By Kathryn Kelly
The Golden Knights, also known as The United States Army Parachute Team, are conquerors of the sky. In addition to their sky expeditions that can reach an upwards of 12,500 feet, they also believe that the sky's the limit when it comes to advocacy, raising awareness for Army recruitment, and giving back to the community. Whether they are on the ground or flying among the clouds, these brave men and women have become the gold standard for service, parachute demonstrations, and spirit.
Although the Golden Knights have always showcased their signature color, they haven’t always adorned the name that has made them famous. Back in 1959, when the team was first started, they were known as the Strategic Army Command (STRAC) Parachute Team and contained 19 members. In 1961, the Department of Defense officially announced that the team would be called the U.S. Army Parachute Team. It didn’t take long in the international competition circuit for them to build an outstanding reputation, and by 1962, they had become known as the “Golden Knights” due to their golden medals around their necks.
Fast forward 50 plus years, and these daring jumpers are still making a name for themselves as the golden boys (and girls) of the sky. They have completed over 16,000 shows in all 50 states and 48 countries worldwide. In both national and international competitions, they have accumulated 2,406 gold, 1,213 silver, and 754 bronze medals, in addition to having broken 350 world records. Currently, the Golden Knights consists of 89 soldiers and civilians distributed among their many teams, including the Black & Gold Demonstration Teams, Tandem Team, Competition Team, Selection and Training, Aviation Detachment, and Headquarters Detachment.
While they are known for their impressive jumps and demonstrations in the air, most of the important work they do begins when they reach the ground. Each year, the Golden Knights attend the world’s largest air shows, including ones in Chicago, Yankee Stadium, Nebraska, and many more. These high-profile jumps draw in a substantial crowd and the Golden Knights evoke excitement and awe in the spectators, which fosters the Knights’ ability to do the slightly less adrenaline inducing portion of their job: assisting with Army recruitment.
Aside from being skilled demonstration parachutists and active service members, the Golden Knights are also one of the Army’s most useful tools for marketing and recruiting efforts. Whether through high-profile tandem jumps with well-known figures such as former President George H.W. Bush, actor Vince Vaughn, and comedian Bill Murray or through their YouTube videos, social media outreach, and charitable demonstrations, the team supports the Army’s strategic engagements to create a greater propensity to join the Army.
Down to Earth
The gallant members of the Golden Knights certainly wouldn’t want you “jumping” to conclusions about their work. While they are famous and highly-praised warriors of the sky, they are first and foremost soldiers, United States Army service members with a dedication to their country and a great love for what they do. Sgt. Daniel Gerlach, a Golden Knights Black Demonstration Team member, has always loved skydiving. What started out as a freelance hobby turned into his passion, and eventually led to his career with the Golden Knights. Although he has completed thousands of jumps in his life, he still never loses that feeling of excitement when he completes a mission, but for a different reason than most people may think. Gerlach said, “Although the adrenaline does wear off after so many jumps, there is still a great deal of excitement. For me, my favorite part is getting to the ground. We have excited little kids, fans dressed in our gear, and veterans waiting to tell us their stories. That’s what makes my job incredible.”
The praise and recognition the team members receive is certainly earned. When they are between shows, and training at their Lillington training facility, they start their day early in the morning. They complete chores, they practice new techniques, and they prepare for their travels. In one year, the Golden Knights spend 280 days traveling all over the United States and the world for air shows and aerial competitions. For Gerlach, the traveling benefits are one of his favorite things about being on the team. He says he loves the exciting places they get to go and all of the different people they get to meet. However, many of the team members are also husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers. With all of the time spent in training, on the road, or in the air, maintaining good team relations is an important ingredient in the Golden Knights’ recipe for success. So, while they may have to leave behind their families and comforts of home, the Golden Knights stress positive team interactions and friendships and consider themselves to be their own family.
Rituals for Success
The Golden Knights have their own rituals and superstitions as a team ensuring a successful mission before takeoff. From encouraging team chants to waiting to put on their helmets until the team leader does, these customs contribute to the team’s traditions, camaraderie, and unity.
Once they are in the sky, the air pressure literally may go down, but the pressure to perform increases. Like with any flight, unexpected obstacles may occur. Unfavorable weather, difficult landing areas, and issues on board the flight can add to the already existing challenges of perfecting a dive from 3,500 feet in the air. If their landing area is too small or the weather is worse than they expected, their lives can be in danger. In the past, they have cancelled trips or appearances at airshows due to these circumstances. If something unexpected were to go awry, Gerlach confirmed, “If worse comes to worst, the safety of the crowd and spectators is our number one priority above ourselves.”
Although they do not ride on noble steeds or wear shining armor into battle, the Golden Knights’ poly-blend jumpsuits and golden parachutes symbolize their bravery in the skies and the important work they do on the ground. As the world’s best and largest parachute team, the Golden Knights are an esteemed combination of outstanding service members, passionate skydivers, masters of showmanship, and proud American citizens that are making the world better one parachute release at a time.