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Golden Knights fall, land with game ball

Michaels, Amanda | Tuesday, October 28, 2003

No defense could touch 1st Sgt. Mike Elliot as he carried the football for over 4,000 yards in less than three minutes during the opening of the Oct. 18 game against USC. But before the record books are pulled out, it should be noted that these were not rushing yards; rather, they were falling yards.

As part of the pre-game spectacle, Elliot, joined by fellow members of the Gold Demonstration section of the U.S. Army Parachute Team (USAPT), dove into the stadium from 12,500 feet, chutes flying, to safely deliver the game ball on the 50-yard line.

“We’ve jumped into stadiums across the country, doing this,” said Elliot, the team’s captain. “It’s one of our most popular demonstrations.”

Earlier that day, the Gold Team practiced what they termed “dirt dives”, or on-ground simulations of what the day’s program would be, on the tarmac at the Gary Jet Center. Though the Team boasts 13 experienced members with between 400 and 4,000 individual logged jumps, they never let themselves become complacent.

“If we relax, someone gets hurt. We always have to be a little nervous, always on our toes, no matter how many times we’ve jumped,” said Elliot

The procedure normally performed at football games is called the Mass Exit show, with all the jumpers exiting the aircraft before joining together to create a geometrical formation and landing one at a time.

Despite the team’s experience, high winds threatened to keep the Golden Knights (a nickname for the USAPT) in their C-31 Friendship Fokker – a plane specially built in the Netherlands – though, obviously, calmer weather prevailed.

“We never jump if the wind is gusting too hard,” said Sergeant First Class Andy Leake. “We’d just get tossed around out there, and end up landing in the crowd on national television.”

Stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., the Golden Knights were established in 1959, officially recognized by the Army two years later, to compete “in the then-Communist-dominated sport of skydiving,” said Staff Sgt. Mellissa Novakovich.

Today, the USAPT is made up of six divisions, including two demonstration teams, two competition teams, the aviation section and the Headquarters element, all of which serve to promote, recruit for and compete in the name of the Army. Jumpers also test new parachuting equipment to certify its safety and evaluate its improvement from previous models.

To become a member of the Golden Knights, an enlisted member must submit a packet detailing their qualifications, meeting the requirements of at least 150 free-fall jumps, static line certification and a flawless military career. Twenty to 25 new members are chosen each year and then sorted into one of the demonstration or competition divisions to serve a three- to eight-year tour. Both new and old personnel are then taken through two months of rigorous training in Yuma, Ariz., where the maneuvers are perfected for the show.

“Since my first dive, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” said Leake, a second-year member of the Gold Team. “The fact that this is my job every day? It never gets old.”