CMC Staffers Take a Flying Leap with Golden Knights Parachute Team
Three CMC staff members got the chance and thrill of a lifetime when they were invited to jump with the U.S. Army’s elite parachute team, The Golden Knights, in the skies over Lake Elsinore Airport.
“The jump was nothing short of amazing,” says Jennifer Sandoval-Dancs, director of admission at CMC.
“Surprisingly, I was not nearly as nervous as I thought I was going to be. Standing by the open door of an airplane was surreal, but you only have a few seconds to even think about how crazy what you are about to do is, so the rest is history.”
Along with Sandoval-Dancs, Evan Rutter, assistant dean of admission, and Randy Town, physical education director and coach of the Stags baseball team, made the tandem jump strapped in with their respective Golden Knight partners.
The jump opportunity with the Golden Knights came as an extension of the long and mutually beneficial relationship CMC has fostered with the U.S. Army’s ROTC program. In fact, CMC’s ROTC program is one of the oldest in the nation and celebrates its 92nd anniversary this year. To date, CMC has commissioned 4,872 second lieutenants.
Over the decades, ROTC’s commitment to CMC and the community has provided tremendous learning and growth opportunities for students that go hand in hand with CMC’s mission of developing future leaders.
A prime example of that leadership synergy is the yearly Army ROTC Leadership Development and Assessment Camp at Ft. Lewis, Washington that ROTC cadets attend between their junior and senior years.
What’s more, specially selected members of the CMC community visit that camp for three days as guests of the Army so that they may understand the Army’s methodology for training future Army officers. Last year CMC Dean of Students Mary Spellman was elected to visit the camp.
According to Lieutenant-Colonel William Fitch, an enrollment officer with ROTC on campus and the man who organized the Lake Elsinore jump, the CMC jumpers were chosen based upon their “frequent contact with potential and current CMC students.”
The jump itself occurred at an altitude of 13,000 ft. with the jumpers plummeting at a speed of approximately 125 mph.
“The free fall was probably close to 45 seconds before the ripcords were pulled at 5,000 ft.,” LTC Fitch says, “and it was all videotaped.” (Watch the videos here.)
LTC Fitch acts as the talent scout for ROTC and works hard to ensure that the best and brightest college students are encouraged to enter the program and become Army officers.
“My job puts me in frequent contact with CMC coaches (the Army wants student-athletes) and members of the Admission Staff, since they have daily access to CMC applicants,” he says.
Rutter, one of the lucky CMCers chosen by LTC Fitch, says that he had wanted to skydive for years.
“It was one of those things, though, where I just didn’t have the opportunity, and apparently driving myself there and actually doing it just wasn’t going to happen,” he says. “When Colonel Fitch and my boss, Dick Vos, came into my office and gave me the opportunity, I jumped (no pun intended). I don’t think it took more than a split second for me to respond with a resounding yes.’
“I’ll be honest, though,” he continues, “I was a little nervous for the two weeks leading up to it. I figured if I was ever going to do it, you can’t get much better than doing it with the Army and the Golden Knights.”
For her part, Sandoval-Dancs says she didn’t know who the Golden Knights were prior to being invited on the jump. “But I trusted Army ROTC and was delighted to be invited,” she says. “I believe the fact that I had only a few minutes to commit to be a part of the Golden Knights tandem jumping camp made the decision easier.”
After signing the obligatory liability waivers, the jumpers took a 30-minute training course which covered equipment and what to expect during the jump in Rutter’s words: “a do this’ and don’t do that’ kind of primer.”
“The training actually really quelled any fears that one would have,” Rutter says. “They go over the equipment very thoroughly and you learn that there are so many backups and fail-safes on the chute that something going wrong is nearly impossible.
“They told us as we jump we have to hold our hands on the straps near our chest, arch our backs and lift our legs for the first five seconds, then we can do whatever we want. Then they went into how to land. Since we were tandem we really didn’t need to know how to work the chute or anything like that.”
Sandoval-Dancs believes the faint air of mystery that the Golden Knights built into the jump was intended to maximize the thrill of the jump itself.
“They did not go into as much detail about what to expect after, I guess they did not want to spoil the surprise,” she says. “They told us about three times prior to the jump what was going to happen and how we needed to be positioned before we jumped out of the plane so I felt ready, at least intellectually!”
The aircraft used for the jump was a twin-engine prop plane fitted out with benches on either side that could accommodate about 10 jumpers.
For Rutter, as the aircraft climbed to 5,000 ft., the jump became palpable in a way that transcended the training session. In essence, talk started to become action.
“As we crossed 10,000 feet we started to suit up’ which meant I was hooked on to my Golden Knight, Aaron, in four places shoulders and hips,” he says. “When you jump tandem, and you’re not the professional, you really are just along for the ride. Being hooked on to the front you’re at their mercy. It’s sure an amazing feeling when you are just hanging on the outside of a plane. We rocked back and forth until the count of three’ when we dove into the sky. Instantly you’re dropping and hit by gusts of air from two sides and then you just start to fall and it is unbelievably surreal.”
The part of the jump that was unexpected for Sandoval-Dancs was when she had trouble catching her breath immediately after deplaning.
“Not being able to breathe is always disconcerting,” she says, “but this lasted for a few seconds and then it felt nothing short of incredible. Everything happens so fast, I wish I had a bit more time for both the free fall and the time we had to glide in the sky. It was hot that day, so the temperature in the air was cool and was a nice reprieve. While I enjoyed the 45 seconds of free fall, the best part was when the parachute opened and we were gliding through the air. The view was beautiful and it was a crystal clear day.”
The forerunner of the Golden Knights the Strategic Army Corps Sport Parachute Team or STRAC was the brainchild of World War II hero, Brigadier General Joseph Stilwell. The original STRAC team consisted of 13 military parachutists that competed successfully in parachute competitions, provided assistance to the military in the development of modern parachuting techniques and equipment and provided support for Army public relations and recruiting.
The team participated in international parachuting competitions to thwart the Soviets in their quest for dominance of the world parachuting arena. In 1959, the team was formally organized and later re-designated as the Army’s official aerial demonstration unit on June 1, 1961.
Rutter’s Golden Knight partner, Aaron, did wonders in allaying any pre-jump jitters that the CMCers might have had. And as a veteran of more than 4,500 jumps including descents on Rams, Ravens and Chiefs football games it was more than lip service.
And was it a soft landing?
“Just like sliding into home plate,” says Rutter.
“The Golden Knights were encouraging and full of adrenaline,” adds Sandoval-Dancs. “They just told us to enjoy it because you never get to experience the rush that comes with your first jump. They did a great job of making us feel safe and confident the whole time, but mostly they wanted us to be excited.”