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.”
“It’s definitely a high-stress, high-pressure situation, but we don’t just do this to scare the cadets; we do it to test their mettle.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”