There's nothing quite like watching a dozen people or so jump out of a perfectly good airplane, in perfect formation, to make you look straight up, in wonder. That's what the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team has been doing for the past 50 years.
They're celebrating with another series of spectacular jumps Monday at Ft. Bragg, weather permitting. I'd gone on a jump with them once, along with CBS News producer Carrie Rabin, so they invited us down to Ft. Bragg for the anniversary.
The current team also invited the old timers back. They started as a 13-man team in 1959, almost on a general's lark, to take on the Soviet parachute team. We met veteran Will "Squeak" Charette (so named, because his first pair of jump boots squeaked.) He recalled how when they started, then known as the "Strategic Army Corps Parachute Team," they had no budget, no planes and no equipment.
"We used our own parachutes," he told us. Or they used surplus parachutes discarded by the Air Force as substandard for their pilots.
From those lowly beginnings, the Golden Knights is now a U.S. Army advertising powerhouse - both acting as ambassadors to generate goodwill overseas, and more importantly, to encourage Americans to sign up back home.
There are two display teams - black and gold - and there's a tandem team which jumps with "personalities," from actors like Bill Murray, to athletes like Tiger Woods, and even a former president. (George Bush Sr. plans to jump with them a second time, to celebrate his 85th birthday. His wife, reportedly, is not amused.)
Through all those shows, they reach an estimated audience of 800 million eyeballs a year. They call that "views," kind of like web hits, meaning someone might see them a few times over, through air shows, magazine and newspapers, and of course, television.
Let me tell you - making a tandem jump with the Golden Knights is a surefire way to make sure you never forget them. Nothing like being flung out of a plane at several thousand feet strapped to someone else, who is controlling the chute, to make a lasting impression. My tandem instructor, known to his buddies as the "world famous Staff Sergeant Joe Jones," excelled in keeping my mind off the jump until it was much too late. (
But there's also a sharp end to what they do. They test some of the most advanced equipment the Army can field, to help with the war on terror. And then they teach special operations forces how it works.
Green Beret Lt. Colonel Tony Dill is the current commander of the Golden Knights. His last job was fighting in southern Afghanistan. He explained that since 9/11, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, parachuting in to a mission has become one of the safest and most effective ways for U.S. special operations forces to travel, and attack. It's called HALO - high-altitude, low-opening.
Instead, "you drop in from 35,000 feet and before you know it, you're touching down and knocking on their front door," he told us. With all the bombs planted on the roads, "it's safer to fly than drive," he said.
But first, the SF/SOF troops (SF=Green Beret, SOF includes all special operating forces like SEALs) have to learn how to jump from that height, wearing an oxygen mask, carrying a weapon, and two backpacks - one strapped to their chest, and one to their legs.
Most special operations troops will have done at most 100 jumps -whereas the Golden Knights do 20 a day during training, and thousands in their career. So they can teach the SF/SOF guys how just holding the gun wrong can catch the wind, and blow them way off course.
Lt. Col. Dill says when they start the week of training, the SF/SOF team is landing spread out across a football field. But by the end of training, they're within thirty yards of the target.
The suit slows his fall down from 120 miles per hour, to a mere 30 miles per hour, so instead of falling for 30 seconds, he stretches it out to two or three minutes - and he covers a lot of territory. He's already broken one record, by jumping out at 25,000 feet, and gliding for 10 miles. His next goal is to jump from 35,000 feet, and travel up to 12 miles - fingers crossed.
He explained they're looking at how they'd attach military equipment to the suit, so a Green Beret team could do the same, inserting several miles behind enemy lines.
When I asked if he'd let us know how it all worked out, he got surprisingly media-shy for a Golden Knight. No, he said. Not so much.
Then he went back to preparing for his day job - where it's all about putting everything on show.