COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Air Force Academy is known for many things — its leadership, committed cadets and of course its football.
However, it’s also known for its sky diving team referred to as the Wings of Blue.
While you may know them for their exciting entrances into football games, their primary mission is to run the academy’s basic free fall parachuting course, the only course in the world where cadets can jump without any assistance.
Parachuting at the Academy began in the spring of 1962 when a group of bootleg jumpers made their first parachute jumps as cadets. Since then, it has evolved into a world class training program where its earned the reputation of producing not just exceptional skydivers but great leaders.
“It’s extremely hard,” said Master Sergeant Terrance Murphy, the superintendent of the 98th training squadron. “It’s not for everybody and some cadets and individuals just don’t grasp the concept of it.”
While that might be true, I decided to suit up and test it out for myself.
“Our Airmanship 490 program is developing leaders of character through teaching them how to jump out of perfectly good airplanes,” said Gabrielle Briggs, a Cadet First class with the USAFA parachute team.
Each year, 500 cadets will complete 5 free fall jumps in the course. But before that, the first step is ground training.
The rigorous training schedule demands more than 33 hours on proper training where cadets learn everything from proper form, landing safety, emergency procedures and ultimately how to perform under stress.
“I think the cadets at the Air Force Academy take away something that’s intangible, something that lets you know I can conquer this fear, I can stand in the door, I can do this,” said Briggs.
After successfully completing ground training, cadets are then ready to jump out of the plane relying on no one but themselves to get down safely.
“That’s their final test, is that ground training,” said Murphy. “The 40 hours, once they pass all the events there then yeah they’re able to jump out of that aircraft.”
Now of course I didn’t have any training or prior experience so I wasn’t going to jump alone; but still, knowing what to do at 10,000 feet up is key.
“You really want to see them exceed in all that so when they are able to grasp that concept and then apply it in the air and just see them like I jumped, I loved it, and they land and the excitement on their face, it’s really wonderful,” said Murphy.
Cadets who successfully complete the basic free fall course are then eligible to try out for the Air Force Academy’s parachute team – the Wings of Blue – but who makes the cut is based on maturity and academic and military standing.
Those lucky enough to join the elite team also become instructors further developing their leadership skills
“We’re working with lieutenant colonels, majors, the lieutenants on casual,” said Briggs. “Just really learning how to work with all sorts of types of people, that really helps us prepare for our Air Force career.”
For Murphy, an Air Force career means more than 20 years in the service but it also means he’s earned the privilege to lead the team and his wings to perform as a professional in front of thousands.
“You’re nervous, I mean your first time into a stadium, there’s a little nervousness to it but you fight that fear and you overcome it and then it’s amazing at the end when everything goes well,” said Murphy.
Whether it’s an Air Force home game or performing at air shows across the country, the chosen few are given just one chance to make an accurate landing.
“There’s a lot of planning behind the doors that people don’t see,” said Murphy. “We have to be right on time with the game clock, especially when it’s being televised. We can’t be a second or a minute late.”
From instructor to cadet, it’s clear why the Wings of Blue is a special squadron within the Air Force.
“Building that relationship with them and seeing them grow from beginning sky divers to like you saw today, just flipping out of the air craft with no fear at all and loving it, that to me is what is passionate for me for this program,” said Murphy.
“I mean we have a great time,” said Briggs. “We get to sky dive. Half of my day we get to sky dive and then I go back to classes. I can’t think of any place in the world where I have that unique experience and neither can my teammates. It’s such an honor to be down here every single day.”
Each year, the Wings of Blue conduct over 19,000 training jumps awarding more than 700 jump wings – a special and coveted parachutist badge to students who pass the program.