Army's parachute team celebrates 50th anniversary
Posted March 16, 2009 11:15 a.m. EDT
Updated March 16, 2009 7:03 p.m. EDT
Fort Bragg, N.C. — The Army's Golden Knights parachute team kicked off the celebration of its 50th anniversary with a ceremony at Fort Bragg on Monday morning.
The members of the original 1959 team reunited at a ceremony, also attended by Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and former NBA star Karl Malone, who did a tandem jump with the Golden Knights last year.
More than 800 soldiers have earned their parachute boots as Golden Knights since the Department of Defense formed the group to compete against teams from Soviet block countries during international parachute events.
"The priority here was to go out, quite frankly, and beat the Russians and the East Germans and the French and everybody else that was involved in international competitive parachuting," Will "Squeak" Charette, one of the original Golden Knights, said.
"And we did that. Next thing you know, we're rock stars," Charette added, remembering public tours around the U.S.
Since the Cold War, those rock stars have fallen from the sky at air shows from sea to shining sea, hitting targets spot-on. They are one of three authorized aerial defense teams, along with the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels, teams that stay in their aircraft as they perform aerobatic maneuvers.
Golden Knights usually make more than 500 jumps a year and around 8,000 in their career.
"To land dead center on a target is extremely difficult; to do it constantly" is even harder, said Lt. Col. Tony Dill, battalion commander for the Golden Knights.
Charette said it's hard to put the sensation of free-falling into words.
"It's just literally what it is: You're falling free. You have total control – or you better have – of everything that's going on," he said.
The team's mission has evolved beyond parachute demonstrations to include research on military free-fall parachuting.
Army officials and Golden Knights alumni said the paratroopers are also a powerful pull in recruiting campaigns.
Jim Correll, the group's commander from 1981 to 1983, said he always thought of a Boy Scout coming out to watch a performance – "that boy who's going to grow up and maybe one day choose the Army because of what he sees."
Geren said the Golden Knights are "extraordinary soldiers that tell the Army story in a powerful way."