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Flying with the Army's Golden Knights

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For almost 60 years the US Army's freefall parachutist display team has wowed the crowds across the USA and from time to time, abroad. On a predictably warm and cloudless day in Arizona recently, Aviation Week was invited to ride along with the team as they performed their routine. Luke AFB was holding it's 75th anniversary air show, and the Golden Knights were one of the headline acts. Up to six media personnel can be accommodated on each flight and the team performed several jumps over the weekend. After going through the necessary security checks, we were driven to the team's C-31A/F-27 Friendship aircraft at the southern end of Luke AFB.

Prior to the flight, the team ran through their routine on the ground, while the ground crew check the aircraft over.

The team's aircraft include two of the C-31As (above) and three UV-18A Viking Twin Otters, all of them based at Fort Bragg, NC. They are maintained to an immaculate standard in a striking gold and black livery.

The two C-31As were delivered to the Army in 1985, but have low airframe time, and thanks to the maintenance standards, are superbly reliable. As well as being a crowd-pleaser, the team also serves as a recruiting tool for the Army, with the planes also sporting the Army's recruitment website.

Like any other flight, the flight crew ran through their pre-flight checks, and warn the media passengers that we can expect temperatures of around 17F once we get up to the drop height of 12,500 ft.

The cabin is divided into two sections: airline-style seating at the front and troop/bench style seating to the rear.

We are also given a safety brief similar to a commercial flight, but with some notable differences. For one thing, the rear doors are going to remain open for the entire flight, and we are going to be strapped to the fuselage, along with all our cameras, phones, and anything else we plan to use at altitude.

As we begin to taxi out, the team and media are all expectant of what's ahead.

The take-off roll from Luke's runway gives us an idea of the noise and wind we can expect.

After take-off we are treated to great views of the aircraft on static display at Luke AFB.

 

The aircraft climbs in a spiral pattern, so we repeatedly pass over the base, with the crowd looking smaller and smaller.

Luke AFB is home to the 56th Fighter Wing, one of the largest F-16 bases in the US, and home to more F-35s than anywhere else. Due to the intense sun, most live under sun-shades.

As we climb higher, we get good views of the surrounding countryside in the Glendale/Litchfield areas west of Phoenix.

Several members of the team stand close to the door to assess conditions, the landing zone, local terrain, and then one drops a wind marker - a flag/smoke dispenser, so that they can calculate their exact exit point based on wind drift.

One team member then exits early as the 'advance guard', and he carries the US flag down. After landing, he also becomes the narrator for the rest of the team when they perform their display. As drop time approaches, more checking takes place...

Finally, we get to 12,500 ft - drop height. By now the civilian personnel are all bitterly cold and are looking forward to descending and being able to feel their hands again! However, the views of Arizona are just fabulous.

Ten members will jump together, and they gather by the doors so that they can jump as close together as possible.

Finally the call comes to jump, calculated to the second, and out they go !

...and then it's all over in a second and they've all exited. The crowd is treated to a well-rehearsed formation drop, complete with colored smoke, music and commentary. We descend in no time, land and taxi back to the remote parking location. By the time we are on the ground, we've almost warmed up again!

Thanks are due to all the Golden Knights team who were so professional, informative and helpful during our trip. And also to the Public Affairs Office at Luke AFB who set up the opportunity in the first place - the various members of the team worked hard to make sure everything went smoothly on the day.

All photos/videos: Nigel Howarth, Aviation Week

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