Chapter 1 - Section 1

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History of the Golden Knights - Chapter 1 / Section 1
  • Sport Parachuting Comes to the US Army
  • Supplemental Information
  • About the Title

After WWII and during the 1950s, the sport of parachuting gained increasing popularity worldwide.  The US Army had trained Airborne personnel, but had no sport or competitive parachuting program. To augment its talented civilians, the US needed a group of skilled parachutists from its military services who could showcase the sport, compete locally and internationally, and enhance the prestige of the US and the military. The fact that Russia dominated the field in international competitions further enhanced the US Army's desire to create a strong US presence in sport parachuting. [See Supplemental Information for more about the early history of parachuting around the world and in the US Army.]

When sport "free fall parachuting" was added as a sanctioned military activity in the late 1950’s, the US Army had no program, no personnel, no equipment or other resources in place to promote the activity.  However, they did have talented paratroopers in the Airborne services. Building the program began with gathering paratroopers from all of the airborne units for training. 

[Editor's Note: Some of these paratroopers competed nationally and internationally as civilians, and sometimes had to forego recognition of their successes because their participation was in conflict with their military status.]

Vintage Postcard from Fort Bragg, NC

Fort Bragg, North Carolina - Home of the Airborne and Special Operations

Since the US Army had no sport parachuting professionals, in 1957 it contracted with Jacques Istel and Lew Sanborn
to train the first cadre of sport jumpers at Ft. Bragg, NC. Istel and Sanborn were recognized as the most experienced
sky divers in America at the time. Later in their careers, Istel and Sanborn formed Parachutes Inc which provided
parachuting equipment to the majority of jumpers internationally.

Lew Sanborn
At left: Lew Sanborn in Early Gear

Click here to see a wonderful YouTube video of Lew Sanborn discussing his early military and sky diving experiences.

In its first year, the sport parachuting program executed by Istel and Sanborn included training the paratroopers in free fall parachuting and conducting a free fall parachuting demonstration. Of the early trainees, only a few would be allowed to free-fall, and they had to buy their own parachutes to do so.

Not only was the original program short on resources and services, it also had limited support personnel.

An especially valuable service was provided by volunteers from the Special Warfare Center Parachute Rigger Detachment.   Under the leadership of First Sergeant John Hollis, the riggers relieved the original free fall team from the responsibility of packing their parachutes.

The riggers, among them David Crocco, Dick  Fortenberry, Jim Garvey and Skip McFarland, packed the parachutes on the ground. Heretofore, parachutes had been packed under cover on long  packing tables. Packing on the ground was a revolutionary concept that offered flexibility and improved processing speed.

In April of 1958, the Department of the Army revised Army Regulation (AR 95-19). The revisions authorized the forming of free fall parachute clubs and approved the use of military air craft by the parachute clubs. Providing military resources and approving on-post clubs helped to promote the sport and the skills of the military's free-fall parachutists. Free fall parachuting clubs in the Army started forming later in 1958, and interest built slowly.


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Parachuting - A Very Brief History                                                                                         [more panels below]

The use of parachutes can be traced back to 12th century China and has since been studied for hundreds of years, including by Leonardo da Vinci.

Balloon jumps were made across Europe in the 1700's.  The first emergency jump was made by a Polish balloonist in the early 1800s. During the 19th century, women began to participate in the sport. Kathe Paulus, a woman, was Germany's first professional parachutist. During the early 20th century, dummy drops were made from popular attractions such as the Eiffel Tower in France and the Statue of Liberty in the US.

In 1913, Tiny Broadwick, a professional parachutist, became the first American woman to jump from an airplane. Later that year she became the first woman to make a water jump [into Lake Michigan], and she was also the first woman to jump free fall [1914].

During World War I, parachutes were used as rescue equipment for the observation balloon pilots.  Airplane pilots, however, were still expected to land their planes rather than "bailout".

Between WWI and WWII, parachuting was popularized by the travelling airshow (often called a Flying Circus) that featured "barnstormers", aviators and adventurers who performed aerial tricks and parachute jumps during the shows.

During WWII, the use of parachutes to facilitate insertion missions is considered instrumental in winning the war against the Axis powers.

After WWII, parachuting among civilians and former soldiers grew as a hobby and sport. Competitions developed worldwide, and parachuting became an accepted part of air sports. The first commercial parachuting centers opened in the mid-1950s, followed soon thereafter by training centers.  The term "skydiver" is credited to Raymond Young, a jumper at the time.

Parachuting was largely unregulated through the 1950s. The interests of the Parachute Club of America (later the United Stated Parachute Association) and the Federal Aviation Association were initially targeted toward parachute safety. As the sport gained popularity, Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) increasingly dealt with broarder issues, such as proximity to clouds or proximity of the intended landing site to spectators.

[source: see Reference # 1, an excellent resource about the history of parachuting]

Early Parachuting in the US Army - Airborne Services

By the late 1930s, the US Army recognized the potential of using air-deployed infantry troops in military operations. At that time, Russia already had a well-developed airborne operation. Germany, Italy, France and Poland had also established airborne units by the advent of WWII.

It was not until 1940 that the US military had the aircraft and funding to actively develop airborne programs. A "Parachute Test Platoon" was created to develop appropriate equipment, to develop an airborne doctrine, to test delivery techniques and to establish a training program. Major William C "Bill" Lee was the project officer, and is considered the father of America's airborne.

The battle cry "Geronimo" originated when the Parachute Test Platoon made its first mass jump. It was yelled so loudly by Private Aubrey Eberhardt that observers on the ground heard it. By the end of 1940, "air troops" were also authorized by the Marines. Both services did not lack in volunteers, although the standards for acceptance were high, the wash-out rate was high, and the training was rigorous.

Airborne units continued to grow throughout 1941, and after the attack at Pearl Harbor when the US entered into WWII as a true combatant, the Airborne forces were an important component in the military war strategy. Several well-known airborne divisions, including the 82nd and 101st were activiated during WWII.

In December 1944, the first black parachute platoon was created from 18 volunteers from the 92nd Infantry Division. This unit later expanded and became the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion or the "Triple Nickel".

After WWII, US military commanders hoped for peace and therefore adopted a peace time approach to maintaining the US Army airborne services. In less than two years the US no longer had the largest airborne force in the world.

[see Reference 2 to learn more about the Military's Paratroopers]

Parachutist, Paratrooper, Jumper, Skydiver, Free-Faller

Anyone making an intentional parachute jump is a parachutist or jumper.

All paratroopers are military personnel that jump from aircraft wearing combat equipment, although paratroopers occasionally make proficiency jumps called 'hollywood jumps' that do not include combat equipment. For jump operations, paratroopers use a static line to deploy (automatically open) the parachute. Most tactical jumps are Battalion-sized or larger. Battalions include 700+ personnel and represent a force big enough to perform a tactical mission.

Sky diver or free-faller normally describes sport parachutists who delay opening their parachute after they jump. Sky divers deploy their main parachute manually. They wear an altimeter to help them determine their altitude while in free fall. The altimeter helps them open their parachute at a prescribed altitude. They must wear an auxililary or emergency parachute in case the main canopy malfunctions.

Sky Diving means exiting from the jump platform of an aircraft and intentionally delaying the opening of the primary parachute. The delay is measured in seconds, not minutes. Free Fall is the period before the parachute is opened. The "jump platform" means any surface of the aircraft where separation from the aircraft occurs: the threshhold of the doorway, a footboard that runs alongside the aircraft, from the rear using the clamshell hatch opening and/or other exits.

Typically, sport parachutists only use a static line during their initial jump training or until they are ready for free fall. Some students never make a static line jump but qualify using Advanced Free Fall (AFF) procedures that have been approved by the United States Parachute Association (USPA).  All students must also abide by the pertinent Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR's). Sport parachutists usually do not jump from altitudes requiring oxygen equipment.

Competitive sport parachuting includes the many disciplines associated with the sport, such as accuracy, style, team events, and formations. Competitive sport parachuting occurs at many levels from local meets to International and World Championships. The Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) is the ruling authority worldwide.

Military Free Fall (MFF) is mainly associated with HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) and HAHO (High Altitude High Opening) military jumps.  MFF is used primarily for missions of infiltration. MFF paratroopers are trained by The Military Free Fall Committee, a part of the Special Forces schools. MFF is used by small units such as the Special Forces, SEALS, Rangers and reconnaissance units. Almost all MFF jumps involve combat equipment and require oxygen equipment onboard the jump platform as well as individual oxygen supplies for the Military Free Fallers. Most of these jumps are performed at night. That is probably why MFF personnel do not associate the term "sky diving" with what they do. In order to perform these specialized missions and use this means of infiltration, these pesonnel are highly trained and dedicated

Early Gear and Techniques - Airborne
In training and combat jumps, the parachute used by conventional airborne troops was the T-5 parachute, and later the T-10 parachute.

Jumps were all static line deployed. "Static line deployment" means a line is anchored to the jump platform and attached to the parachutist's back pack. The static line automatically extracts the parachute canopy when the parachutist exits the jump platform, a process which typically takes 3-4 seconds.

During training jumps, a reserve or emergency parachute was worn. In low-alitude combat jumps, however, wearing a reserve was less typical since the parachutist often did not have time to deploy the reserve.

"First a Soldier, Second a Soldier, Always a Soldier"
is the statement that most accurately describes the essence of the Golden Knights.

Although an elite, skilled and highly visible group,
the Golden Knights are also highly trained military servicemen.
Throughout their military careers,
these dedicated professionals serve their countrymen in many capacities,
including standing ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Many have.

The men and women of the Golden Knights are soldiers, first and always.

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