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Public Affairs : West Point Parachute Team

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West Point Parachute Team trains with 82nd Airborne paratroopers

By Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Sept. 20, 2012) Cadets teamed up with paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne All-American Freefall Team Sept. 14 and conducted joint airborne training in preparation for Army Football pre-game festivities last weekend.

The West Parachute Team practiced with four noncommissioned officers from Fort Bragg, N.C., on The Plain and at Michie Stadium for the decades-old tradition of performing at the cadet review and delivering the game ball from thousands of feet above onto Blaik Field.

Class of 2013 Cadets Kurt Yeager, Skylar Mackay and Szymon Marcinow made the jump from 4,500 feet high to join the Corps of Cadets on The Plain in front of thousands of spectators before Saturday’s home opener.

Three more senior demonstration jumpers, Class of 2013 Cadets Ben Garlick, Andrew Lopez and Christian Beckler would have performed the Michie Stadium jump at the home opener, but weather conditions prevented their demonstration.

All three Black Knights said during practice the jump is a milestone they worked hard for since joining the team as freshman. Lopez would have jumped with the game ball into the stadium, fulfilling a longstanding goal.

“I remember being in the stands my plebe year watching them jump the ball in,” Lopez said. “Now having that chance in front of all the fans and Corps, it’s going to be an awesome feeling.”

Lopez, who recorded his 395th jump during Friday’s practice, will have to wait a bit longer for that feeling as they will try again Sept. 29 when Army hosts Stony Brook.

“It can be a nerve-wracking experience. The first time I did it I had over 300 jumps already and it felt like I was jumping for the first time,” Lopez said. “Your heart starts beating fast and there’s so much adrenaline pumping through. It’s almost a blur because you are so focused on what you’re doing.”

Garlick, the team captain, said whatever nervousness they might experience before the demonstration is immediately replaced by an intense focus once they jump.

“At that point you’re so much in the zone you don’t think about anything else,” Garlick said. “Really, the best part is when you’re about a thousand feet off the ground and you can hear the noise from the crowd. You’re focused on the guys below and above you and then it’s over in an instant. There’s not a whole lot of time to contemplate.”

Beckler had previously jumped into Michie Stadium for a lacrosse game, but looks forward to his first in support of Army Football.

“For me, it will be a culmination of all the training, time and money spent to get this far. It means a lot to all of us just because we give up a lot to be on the team and stay committed to it,” Beckler said. “There have been semesters abroad and other training opportunities we’ll miss so that we’ll be dedicated to this and become the best jumpers we can be. So, to be able to go into the stadium for a demonstration, especially a football game, is huge for all of us.”

To participate in the stadium demonstration, cadets must earn a restricted pro-rating license which requires a minimum of 250 jumps and 10 declared jumps within a 10-meter circle. If the target is missed just once they have to start over. Coach Tom Falzone said when that happens the feeling is more of frustration than failure. In addition, cadets must meet all other U.S. Parachutist Association D license requirements.

Garlick said Michie Stadium is a great venue for a demo simply because it’s home turf, but outside the gates he said the most memorable experience he had was in 2011 when team members traveled to Corsica, France and trained with the French Foreign Legion.

“It was an awesome experience seeing the way they operate and then interacting with different cultures,” Garlick said. “The scenery was absolutely beautiful. We were jumping right on the coast and there was an 8,000-foot mountain nearby—just one of the scenic places I’ve ever been to in my life.”

This was the second year the 82nd Airborne’s freefall team jumped with the cadet team and Staff Sgt. Michael Calhoun, assistant team leader, said they were glad to be back.

“It’s been great for our team to make this event a second year in a row,” he said. “We get to see the progress made by the cadets we met here last year and it’s an honor for us to train with the future leaders of the Army.”

Joining Calhoun were Staff Sgts. Matthew Acord and Charles Poteet and Sgt 1st Class Derreck Fischer, team leader.

The cadet team trains often with Army and Air Force units, as well as with counterparts from the U.S. Air Force Academy. This year, a different active-duty parachute team will train and perform with cadets at each home game this season, a first for the academy’s demonstration team, to include the Silver Wings, from Fort Benning, Ga., and the Black Daggers from Special Operations Command.

“It’s a great experience for us and the first time we’ll be doing combination demos like this,” Lopez said. “It’s not something we were expecting to do this year but it’s definitely something that we’re going to take as much away from as we can. It’s great to get their perspective and connect with them, while connecting West Point with the Army.”

The Parachute Team’s support is not limited to football games and their schedule can include any number of appearances at lacrosse, soccer or rugby games—basically, any outdoor event with a field to land on, according to Master Sgt. Felix Serra, the team NCOIC. The team also lends their support annually at the Scoutmasters Camporee held at Lake Frederick.

When the team was founded in 1958 it comprised solely of prior-service cadets who were Airborne qualified Soldiers. Garlick said a common misconception is that cadets join the team already experienced. In fact, no returning member of the team had any prior jump experience before entering the academy.

“That is a question we get a lot from plebes and people watching us in the stands,” Garlick said. “They assume we’ve been doing this for a long time.”

The spectacle of seeing skydivers fall onto The Plain in the late afternoon is a daily treat for onlookers. More than a few stay to watch the training from the bleachers and applaud each successful landing. The team trains roughly three hours nearly every day, weather permitting, and average three jumps per cadet. To get everyone their share of jumps, the routine is smooth and repetitive. One group suits up, conducts pre-flight checks on each other, moves swiftly to the chopper, jumps and proceeds to pack their chute, while another group is ready to move out and the sequence repeats again and again.

Though the drills might seem monotonous, it’s nothing of the sort for these cadets.

“We like that because it’s safe and controlled,” Garlick said. “Getting the same routine and falling on that same pattern every day gives us that. Above all else, the first thing is safety and then putting on a good show for the crowd.”

Dr. William Saxton was among those observing Friday’s practice, and he made the trip up from his Florida home to see his granddaughter who was among the 10 new members to make the team this semester. He had to see for himself why she wanted to jump out of planes, though he was less surprised by the decision than his wife.

“We came up here last year before she made the team and watched the parachuters one day,” he said. “I said to my wife that this is what Amy wanted to do. Sure enough, she went for it. Her goal is to be one of the cadets who get to jump into Michie Stadium when she’s a firstie.”

Watching the practice in its entirety, he felt assured she made the right choice.

“Look how close they all are—I mean, this is a real team,” he said. “I understand this is considered to be a real prestigious thing to do at West Point.” His granddaughter, Class of 2016 Cadet Amy Saxton, said in only a few short weeks the team has become a big part of her life.

“The team represents West Point on a daily basis for fans who attend our practices on the parade field and, of course, more formally at various athletic events and other demonstrations,” Saxton said. “The team is truly a family, where each member looks out for one another.”

She said the application process is known throughout the Corps for its extensive sequence of evaluations, with hundreds of plebes vying for about a dozen vacant slots.

The first phase requires the applicant to complete a detailed packet of personal information which includes GPA, physical test scores, military grades, letters of recommendation and several personal essays.

“It’s a pretty extensive tryout process, almost like a whole other college application,” Lopez said. “They want to see how dedicated you are and if you will keep pushing yourself to improve.”

After a physical day of tryouts, the remaining applicants who passed evaluations stand in front of a selection board for a two-part interview. Candidates are required to memorize a packet of skydiving information, testing their ability to retain and recite large amounts of data essential to the sport.

Having passed the three phases, Saxton looks forward to developing her leadership skills on the team.

“The coaches and upper class leadership reach out to the new team members to share their knowledge and help bring them up to a highly skilled level,” Saxton said. “Each skydiver is required to lead by example and perform under a highly stressed environment.”

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It’s a familiar sight nearly every day at the U.S. Academy as the West Point Parachute Team practices on The Plain with a small crowd of spectators watching from the bleachers, and onlookers gazing upward as they make their way to the parking lots at the end of the business day. Cadets average about three jumps daily—weather permitting—and for everyone to get their share of jumps, the routine is smooth and repetitive. One group suits up, conducts pre-flight checks on each other, moves swiftly to the chopper, jumps and proceeds to pack their chute, while another group is ready to move out and the sequence repeats again and again. Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO

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The West Point Parachute Team practiced Sept. 14 with noncommissioned officers from the 82nd Airborne All-American Freefall Team, based out of Fort Bragg, N.C., in preparation for pre-game festivities at the home opener for Army Football. The cadets and paratroopers conducted joint airborne training on The Plain and at Michie Stadium. The cadet team will train with a different active-duty jump unit before each home game this season. Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO

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After every jump, the cadets fall into the routine of meticulously packing their main parachutes for the next jump. Class of 2013 Cadet Andrew Lopez said it’s the first thing they learn and something they become certified in before ever making a jump. “Every time, you go through all the steps and check it thoroughly; it becomes so much a habit if something is wrong at all you will notice it right away. If you have a question, you ask a rigger, but at this point we are so familiar with the chutes we can help each other out. It’s a big responsibility and it takes a lot of training and discipline to make sure you do it right every time.” The secondary, or reserve chute, is packed by Master Sgt. Felix Serra, the team NCOIC, and Sgt. Sean O’Toole, senior rigger. Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO

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Ben Garlick on joining the Parachute Team:
“I had a unique experience when I was younger. My dad was involved with the team as an officer representative and I remember coming out here as a kindergartener—like some of these six-year-olds you see out here in the stands. I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s car and staring up at the parachutes, thinking it was a pretty awesome way to spend your time.”

Andrew Lopez on joining the Parachute Team:
 “It was junior year in high school when I came out here with my uncle, a ’78 grad. We came out here for a football game with some of his old classmates and we saw the parachute team do a demo onto The Plain, and he had been on the parachute team back in the ‘70s. We went out there to talk to them while they were packing (chutes) and I think that’s when I first thought this is what I wanted to do. Then during Cadet Basic Training I remember seeing the team practicing and again I thought I wanted to do that. I tried out for the team and made it.” (Note: Lopez completed his 395th jump during the Sept. 14 practice)

Lopez on packing chutes:
“Every time, you go through all the steps and check it thoroughly; it becomes so much a habit if something is wrong at all you will notice it right away. If you have a question, you ask a rigger, but at this point we are so familiar with the chutes we can help each other out. It’s a big responsibility and it takes a lot of training and discipline to make sure you do it right every time.” 

Lopez on what’s unique about the team:
 “Everybody is so different but we are all a family, even though we all have different backgrounds and history but then you come here and make the team. This conglomeration of everybody is an awesome combination and there’s no one else I’d rather spend more time with. How we can come out here and jump every day is because this team is a family.”

Christian Beckler on joining the Parachute Team:
“You connect with people on a different level when you’re put in sort of an in extremis environment. You learn to be extremely comfortable in it and it brings you closer with the people you work with.”

(Editor's Note: Beckler had seen the team perform during Cadet Basic Training, and his grandfather and uncle were both smoke jumpers for the U.S. Forest Service—“They jumped out of planes into burning forests for a living. So I like to say it’s in my blood.”)

Beckler on completing his 414th jump:
“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m very calm when I jump and rarely feel any pressure. We have been trained well enough and our coaches have prepared us well enough that we don’t necessarily feel the pressure that is on us.”

Beckler on what it feels like to jump from a plane:
“Most people think when you jump your stomach drops and they are afraid to do it because they don’t like the sensation of falling. I try to describe it as standing in front of a really big fan. The helicopters and airplanes we jump out of are moving as fast as you are falling, so you really don’t get a sensation of falling as much as a transfer of momentum in a different direction. It’s one of those things during tryouts where we look for people with good body control. That’s the biggest thing that is stressed—perfect balance. The slightest inconsistency in body position can throw you off into a spin, so you have to be able to balance yourself. It definitely makes you hyper-aware of what you’re doing with your body. The fact you can pick a point on the horizon, stare at it the whole time and not move is a decent indicator you’re doing a good job.”

Beckler on his favorite jump experience:
"It was a hot air balloon jump on Christmas morning in 2011 in Arizona during nationals. That was my Christmas present for my dad. He got a ticket to ride in the hot air balloon and watched us all jump out.”

Beckler on leadership:
“My team has taught me more about leadership than I can realize as a cadet. The Army is big on in extremis leadership—the Army goes into dangerous places and does dangerous things. This team has taught me how to react calmly to situations where things can get out of control. I’ve found I’m a lot more calm, willing and able to react to those situations.”

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The West Point Parachute Team practiced Sept. 14 with noncommissioned officers from the 82nd Airborne All-American Freefall Team, based out of Fort Bragg, N.C., in preparation for pre-game festivities at the home opener for Army Football. The cadets and paratroopers conducted joint airborne training on The Plain and at Michie Stadium. The cadet team will train with a different active-duty jump unit before each home game this season. Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO