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Standing in the Door

Cadet volunteers who meet stringent physical requirements may enroll in the parachute program. Completing five freefall jumps earns you the Air Force parachute wings. Selected cadets from the basic parachuting course may enroll in the parachute instructor course. Graduates of this course instruct others in the basic parachuting course and participate in advanced parachuting activities, including demonstrations and competitions with the Air Force Parachute Team “The Wings of Blue”.

Cadet 1st Class Ciani Ellison, a Wings of Blue team member, oversees the training of hundreds of cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy's AM 490 jump school program. The school which teaches leadership traits and is taught and organized for cadets by cadets. It is the only jump course in the world were students take their first jump all by themselves, no tandem, no instructors. AM 490 is used to help cadets exhibit their qualities necessary to become good leaders - determination, inner strength and the ability to face and overcome fear. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Cadet 1st Class Ciani Ellison, a Wings of Blue team member, oversees the training of hundreds of cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy's AM 490 jump school program. The school which teaches leadership traits and is taught and organized for cadets by cadets. It is the only jump course in the world were students take their first jump all by themselves, no tandem, no instructors. AM 490 is used to help cadets exhibit their qualities necessary to become good leaders - determination, inner strength and the ability to face and overcome fear. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy conduct forty hours of ground training to learn the ins and outs of parachuting, everything from standing in the aircraft door, pulling their cords, emergency procedures and learning how to land properly. The course officially called AM 490, is a jump school that teaches leadership traits and is taught and organized for cadets by cadets, which results in approximately 700 jump wings being awarded annually(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy conduct forty hours of ground training to learn the ins and outs of parachuting, everything from standing in the aircraft door, pulling their cords, emergency procedures and learning how to land properly. The course officially called AM 490, is a jump school that teaches leadership traits and is taught and organized for cadets by cadets, which results in approximately 700 jump wings being awarded annually(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

MidshipmanTaylor Vendetta, of the U.S. Navel Academy tries to relax before his first free-fall jump at the U.S. Air Force Academy's AM490 Basic Parachuting course. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

MidshipmanTaylor Vendetta, of the U.S. Navel Academy tries to relax before his first free-fall jump at the U.S. Air Force Academy's AM490 Basic Parachuting course. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Ciani Ellison, a Wings of Blue team member and AM490 Basic Parachuting Class Commander, grades and debriefs student jumpers after their first free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Ciani Ellison, a Wings of Blue team member and AM490 Basic Parachuting Class Commander, grades and debriefs student jumpers after their first free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

MidshipmanTaylor Vendetta, of the U.S. Navel Academy, prepares to land his first free-fall jump from the U.S. Air Force Academy's AM490 Basic Parachuting course. The AM490 students are taken to 4,500 feet and they stand in the door over Colorado Springs and the Rockie Mountains and jump. The course focuses on safety and emergency procedures to aid the students' ability to overcome their fears and perform under the extremely stressful and potentially life-threatening situations they may encounter.(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

MidshipmanTaylor Vendetta, of the U.S. Navel Academy, prepares to land his first free-fall jump from the U.S. Air Force Academy's AM490 Basic Parachuting course. The AM490 students are taken to 4,500 feet and they stand in the door over Colorado Springs and the Rockie Mountains and jump. The course focuses on safety and emergency procedures to aid the students' ability to overcome their fears and perform under the extremely stressful and potentially life-threatening situations they may encounter.(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Jennae Stienmiller of the U.S. Coast Guard, receives the "go" signal from her jump master as she stands in the door of a mock aircraft preparing to simulate a parachute free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Jennae Stienmiller of the U.S. Coast Guard, receives the "go" signal from her jump master as she stands in the door of a mock aircraft preparing to simulate a parachute free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Master Sgt. David Siemiet, a jumpmaster with the Wings of Blue and AM490 instructor, prepares to teach a harnessed U.S. Air Force Academy International Cadet the proper techniques for troubleshooting a parachute canopy malfunction. AM490 is the only first-jump program in the world where students can make their first free-fall jump without assistance. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Master Sgt. David Siemiet, a jumpmaster with the Wings of Blue and AM490 instructor, prepares to teach a harnessed U.S. Air Force Academy International Cadet the proper techniques for troubleshooting a parachute canopy malfunction. AM490 is the only first-jump program in the world where students can make their first free-fall jump without assistance. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

A U.S. Air Force Cadet prepares to land his initial parachute jump. Students are identified on their qualifying jumps by the red parachute canopies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

A U.S. Air Force Cadet prepares to land his initial parachute jump. Students are identified on their qualifying jumps by the red parachute canopies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Members of the Wings of Blue Demonstration Team practice a double-stacked-smoke-chain jump above the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Co. The Wings of Blue demonstration team performs at every home Air Force football game, various air shows throughout the nation, and other high profile venues. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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Members of the Wings of Blue Demonstration Team practice a double-stacked-smoke-chain jump above the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Co. The Wings of Blue demonstration team performs at every home Air Force football game, various air shows throughout the nation, and other high profile venues. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Wings of Blue Demonstration Team members train for the upcoming jump season at an indoor skydiving wind tunnel in Denver, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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Wings of Blue Demonstration Team members train for the upcoming jump season at an indoor skydiving wind tunnel in Denver, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

A U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet from the AM490 Basic Parachuting, rubs his hands over a jump badge before taking his initial free-fall jump for the program. The AM490 course provides instruction in basic free fall parachuting and familiarization with emergency parachuting. Successful completion results in award of the Air Force basic parachutist badge. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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A U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet from the AM490 Basic Parachuting, rubs his hands over a jump badge before taking his initial free-fall jump for the program. The AM490 course provides instruction in basic free fall parachuting and familiarization with emergency parachuting. Successful completion results in award of the Air Force basic parachutist badge. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy AM 490 Basic Parachuting course simulate steering a parachute into a landing zone based on wind direction before conducting their first free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy AM 490 Basic Parachuting course simulate steering a parachute into a landing zone based on wind direction before conducting their first free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy AM490 Basic Parachuting course load into a U.S. Air Force Academy Twin Otter UV-18B the airlift support plane used for cadet parachuting and the Air Force Wings of Blue parachute team. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy AM490 Basic Parachuting course load into a U.S. Air Force Academy Twin Otter UV-18B the airlift support plane used for cadet parachuting and the Air Force Wings of Blue parachute team. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

A U.S. Air Force Academy cadet learns to pack and organize parachute cords before a morning jump in the 490 AM program. Cadets learn every aspect of parachuting and are responsible for packing their own gear. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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A U.S. Air Force Academy cadet learns to pack and organize parachute cords before a morning jump in the 490 AM program. Cadets learn every aspect of parachuting and are responsible for packing their own gear. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Retired Major Gen. Frank Watson provides a pep talk to Cadet 1st Class Crystal Johnson as she prepares for her first free-fall parachute jump. Gen. Watson also jumped in the AM490 program at the age of 50 and now comes to the academy to help motivate cadets before their initial jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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Retired Major Gen. Frank Watson provides a pep talk to Cadet 1st Class Crystal Johnson as she prepares for her first free-fall parachute jump. Gen. Watson also jumped in the AM490 program at the age of 50 and now comes to the academy to help motivate cadets before their initial jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy AM490 Basic Parachuting course, practice parachute landing falls into a bed of rocks, this is the last exercise of the morning before the cadets take on their first free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy AM490 Basic Parachuting course, practice parachute landing falls into a bed of rocks, this is the last exercise of the morning before the cadets take on their first free-fall jump. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Ciani Ellison, a Wings of Blue team member and AM490 Basic Parachuting Class Commander, oversees the training of hundreds of cadets and nearly 19,000 jumps a year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Ciani Ellison, a Wings of Blue team member and AM490 Basic Parachuting Class Commander, oversees the training of hundreds of cadets and nearly 19,000 jumps a year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy conduct forty hours of ground training to learn the ins and outs of parachuting, everything from standing in the aircraft door, pulling their cords, emergency procedures and learning how to land properly. The course officially called AM 490, is a jump school that teaches leadership traits and is taught and organized for cadets by cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
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Cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy conduct forty hours of ground training to learn the ins and outs of parachuting, everything from standing in the aircraft door, pulling their cords, emergency procedures and learning how to land properly. The course officially called AM 490, is a jump school that teaches leadership traits and is taught and organized for cadets by cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Fort Meade, MD --

In his book, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” Charles Lindbergh admits that he wasn’t completely sold on the idea when contemplating his first parachute attempt, “The thought of crawling out onto the struts and wires hundreds of feet above the earth, and then giving up even that tenuous hold of safety and of substance, left me a feeling of anticipation mixed with dread, of confidence restrained by caution, of courage salted through with fear,” he wrote.

Lindbergh isn’t alone in this feeling. Tell someone to hop into a plane, head up to 5,000 feet and then jump out of it for the first time all by himself or herself and most people would look at you like you’re crazy.

Not so at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Here, a few hundred cadets line up each year to take a turn.

The cadets don’t jump out of a plane right away, though. First, they complete nearly 40 hours of ground training, where they learn the ins and outs of parachuting — everything from when to pull the cord and how to properly land, to how to respond to in-air emergency situations.

The course, now in its 50th year and officially called AM-490, is a few weeks of repetitive, pound-it-into-their-heads training that is so for a reason: The course is the only known jump school where students perform their first jump all by themselves.

No tandem. No instructor jumping with them. It’s just the students, their parachutes and their training.

“It’s definitely a high-stress, high-pressure situation,” said Master Sgt. Jason Nyman, a jump instructor with the 98th Training Squadron. “But we don’t just do this to scare the cadets; we do it to test their mettle.”

In fact, the course is less about simply jumping out of an airplane and more about developing leadership traits. If cadets can go up in a plane, step to the edge of the door and make the decision to jump, then they are exhibiting qualities necessary of good leaders –determination, inner strength and the ability to face and overcome fear.

“We call it ‘Standing in the door,’” Nyman said. “It’s a reference to that moment when you’re up there, standing in the open door of the plane and it’s your turn to jump. It’s gut check time.”

For those students about to take their first leap of faith, it’s not their guts they’re worried about.

“You have to get yourself mentally ready,” said Cadet 1st Class Crystal Johnson, a first time jumper. “It’s scary so you just try to remember your training and put the fear and everything else out of your mind.”

The staff tries to prepare the students for what to expect once they do jump – telling them about how fast they’ll be falling, how loud the wind will be and teaching them which landmarks to look for – but the bulk of training is handled by other cadets who have already completed the course.

“It’s a unique situation,” Nyman said. “You have cadets teaching cadets.”

This is done to continue the leadership emphasis. Putting cadets in charge of the course, which typically consists of 75 to 80 students, gives them opportunities to experience leadership roles and responsibilities, further preparing them to become officers in the Air Force when they graduate.

“It is a great opportunity to put yourself in a leadership position and start preparing for being a leader in the Air Force,” said Cadet 1st Class Ciani Ellison, a senior who is the current cadet commander of AM-490.

Plus, being a cadet herself, she’s been in the same position as new students and knows their fears and what’s going through their minds.

GETTING THEIR WINGS

Once students complete five successful jumps, they are awarded their jump wings – a small patch worn to show they are qualified basic parachutists.

For most cadets, this is the ultimate goal. But others have set their sights even higher.

“Each year, we select cadets to join the Academy’s competitive parachute team, the Wings of Blue,” Nyman said. “Cadets can’t apply until they’ve successfully completed AM-490.”

Once cadets are chosen, they go through an advanced training program during the summer called Wings of Green. Here, the purpose is to build upon the cadet’s basic parachuting skills and find the ones capable of joining the Wings of Blue.

“If they make it, then they get to put on that coveted blue suit,” Nyman said.

The Wings of Blue is split into two teams: A demonstration team and a competitive one. The demonstration team travels around the globe, performing at sporting events and other activities, where they represent the Air Force and serve as a recruiting tool.

The competitive team competes at the collegiate level against other teams around the country and annually at the National Parachuting Championships and National Collegiate Parachuting Competition.

“We do pretty well, too,” Ellison said.

The program traces its roots back 50 years ago, when retired Lt. Gen. Jay Kelley and a handful of fellow cadets started the Academy’s skydiving club. While the original members were inexperienced compared to their competitors, they kept at it and eventually got good enough to win their first trophy at a collegiate event in Wisconsin.

Today, the competition team has won the National Collegiate Parachuting Championships 32 out of 43 years, produced 330 national champions and won 887 medals at the national level.

“Our competition team continually dominates at the national and collegiate level,” said Col. Joseph Rizzuto, the commander of the 306th Flying Training Group. “This speaks volumes to the quality of cadets we have and the amazing program we have in place to teach them.”

Like the original cadets and the ones today, Lindbergh faced his fear, stood in the door and accomplished his first jump.

“There was a deeper reason for wanting to jump, a desire I could not explain,” he wrote. “It was that quality that led me into aviation in the first place — it was a love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. It lay beyond the descriptive words of man — where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, and existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant.”

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