IN THE SKY ABOVE NATS PARK: We’ve been circling Washington, DC, at 4,000 feet for a while now, with two of the would-be jumpers crouched and leaning out the open door toward the back of the aircraft, staring intently at ribbons tossed out moments before.
From time to time they turn to look up the length of the plane, where a crew member with a radio shouts numbers related to “upper” and “lower” — information that’s passed along by other jumpers on the aircraft, also shouting and using hand signals to make doubly sure it’s clear by the time it makes it back to the door.
“Right now we’re just trying to figure out ‘the spot,’” another parachutist explains casually but loudly over the din of the engines. “What we threw out were wind direction indicators that tell us which direction the wind was going. We use that to help determine ‘the spot.’”
“The spot” is the place in the air where the US Army’s Golden Knights Black Team, this time alongside the United Kingdom’s Red Devil team, will open their parachutes after jumping from the perfectly good airplane to sail, eventually, straight into Nationals Park for a pregame demonstration. But it’s not nearly that simple.
Breaking Defense was among a small group of observers who flew up with the Knights and their British compatriots on June 13 for the annual US-UK Friendship Day, and in the process learned quite a bit about the complexity of skydiving into an open-top but otherwise enclosed stadium.
“Jumping into a stadium takes a whole lot more mindset,” Staff Sergeant Gabe Colon told reporters earlier, while safely on the ground. “You have to be ready for that sudden change in the wind. The direction is constantly shifting…”
First, while still on the ground and standing on the flight line at Andrews Air Force Base, the teams literally walk through the plan: how each pair of jumpers will separate from the rest, when they’ll pull their chutes, how they’ll float in formation and eventually into the stadium. The Golden Knights go first, practicing a couple times in the shade of the wing of their custom, 50-seater prop plane, then the Red Devils do the same, then the two come together to sort out last minute details.
As both teams suit up and take their seats on the plane, they’re all uncannily, even frustratingly, calm about the whole thing, which would be surprising except they’ve made hundreds of jumps before — some of them more than a couple thousand. The US and UK teams have practiced and jumped together many times before, as well, so there’s easy comraderie and well-worn inter-team cheers.
The Red Devils’ Lt. Cpl. Cameron Clark said that while there’s “no rivalry” between the two teams, he did admit to a “healthy competition.”
“We train with each other every year, we help each other out,” Clark said. “We do things a different way, so it’s always eye opening. Sometimes another team has it 100% and the other team doesn’t. So when we come together it definitely progresses us.”
While the plane makes its way to jumping height, work has already begun on the ground. Colon said the Knights had three people in the stadium gauging the wind there, including one person at field level (the “lower”) and one at the top of the upper decks (the “upper”). That’s what all the shouting is about on the plane, the relaying of ground-level wind information.
Colon explained, “The stadium, due to it being enclosed, the wind inside of it actually creates kind of a cyclone effect. Winds can be 10 to 15 [mph] above it, but zero inside.” Sometimes the wind inside can be the exact opposite of just outside, meaning the teams have to make drastic moves right at the end to still hit their target landing spots on the field.
Back on the plane, the Knights and their British counterparts pull all this information together: the readings from the wind indicator ribbons in the air, which also help determine how much the team will drift during the freefall portion of the jump, and the wind speed at the top of the stadium and at the bottom, which will tell them what, if anything, they need to do once they enter the stadium’s micro-weather system.
These calculations are done several times, with the Knights conferring with each other and with the Red Devils, over the course of several wide loops over DC before the jump light on the wall next to the door switches from red to green.
Then, they’re gone.
For just about 30 seconds one jumper after another stands at the door facing the front of the plane, hops sideways out into nothingness and disappears as air resistance rockets them them backwards. Only afterwards, when the plane banks and the stadium comes into view are a few chutes visible, already very far away.
Based on the teams’ social media posts, the jump seems to have gone off without a hitch. Back on the plane, there’s just a bunch of empty seats where two parachute teams had just been. On the way back to Andrews, at least there’s still the once-in-a-lifetime view of the nation’s capital through an open plane door.