Behind the Scenes: The Making of a Black Team Performance

Story and photos by SGT Rachel Medley and SGT Dan Cook

Everybody knows that Rome was NOT built in a day, and that in order to do anything right, it takes time and preparation. Putting on a freefall demonstration is no momentary or spontaneous feat…and the great deal of preparation that takes place in the days leading up to it are rarely seen by anyone outside the Team.

One of the advance man's duties is to schedule the fuel truck to deliver fuel to the GK aircraft throughout the show. Here, SGT Sean Holland preps the C-31 to receive fuel in Corpus Christi, TX this past weekend (photo by SGT Rachel Medley)

When a person watches the Golden Knights perform an aerial demonstration, the immediate visual experience is thrilling! It starts from two and a half miles above the earth with the smoke, the bomb-burst and the flags flying on the parachutes followed by each Team member landing inside of a 12-inch circle one after the other in quick succession. It’s breathtaking! But if each spectator could see into the inner workings of every performance, they would see much, much more. They would observe weeks of planning by phone and email leading to several days of on-site planning and coordination by the Team’s advance representative, who arrives to the show site two days ahead of the rest of the Team.

One very unique feature of the Army Parachute Team’s demo teams is that they consist wholly of Enlisted Soldiers (no commissioned officers). The roles and responsibilities shouldered by the Sergeants, Staff Sergeants, and Sergeants First Class are many levels above what would be expected of Soldiers of the same rank in a conventional unit. A SGT will make decisions that affect the whole Team, including the Team Leader and the Pilots. This is a great deal of responsibility; the ability to think quickly and critically and to be resourceful is vital to the Team’s overall success.

A good advance guy will get in touch with local media outlets before the Team arrives to set up interviews. This helps get the word out that the Team is in town and ready to put on a show. Here, SSG Adrian Hill conducts a newspaper interview in Corpus Christi, TX this past weekend (photo by SGT Rachel Medley)

“I expect my advance rep to be the eyes and ears of the Team, since they’ve been on the ground two days prior to the rest of the Team. I expect my AR to let us know everything we need to know about that event,” says Black Team Leader SFC Will Fleming. “It’s important for the Team’s POC [point of contact] to be familiar with the USAPT’s Support Manual, in order to make their event a success.” The advance rep needs to know that Support Requirements Manual inside and out, and make sure every part of it is followed. (Click here to view the USAPT Support Requirements Manual and other information on scheduling a Golden Knights performance)

Due to the high-paced nature of aerial demonstration, the Team requires certain key elements to be in place in order to put on a show. These preparations cannot be left to the chance of last-minute arrangement. The pilots need exact grid coordinates of the drop zone, aircraft fuel, and a safe place to park the plane. The Team members need rental cars, hotel rooms, food, proper sound system, a safe drop zone, and medical coverage standing by during the jump.

Checking the sound system is a vital part of advancing. The narrator is the voice of the show and a glitch in the sound system can bring the show to a screeching halt. Here, SSG Trevor Oppenborn does some ad-lib crowd interaction on the mic with air show announcer Rob Reider (photo by SGT Rachel Medley)

A typical air show advance might go something like this (in a nutshell, of course!):

  1. Leave Fayetteville, NC on a commercial flight early Wednesday morning. Meet the local POC (Point of Contact) at the destination and immediately start down the checklist.
  2. Check into the hotel and ensure that the hotel meets the Team standards. Then check with the hotel manager to ensure that the correct number of rooms has been reserved and that the room keys will be ready well before the team arrives on Friday.
  3. Travel with the POC to get the rental car and check with the rental car agency to ensure that the correct number and types of vehicles have been reserved and will be available for pick up prior to the Team’s arrival Friday.
  4. Now for the nitty-gritty details: Go out to the airfield and check the parking place set aside for the Golden Knight’s aircraft to make sure that there are tie-down points and that there is a bathroom nearby. Schedule the fuel to be delivered to the airplane upon arrival and daily throughout the show. Talk to the air show boss and confirm the jump schedule, as well as target placement and GPS coordinates.
  5. Drive around the area for a while, getting familiar with the routes, and checking alternate routes in case there is traffic or closed roads on main routes. Note what types of restaurants are around the area and where there is a gym for the Team to do their PT.
  6. On Thursday night, type up all the papers that are needed for the Team when they arrive including a detailed itinerary of every day the Team is performing, driving directions, location of restaurants, food, ATMs and gym. Print them all out and put them in packets.
  7. Friday the Team will arrive. But first the rental vehicles must be picked up and checked to make sure they are full of fuel. Included in the task of picking up the hotel room keys for the team is making a list of who is in what room. This helps everyone on the team locate one another. The easy part is ordering some pizza or sandwiches to feed to the hungry jumpers when they arrive. Finally the inbrief room must be set up so the Team can be briefed upon arrival.
  8. The C-31 lands with the rest of Black Team aboard…let the fun begin!!

If the Team is jumping into a stadium or sports game, the ante is even higher! The advance rep must also deal with the Federal Aviation Administration to file and check waivers and NOTAMs (NOtice To AirMen), and also arrange a safe route (sometimes with a police escort) from the drop site back to the hotel. He or she must recon all the driving routes to and from the hotel, aircraft, and jump site to ensure that the Team or ground personnel will not get lost during travel between these points.

The Team works on an extremely fine-tuned timeline and being tardy to the plane or the drop site would have dire consequences. When jumping into a major-league stadium, the drop time is planned down to the minute and often the entire team must exit the aircraft and be on the ground within four minutes. Any deviation from this schedule can cost lots of money, because big-name sports channels’ time doesn’t come cheap! The responsibility to make all the prior arrangements rests with the Team’s advance representative.

The six seats at the back of the plane are reserved for local press personnel. If all six are not filled with press, the Team may take along some active duty Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen or Marines from the local base to give them an up close and personal look at the jump. All six seats were taken this last weekend in Corpus Christi, TX (photo by SGT Dan Cook)

It’s a LOT of work being the advance guy. All the sweat and hard work is often done behind the scenes where few people notice. If you really move and shake, and pull off an advance with no hitches, you might temporarily earn yourself the title of “Advance Man of the Year,” or, “AMY.” That title is short-lived, though, and as soon as something goes awry, you have to answer to cries of, “Aw MAN, who advanced THIS show!!”

Things don’t always go as planned and sometimes you have to “shoot from the hip.” SFC Will Fleming tells of an experience he had during his second year on the Team.

“At the last minute, the show sponsor asked if the Team could do a jump at a local truck stop. At first I thought surely he was pulling my leg, but sure enough, he was serious! I called back to the Team Leader and he said as long as all the safety measures were taken that it was a go. I checked all the blocks and we were set to do the jump. A CH-47 Chinook helicopter picked us up from the truck stop parking lot, and we climbed to altitude. I was the narrator, so I jumped out first and the crowd was awesome! The mass got out with all the bells and whistles, and the crowd was so hyped! We closed out the show and the Chinook landed right back in the truck stop parking lot, and it was a fun time had by all. I will never forget this event, as it was a most unusual request! It all worked out though, because the advance rep took care of business for the Team according to the Team Leader’s guidance.”

The Team sometimes presents a baton, which is flown in freefall, to a distinguished member of the audience. The advance rep will meet and screen the recipients, then arrange for them to meet the Team and receive the baton. These WWII vets from Corpus Christi, TX, were presented batons this last weekend (photo by SGT Rachel Medley)

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