Parachuting program helps cadets step through fear

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Second Lt. Glenn Miltenberg can recall the first time he jumped out of an airplane. It's not the sort of experience one is quick to forget: When the side door opens on the UV-18 Twin Otter thousands of feet above the ground, a cadet's next step is a gut-wrenching doozy.

"I was nervous, but I knew my instructors had prepared me and that it was safe," said Miltenberg, a 2013 Academy graduate who's scheduled to attend pilot training in February. "I counted to what I thought was 15 seconds, but when we looked at the video it was only five or six. It was a big sigh of relief once I was under the canopy."

That step compels cadets enrolled in the Academy's parachuting airmanship program to face their mortality, said Master Sgt. David Siemiet, the course director for Airmanship 490 and an aircrew flight equipment technician with the 98th Flying Training Squadron.

"You learn a lot about yourself in a situation like that," said Siemiet, who has worked in aircrew flight equipment for 15 years. "How do you face that fear? You learn more about yourself in your first jump than you might learn in your entire four years at the Academy."
Miltenberg, who was on the Wings of Blue parachute competition team, said his involvement with the program prepared him to face any challenge -- even public speaking.

"Our team went to Chicago for nationals, and I was asked to be the speaker for our outreach efforts," he said. "I was nervous, but I knew the subject, and I knew I was prepared."

The opportunity to fail is precisely what allows the cadets to succeed: Wings of Blue teams have won 33 out of 44 National Collegiate Parachuting Championships dating back to their first competition in 1967, in which they took third place. More recently, Wings of Blue teams competed in the U.S. Parachuting Association Nationals, which wrapped up Tuesday, coming away with a bronze medal in four-way advanced freefall, silver in artistic freefly and bronze in two-way vertical formation skydiving.

Miltenberg, who was part of the artistic freefly team, said he enjoys the competition as well as the process of continual self-improvement.

"I enjoy having something to work towards, having a goal and accomplishing it," he said. "It's nice having that."

Miltenberg said that self-confidence is a product of his involvement with Wings of Blue, which forms the top tier of the Academy's parachuting programs as Airmanship 496. The two other parachuting courses are Airmanship 490, which familiarizes cadets with parachuting and lets them earn their parachutist badges, and Airmanship 491, a yearlong tryout for the Wings of Blue teams.

NCOs assigned to the 98th FTS play a different role in each airmanship course, Siemiet said.

"Our interaction with the Airmanship 496 cadets is as teammates," he explained. "With the Airmanship 491 cadets, they are upgrade students, and we are their instructors."
NCOs serve as course directors for Airmanship 490, allowing cadets to serve as instructors.

"They're responsible for the lives of their peers," Siemiet said. "So as a cadet instructor, you're responsible for the lives of 14 cadets on a Twin Otter, and by the way, you taught them. They take that responsibility seriously. I make sure they're doing it right and developing from their instructor experience."

For a lot of cadets, the basic parachuting course is their first exposure to the possibility of failure.

"This might be the first time many of them have struggled in their lives," he said. "They may have never faced failure before. They may never have had a goal they couldn't achieve."

They might have difficulty with academic classes, because the academic classes here are designed to be very challenging, Siemiet said, but even that is not as immediate as stepping into the sky and watching the Twin Otter fall away above them as they hurtle downward.

That's where the course's key lesson -- trust in an operational environment -- comes into play.

"They have to trust in their instructors, to trust in their equipment, to trust in their training, but most importantly, they have to trust in themselves," Siemiet said. "You don't learn anything about yourself until you face a crisis."

"(Parachuting) still feels like life-and-death, but you still need to execute," Wiltenberg said. "You have to be able to look that in the face."