Character Takes Flight

  • Published
  • By Andrew Arthur Breese
  • Airman Magazine


Rebel skydiving cadets set a foundation of leadership and excellence

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 to “Stand in the door” and hopefully one day represent on the Air Force Parachute Team, The Wings of Blue.

The program traces its roots to 1962, when retired Lt. Gen. Jay Kelley and a handful of fellow “rebel” cadets started a skydiving club. They had no sanctioning from the Academy; truthfully, the Academy had no idea. When words of their jumping escapades at colligate events got back to the superintendent after they won a gold medal, the Academy leadership was facing a dilemma—punish these outlaws or reward these competitors, but after receiving a challenge from the Commandant of West Point to compete in a Para meet—club status resulted in May 1964.

“The important point for us was to come home with a trophy, something we could show for effort that would reflect well on the academy,” Kelly said, on hoping to change the Academy’s rules against skydiving.

So far this year the team has won 37 medals at the National Colligate Parachuting Championships with an ultimate goal of taking home more gold at the US Parachute Association Skydiving Championships in September, which is a level above the collegiate competitions.

Although the recognition is rewarding, the team is less about awards or 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.

Cadet volunteers who meet stringent physical requirements may enroll in the parachute program. Completing five free fall 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 teams.

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 55th 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.

“Standing in the door, is putting your faith in the program, your jumpmaster, equipment, accomplishing what seems to be an impossible task to get your wings,’” Senior Master John Kelly, superintendent of the 98th Flying Training Squadron. “As a young officer they are going face challenges that seem daunting, but they need to trust in training we (the Air Force) provide is going to get them through.”

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 an empowering situation,” Kelly 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.

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. 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.”