A brief summary of the 49- year history of parachuting here at USAFA. It all started in the spring of 1962 when a band of bootleg jumpers made their first parachute jumps as cadets. Using condemned SERE rigs and local aviation pilots, these cadets made several jumps in the Colorado area. During that spring, a few cadets by the names of Aronoff, Davis, Kelley, McCurdy and Sijan – at their own risk and expense–made a number of demonstration and competition jumps to include our 1st collegiate-national appearance in Wisconsin winning a gold medal. They had no sanctioning from the Academy; truthfully, the Academy had no idea. When words of their jumping escapades got back to the superintendent, the Academy leadership was facing a dilemma—punish these outlaws or reward these collegiate competitors—needless to say, there were some rocky times those first two years, but after receiving a challenge from the Commandant of West Point to compete in a Para meet—club status resulted in May 1964. Under the careful guidance and nurturing of Cadet Pete Johnston, the club grew with great renown not only in the cadet wing, but the skydiving community as well. His efforts along with those of the graciously volunteering officer and enlisted core such as Capt Craig Elliot, Capt John Garrity, SSgt Mort Freedman and MSgt James Howell helped set the foundation for the now internationally known United States Air Force Academy Parachute Team Wings of Blue.
Here are some chronological highlights of the 49-year history of parachuting at the Academy.
- In September of 1964, the fledgling parachute club made its first jumps on Academy property.
- In July of 1966, the academy’s parachute club became “THE Air Force Academy parachute team”.
- In the spring of 1967, the signature instructional course, Airmanship 490 basic free fall was started (still called AM-490 today).
- Also in spring of 1967, Cadet Steve Elm created the patch for the team—nearly unchanged today.
- In spring of 1970—permission to award the “basic parachutist” badge to AM-490 grads was granted (and still done today).
- Spring of 1976—the need for a flashier name changed USAFA Parachute Team to Parachute Team Wings of Blue, the birth of the term PTWOB—the name we still use today.
- In September 1977, two brand new UV-18B Twin Otters arrived—those two aircraft are still used today.
- In 1978 the team transitioned from the use of round canopies to the sportier square design. The Wings of Blue were among the first group of people to jump the revolutionary design. Lacking the facilities to conduct our own operations, the squadron’s first enlisted force, several combat controllers, would allow cadets to train with them.
- It wasn’t until 1994 that the 98th flying training squadron stood up as the official home for the Wings of Blue. 490-round parachute canopies changed to square canopies and we added a third UV-18B Twin Otter to the inventory.
- In 2008, the 98th flying training squadron received the official moniker as THE Air Force parachute team. Additionally that year, the team made the first official Air Force wing suit jumps.
- In 2009, the team accomplished the first ever live video feed on the Jumbotron into many of our venues across the nation.
Continuing to dominate competitions at the collegiate level and expanding their renown both nationally and internationally through venues such as the BCS championship game and Air Shows the Wings of Blue has developed from the small unsanctioned team 49 years ago. The Wings of Blue has been an aspiring venue through which many great leaders and officers have grown from. It is hard to say that without such rich history, such heights would never have been possible.
The Wings of Blue have a long standing commitment to personal and organizational excellence as well as a storied history of success. While the airspace that the Wings of Blue operates in is one of the busiest in the world, their drop zone is one of the safest. The primary mission of the Wings of Blue is to run the Air Force’s Basic Freefall Parachuting course, known as Airmanship 490 (AM-490). Members of the team serve primarily as jumpmasters and instructors for this course, devoting most of their time to teaching students about parachuting and training them to make unassisted freefall skydives. AM-490 is the only certified first-jump program in the world where students can make their first freefall jump without assistance. Each year, over 700 cadets are given the opportunity to take AM-490 and earn their jump wings.
The Wings of Blue has both a demonstration team and a competition team. The demonstration team travels across the country to airshows, sporting events, and other venues to represent the Air Force in precision parachuting. Similarly, the competition team represents the Air Force by competing with teams from around the country in 6-way speed formations, 4-way relative work, 2-way free fly, and sport accuracy.
Airmanship 490 (AM-490), Basic Freefall Parachuting, is the core mission of the Wings of Blue and the 98th Flying Training Squadron. Over 700 cadets each year successfully complete 5 parachute jumps and earn their jump wings. Each cadet on the Wings of Blue is a certified AM-490 instructor and jumpmaster.
Most first-jump programs have students jump with instructors, tandem masters, or a static line. However, AM-490 is the only certified program in the world where a student’s very first jump is an unassisted freefall. In order to adequately prepare students for this enormous task, all AM-490 students go through nearly 40 hours of ground training.
The ground phase of AM-490 places a heavy emphasis on repetition and performance under stress. On the very first day, students are taught the Arch-Count-Pull sequence. This ten-count sequence teaches the students how to safely exit the aircraft and pull on time while stable. Students learn emergency procedures and are tested on them while suspended in harnesses. Outside, students jump off platforms and perfect the form of the parachute landing fall (PLF). Additionally, students learn all the basics of flying their canopy and landing safely. The final stage of ground training is flying in a vertical wind tunnel.
If all the ground training is successfully completed, students move on to the aerial phase of AM-490. The students jump with parachute systems that are carefully packed by certified riggers. For added safety, the system contains two automatic activation devices (AADs), one on the main parachute and one on the reserve parachute. After each jump, Wings of Blue members review the ground-to-air video footage. The students then receive a grade on the jump and accomplish retraining if necessary. If the students safely complete five jumps, they earn their jump wings, which they can wear on their uniforms for the rest of their Air Force careers.
Tempe, AZ, December 2013
Falcon Stadium, October 2013
Nellis AFB, November 2008
Kirtland AFB, October 2011
I watched him strap on his harness and helmet, climb into the cockpit and, minutes later, a black dot falls off the wing two thousand feet above our field. At almost the same instant, a while streak behind him flowered out into the delicate wavering muslin of a parachute — a few gossamer yards grasping onto air and suspending below them, with invisible threads, a human life, and man who by stitches, cloth, and cord, had made himself a god of the sky for those immortal moments. A day or two later, when I decided that I too must pass through the experience of a parachute jump, life rose to a higher level, to a sort of exhilarated calmness. The thought of crawling out onto the struts and wires hundreds of feet above the earth, and then giving up even that tenuous hold of safety and of substance, left me a feeling of anticipation mixed with dread, of confidence restrained by caution, of courage salted through with fear. How tightly should one hold onto life? How loosely give it rein? What gain was there for such a risk? I would have to pay in money for hurling my body into space. There would be no crowd to watch and applaud my landing. Nor was there any scientific objective to be gained. No, there was deeper reason for wanting to jump, a desire I could not explain. It was that quality that led me into aviation in the first place — it was a love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. It lay beyond the descriptive words of man — where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, and existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant.
— Charles A. Lindbergh, contemplating his first parachute jump, ‘The Spirit of St Louis,’ 1953
John Joseph Davis, Jr. “Jay”
Jay is a service brat who points to Virginia as home. Following the tradition of his father, Jay plans to build his life around the service. Even though Jay hasn’t had the easiest time with academics, he has found plenty of time to become interested in numerous activities. If he wasn’t working on the Polaris, he could be found packing a parachute in the hall. Jay may not be remembered for long as the editor of the Polaris or as a sky diver, but he will be remembered for his easy going manner and his ability to get along with other people.
Jay Wilford Kelley “Foose”
Ole “Foose” hails from Hoosier Land and in ’59 decided to try his luck in the Air Force. After a stay at Lackland AFB, he was sent to NAPS at Bainbridge, Maryland and from thence to the Wild West and the AFA. Being an avid supporter of sky diving and a member of the semi-official Academy sky diving team, sky diving and a nurse in Denver, along with being “exec” of Friendly First Squadron, occupied most of his time as a “firstie”. He plans a June wedding and a missile career.
Stuart Boardman McCurdy “Stu”
This staunch Yankee from the huge state of Rhode Island never missed a chance to toss a jibe at his rebel contemporaries. Between his many duties on Third Group Staff and his activities of judo and sky diving, it’s a real wonder how he finished ahead of the Dean and his boys. Stu’s still wondering! After graduation and a long leave in Europe, Stu will turn the nose of his Sting Ray toward Laredo AFB, where he is looking forward to beating his brother’s fine record at pilot training.
Joel Stuart Aronoff
Joel came west from N.Y.C. to take part in the social life and the consistent climate. He has found the social life to be as consistent as the climate. He used to fly a lot with the Aero Club until he found it was more fun to jump out of airplanes than to land them. The first USAFA cadet to jump from a plane, he is the father of USAFA parachuting. He has the distinction of logging 160 more take-offs than landings. Graduation will find him in Texas (good jumping weather) and headed for a cockpit career as a fighter pilot.
Lance Peter Sijan “Sy”
Sy, a native of “old” Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came to the Academy well prepared for his career as a cadet. He attended prep school at Bainbridge, Maryland, the Navy Prep School for Annapolis, and came here well rounded in military bearing and athletic prowess. Lance earned the respect of his classmates by adhering to that quotation “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. He demonstrated this by fighting the Dean’s academic program during much of his “free” time. His accomplishments include three years varsity football, the Commandant’s Merit List, the Photo Club, the Sky Diving Club, and the TALON Staff as the photo editor.
Charles Warren Ryerson “Bones”
Chuck came to the Blue Zoo from Pasadena, California after giving it “the old college try” at a J.C. for a year. Getting right into things, he became “Chief Honcho” of the Dance Committee for four years and managed to interest a few of his classmates in the other sex. Sportswise, he soon made good on the fencing team, holding one of the top Saber positions his first-class year. He managed to parry the attacks of the AOC and the “Dean’s Shop” equally as well so that he could graduate with an Engineering Science major. Even so, the strain of the “old” system began leaving its mark and he was affectionately dubbed the “old man” at Jump Training by one of his “grandson” classmates.
James Peter McGorry “Mac”
The tall man came to USAFA from Yonkers, New York, looking for the future. During his four years with the Wing, he devoted three to the football team as a manager. During his senior year, Mac turned his sights to another sport – skydiving. Planes are all right going up, but there’s only one way to come down – all alone and falling free. Having also acquired a Basic Science major and a few trips to Europe, Mac is now working on the future gain, looking past pilot training toward the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB. Then, perhaps they will give him a crack at the astronaut business, if they’ll just make those capsules a little bigger.