McConnell Air Force Base hosted the Wings Over McConnell Open House this last weekend featuring aircraft and equipment from all branches of the military to include the Air Force Thunderbirds and of course the Gold Demonstration Team. The 22nd Air Refueling Wing on McConnell is the largest refueling operation in the world housing more KC 135 Stratotankers than any other location so it was a great honor to be invited to a location with such a high pace mission. Coming from sub-freezing temperatures the week before the much warmer Kansas climate was a welcome change to the team. Every day during the air show the skies were blue allowing the team to perform without restriction also giving everyone watching the best view possible. On Friday the team jumped in to a military family concert located in the center of the airshow which gave the audience an awesome preview of the show to come over the next couple days. On Saturday and Sunday the shows were identical starting off with a mass formation to open the air show with all the jumpers landing in a show line spread right next to the crowd then giving high fives and handshakes all the way back to show center. The morning show also featured a tandem jump for a couple lucky people with one of them being Amanda Chastain the Air Force Spouse of the Year. Amanda was nominated for Spouse of the Year due to her volunteer work within the military and civilian communities. The afternoon was a full show where the team demonstrated the highly practiced maneuvers that only the Golden Knights perform.
Even though the team was sharing the spotlight with the Thunderbirds there was no shortage of Airmen and Press wanting to take a ride on the Golden Knights distinctively painted C-31. Even though these Airmen were no strangers to being around aircraft none of them have been on one with the doors open. The team enjoys having guest onboard not only to have someone new to talk to during the climb to altitude but also to show them just how fun skydiving can be. The riders also get the best view on the plane as they are sat right next to the open doors in the rear of the plane. Most people try to keep calm during the ride but the look on their faces change to awe and wonder as they see the jumpers move freely about the plane showing no fear as they lean outside to check the target area.
The Duluth Airshow is a celebration of aviation that brings together aviators and aviation enthusiasts from all over the world and is also the largest event of the year in Minnesota. This event was also the first time in 30 years that the Canadian Snow Birds performed there. The Gold Demonstration Team arrived on Wednesday prior to the Airshow to make some appearances and let the Minnesotans about the great demonstration the team would make later on in the week. Among those was a visit to Superior High School to talk some select science classes on the physics of skydiving and to let them know that their Assistant Principal Bill Punyko would be making a tandem skydive with the Golden Knight’s very own SFC Aaron Figel into the football game that afternoon. The team was excited and ready to go until the plane took off and reality started to set in as the temperature dropped to below freezing. The team knows all too well about the temperature shift from the ground up to altitude but this time the ground temp was in the upper 40s so that made the temp at altitude was about 10 degrees. The team performed a spectacular show for the high school and Mr. Punyko got the ride of his life and a story to share with his students.
On Friday the Knights jumped for the Media Day with the temperatures still in the freezing realm so the team had a chance to prepare for a cold weekend. Along with the cold the team was also thrown another curve ball with high winds and low clouds for the Saturday show so the team had to fall back on their smaller parachutes to still give the audience and awe inspiring show. Sunday the weather was much better as the clouds went away and the winds eased up so the team was able to put on two more wonderful shows and give the airshow audience a warm sense of enjoyment on a very cold day. At the end of the performance the team traveled through the crowd receiving high fives and handshakes all the way over to the recruiting tent where a small gathering of people were already waiting to meet them.
The team had one more stop to make and that was down in the capitol Saint Paul where the team had the honor to jump right into the capitol lawn and with them a very special guest. Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon made her first skydive, in tandem with SFC Aaron Figel and videographer SFC Jon Ewald, to draw attention to the Community Covenant, a 5-year-old initiative to show support for military families. She said “2,000 Minnesotan military personnel are overseas, including 600 Minnesota National Guard members. Military personnel have earned the promise of full education and full employment,” pledging that the Dayton administration will fulfill that promise.” Governor Mark Dayton, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and military representatives joined Prettner Solon in signing a commitment to support the covenant.
After all that the team still had one more jump to do and that was for the lucky students of Eastview High School. The team was invited to help honor the military just before the Tuesday night soccer game and help recognize some of the Eastview alumni that have served or are still serving. The students in attendance were also lucky enough to see their principal Dr. Randal Peterson receive a tandem ride with SFC Figel and SFC Ewald just before watching the rest of the team bring in the game ball to kick off the night. This trip was one of the most unique for the Gold Team as it brought them closer to public than ever before as well as fulfilling lifelong dreams for a few special people.
After 13 years without holding an air show, the 122nd Fort Wayne Air National Guard Base decided to bring it back and to go big in the process by inviting the Golden Knights Gold Demonstration Team. An estimated 50,000 people were said to be in attendance for the new and improved air show with acts like Otto the Helicopter, Indy Boys – Jet Powered School Bus, Mohr Barnstorming, Oliver’s SkyDancer and the F-22 Raptor Demo Team just to name a few. With 16 performers and 20 static displays this air show had something for everyone with no expense spared to accommodate an overwhelming crowd on a small base. The Gold Team was brought in to be one of the main headliners for the show and they did just that. On Friday the team was scheduled to perform just a few hours after landing so immediately after the in brief the clock was ticking. Since the demonstration teams are always in the public view it is critical to not only be ready to in a timely manner but to look good while doing it and since the team was the main event the heat was on. The team took off with eight press riders all wanting to talk to the jumpers during the flight but half way up the Ground Coordinator SGT George Perez called up to the plane with winds over 20 miles an hour. With this new knowledge the team leader J.D. Berentis made the call to switch to smaller parachutes so the team could still put on a performance. The planned jump still went according to plan giving the media on the ground and the ones still on the plane a great show. Within a couple of hours of jumping the Gold Team made the local radio and news as well as impressing the locals outside the gates.
The rest of the weekend was a success as well but not without some familiar weather challenges. On Saturday the team had two jumps to perform with the first one being a mass formation. The plane was once again filled with press riders wanting to get a glimpse of the jumpers leaping from 12,500 feet and without fail the team did just that. Shortly after the jump the clouds rolled in and spoiled the second jump for the day and once the rain started the show director made the decision to end the show early so the patrons could get home and not miss anything. On Sunday the team was scheduled for two jumps but the clouds were closed after just a few thousand feet. The mass formation the team planned on turned in to an equally impressive low CRW show. Three pairs of CRW landed across the show line allowing everyone to see the Golden Knight skills at work. The second show in the afternoon was also cut short because the rain was about to start so to not disappoint the people of Fort Wayne a low altitude stack out was put out just minutes before the jump. As the black and gold canopies soared above the crowd the people cheered with everything they had and watched the Knights hit the target one by one ending the airshow with a bang.