended to have the jumper respond automatically and correctly should something unexpected occur during a jump.
Cadets who successfully complete the basic freefall course are eligible to tryout for the advanced training necessary to possibly upgrade to the Air Force Academy parachute team, the "Wings of Blue." Those who want advanced training must compete for admission. Selection is based upon an individual's maturity, abilities, and academic and military standing.
The advanced training consists of more than 150 freefall jumps that teach cadets the techniques required to control their bodies in freefall. This training allows jumpers to perform such maneuvers as turns, front and back loops, barrel rolls, and relative work formations.
During the advanced course, cadets transition from a large docile square canopy used in the basic course to the high performance square canopy used by Wings of Blue. This canopy has a vertical descent rate of 2-16 feet per second and can reach forward speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
The advanced course also includes intensive practice in the jumpmaster and instructor techniques used by Wings of Blue in order to train students in the basic freefall parachuting course.
The "Wings of Blue" has been one of the outstanding parachute units in the country during the past two decades. Since 1967, cadets have dominated national intercollegiate parachuting championships, typically winning decisively over the other 40 schools. The team has won 21 of the 27 national championships. Additionally, they perform about 50 demonstrations each year that has included the Copper Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, and Pro Bowl. The team travels locally, nationally, and now internationally to perform in these varied air shows. 1997 was the first year the team traveled internationally when it performed for the Japanese/American Friendship Festival in Yokota, Japan, which is now an annual event.
The parachute team, because of its diverse mission, is divided into a demonstration team and a competition team. Advising and supervising the team is a very small group of active duty Air Force commissioned and NCOs.
Each cadet member of the team must be a qualified jumpmaster and instructor in the Air Force Academy parachuting program. They must also maintain high academic and military standards to remain with the team. Members of the parachute team average about 600 jumps by the time they graduate.
The "Wings of Blue" jumps from a variety of aircraft, however the team primarily uses its own DeHavilland UV-18B Twin Otters.
(Current as of October 2009)