There are some traditions in the Golden Knights that can trace their roots far deeper than the Team’s 50-year lifespan. While the Black and Gold canopies and air show performances are signatures of the US Army Parachute Team, the Army Values and good, old-fashioned mentorship are what REALLY holds this Team together.
The Non-Commissioned Officer (the rank of Sergeant and above) has been known for generations as the “Backbone of the Army.” On them rests the responsibility to teach, train, and lead the Soldiers in their charge. Every member of the Golden Knights is a Soldier first, and the NCOs on the Team take that responsibility very seriously. Every year, the Golden Knights accepts new Soldiers to the Team, and once “tryouts” is over…well that’s when the real training begins. The new GKs are assigned to one of the two demonstration teams based on how many open slots each team has, as well as the team with which his or her personality will best mesh.
Each new Team member, or “new guy” as they are affectionately nicknamed, is assigned to an “old guy.” An Old Guy is an NCO and experienced demonstrator, with the knowledge and expertise to hone the New Guy’s skills and teach him or her everything they need to know about how to be a Golden Knight…like spotting the aircraft, crowd interaction, equipment maintenance, narration, and show procedures…just to name a few!
The close friendship that forms between the Old Guy and the New Guy is borne of endless hours of practice narration with unrelenting critiques, countless canopy relative jumps in which the pair practices flying their parachutes together, and performing the demanding diamond track maneuver…tracking directly toward each other at nearly 360 miles per hour. The level of trust and confidence that builds between the tracking partners is not to be taken lightly, and takes weeks and months to establish.
This one-on-one mentorship is key to preserving the traditions and knowledge that define the Golden Knights. The New Guys spend their first year on the Team soaking up all the knowledge they possibly can from the Old Guys, then spend their second year perfecting and honing those skills before coming into their own their third year, when they will become Old Guys and teach the newbies.
As a New Guy, there are certain duties that traditionally come with the territory: toting around the cooler full of water and soda pop to show sites and training, maintaining the Team vehicles, washing the jumpsuits after training or show performances, and breaking and rigging the smoke canisters used for the show jumps. After spending the entire year saddled with the “New Guy Duties,” the new team members feel in incredible sense of accomplishment (and relief) when they pass these duties on to the next set of New Guys. It is these “rites of passage” that instill a sense of pride and unity within the Team.
Being an Old Guy is definitely NOT all wine and roses…in fact it is very much the opposite. There is no kicking back or resting on the laurels. It takes a surprising amount of time and dedication throughout the year to teach the New Guys. The Old Guys often spend many, many extra hours with their New Guys after the work day is over doing debriefs, practicing narration or parachute packing, and discussing maneuvers.
SSG Howard Sanborn has been on the team for four years, and put in his time as an Old guy last year. “The hardest thing about being an Old Guy really depends on your New Guy. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and some don’t grasp things as quickly. The hardest thing for me was trying to teach them what it’s really like to jump and narrate on show site…you can’t simulate that pressure they will feel…they just have to experience it for themselves. All you can do is give them the tools,” he says.
Like a lot of other things in life, hard work and dedication pay off, and the Old Guys gain an incredible feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment as their New Guys begin to shape into Golden Knights…especially when they think back on their own days as a New Guy, and realize how far they have come.
“The transition between day one of training and now, here at the end, is amazing,” says Sanborn, when asked what is the most satisfying part of being and Old Guy. “The difference you see in narration, attitude, skills, ability…it’s almost like watching them grow up. It’s a great feeling.”