SPECIAL UNIT PROFILE

US Army Parachute Team 'Golden Knights' Aviation Detachment

Top skydiving demonstration and competition team uses DHC6 Twin Otters and Fokker F27Ms.

By Phil Rose
Managing Editor


Military and civilian team members are all key to the continuing success of the Golden Knights parachute team both as an ambassador for the US Army and as a highly effective recruiting tool.

What began nearly 50 years ago as the Strategic Army Command (STRAC) competition parachute team was destined to become the US Army's most visible ambassador and recruiting tool.

In 1961, after 2 years of notable success in international skydiving competitions, the US Army recognized the STRAC team as its official parachute demonstration team. The following year, as its competition successes continued and its reputation soared, the US Army Parachute Team earned the name by which it has gone ever since-the Golden Knights.

Today the Golden Knights use 2 de Havilland Canada UV18As (modified DHC6-300 Twin Otters) and 2 Fokker C31A Troopships (built as F27 Mk 400Ms). The aircraft are based at POB (Pope AFB, Fayetteville NC), adjacent to Fort Bragg-one of the Army's largest military installations-the "Home of the Airborne" and headquarters of the Knights.

Falling under US Army Accessions Command, the Golden Knights are tasked with 3 primary missions-to demonstrate Army capability, compete and display "warrior spirit," and perform research and development work on equipment and techniques for the Army's free fall teams. Every year the Golden Knights perform regularly at events around the US.

This does more than provide dramatic entertainment for large crowds-it also raises public awareness and helps Army recruitment.

Organization and mission

(Top to bottom) First dedicated Golden Knights platform was the Douglas C47 Skytrain. The DHC C7A Caribou served the team from the mid-1970s until 1985, when the type was superseded by the Fokker C31A Troopship. Golden Knights free falling in mass formation.

A total of 87 men and women make up the Golden Knights-60 enlisted personnel, 12 officers (of whom 7 are active-duty pilots and 5 are jumpers) and 15 Dept of Army civilians (DACs).

The Golden Knights are organized into 6 groups under a Headquarters Section Command Group-an Aviation Detachment, 2 competition teams (Formation Skydiving and Style & Accuracy), 2 demonstration teams (Black and Gold) and a Tandem Team.

Typically, each demo team consists of 12 jumpers. Maj Bob Degand graduated from West Point in May 1997 and subsequently attended flight school.

He joined the Golden Knights in 2006 and later became Aviation Detachment Commander following a 3-month handover period. A pilot with 3000 hrs TT, most of them fixed-wing, he holds an ATP and is also rated as a commercial/instrument helicopter pilot.

As Degand explains, the Aviation Detachment supports all team-related activity. Understandably, this entails a wide range of specialized flying as the team trains and travels to competitions, airshows and demonstrations across the US.

The tandem and competition teams use the UV18As, while the demonstration teams use the C31As. The Golden Knights' busy schedule includes more than 100 demonstrations yearly, plus attendance at numerous competitions, and each team aircraft flies around 500 hrs.

In 2007 the C31As amassed a total of 1028 hrs and 1023 landings, while the UV18As logged 1017 hrs and 2096 landings. In addition to using aerial demonstrations as a way of reaching the American public, the Golden Knights use the Tandem Team to "give the skydiving experience" to selected individuals in an Army context.

For example, the Nov 2007 tandem jump with Pres George H W Bush was "a very high-profile event"-as was the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders tandem camp-responsible for millions of "impressions" whose ultimate goal is that of promoting the image of the US Army and aiding recruitment.

Along with the competition teams, says Degand, the Tandem Team is the Golden Knights' most recent success story. Team oversight is in the hands of a 3-man Command Group which manages the Golden Knights' day-to-day affairs. Given the team's Accessions Command tasking, most Golden Knights appearances are linked to recruitment within the US. It is rare for demo teams to perform overseas, and their function on such occasions is more that of an ambassador for the United States.

Golden Knights Commander Lt Col Tony Dill began his 3-year assignment as CO in Mar 2007. A lifelong parachutist and former commander of a Green Beret military free fall team, he was previously Special Forces chief of training. Dill joined the National Guard in 1986 and attended ROTC at the University of West Florida.

Golden Knights Sgt Major Michael Eitniear (L) and Commander Lt Col Tony Dill at US Army Parachute Team headquarters, Fort Bragg NC, which also houses the unit's comprehensive museum.

He has a total of 59 months of combat experience, including assignments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. With more than 1200 free fall jumps to his credit, with 100 static line jumps and 60 tandem instructor jumps, Dill is the first Golden Knights CO to be a tandem master. He is also a professional-rated demonstrator.

As such, he can jump with the team if required. Dill's duties include organizing the team's financial and budgetary affairs, and scheduling work assignments, but he and Sergeant Major Michael Eitniear also spend a lot of time on the road with the various teams, supporting the soldiers.

Equipment

In its near half century of existence, the US Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, has used a variety of aircraft, starting with the Douglas C47B (3 assigned). Since then the team has used the de Havilland Canada (DHC) U1A Otter (2 assigned), the Beech U21A Ute (2), the Beech C12C Huron (1), the Pilatus UV20A Chiricahua (Turbo Porter) (2), the DHC YC7A/C7A Caribou (3 and 2 assigned, respectively) and its current equipment, the Fokker C31A Troopship (2) and DHC UV18A Twin Otter (2).

The C31As were built by Fokker (as F27Ms) for a South American military customer, but were never exported. In Nov 1985 the US Army leased both aircraft for the Golden Knights, purchasing them 3 years later. They are configured with 12 seats in the forward section (commuter-style) plus cargo and 22 utility seats.

Power for the C31A is provided by 2 Rolls-Royce Dart 535-7Rs (rated at 1835 shp dry, 2080 shp wet with power injections). Avionics equipment is mostly Rockwell Collins. One aircraft recently underwent D checks with Mountain Air Cargo at ISO (Kinston NC), and both have had Avidyne FlightMax EX500 MFDs-including TCAS II and TAWS-installed by Landmark Aviation INT (Winston-Salem NC). The upgrade package also included new radar altimeters, electronic locator transmitters and Mode-S transponders.

In the next few years a C31A replacement will be needed. Following an initial assessment, Bombardier's DHC8-Q400 is one of the likely candidates, says Degand, although a final decision will not be made for another year or two.

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