Flying High | By Kelly Twedell
● Published by Anonymous
Sergeant First Class Elissa Tennyson has her head in the clouds – a lot of the time, anyway. Tennyson is one of six women on the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army’s parachute team. With over 11,000 freefall jumps, Tennyson is almost as comfortable falling from the sky as she is walking on the ground. She’s been affiliated with the team since 1988 and during that time has joined the Golden Knights as they have performed more than 15,000 shows in all 50 states.
“I heard about the Golden Knights and thought it would be an awesome job to be an ambassador for the Army,” said Tennyson. “I was hooked after my first jump and knew that was the career path for me within the Army.”
Tennyson decided to pursue the Golden Knight’s rigorous assessment and selection process, which is held just once a year each September at Fort Bragg. Active-duty enlisted members from any of the services may apply. Applicants must have a minimum of 150 free-fall parachute jumps, flawless military and civilian records and be willing to attend the U.S. Army Airborne School. In the end, she was one of very few Golden Knight hopefuls to be selected on her first try.
Although team members from the Golden Knights do not face deployments, between demonstrations and competitions, they spend a lot of time away from their families. Tennyson is married, but her 15-year-old son stays in Cherry Point, NC with her husband. She said the family tries to squeeze in as much time together as possible and that they tackle home projects on the weekends. While she doesn’t have much time for hobbies, Tennyson said she has recently taken up gardening.
In 2009 Tennyson was forced to take time off to recuperate from a training accident that left both of her legs broken. The accident, which occurred because the predicted winds aloft were incorrectly calculated, proves that there are many factors that go into keeping the jumpers safe. Tennyson’s accident also proves that even though the Golden Knights do not experience combat deployment, it’s a dangerous job nonetheless.
Members of the Golden Knights have to fulfill the same commitments and are held to the same standards as other soldiers in the Army. They have to attend the same schools and train to stay current in their military jobs. However, they have to fit all their regular military training in during the months of October, November and December, when they aren’t otherwise occupied with Golden Knights’ duties.
Though there are just six women on the team this year, last year the Golden Knights had more women on the team than any other year in the team’s history. Ten of the 26 demonstration jumpers on the team last year were women. “It’s a male-dominated sport and it’s different as a female,” Tennyson said. “In regards to the style competition, the female center of balance is different.”
The Golden Knights are divided into two teams, the Gold team and Black team, and their schedules allow each team to focus on either demonstrations or competing. Tennyson has done some demonstrations but said she does not particularly enjoy interacting with the press and the crowds, she prefers competing. “I’ve always been competitive and played sports growing up and it’s what I do best,” Tennyson said.
The competition calendar does not fluctuate much from year to year and the team is always looking ahead and training for the next competition. Every two years they compete in the World Championship competition, which was held this year in Montenegro. Every four years they compete in the Military World Games, which is similar to the Olympics. That event will take place in July next year in Rio de Janiero.
The two competition teams include the nine-member free-fall formation team and the four-member style and accuracy team, of which Tennyson is the captain. During the week the team practices from the airport in Laurinburg, N.C., regardless of the weather. When the weather is too bad to jump, they go into the hanger and use a harness system that simulates jumping out of the door of an airplane and landing on a circle that is smaller than a dime with their heel.
Tennyson said she enjoys being an ambassador for the Army and appreciates the opportunities that come with being a member of the Golden Knights – two more reasons to keep her head in the clouds.