What: Dyess Big Country AirFest
When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today
Where: Dyess Air Force Base, Tye Gate (intersection of Military Drive and Third Street)
Information: 325-696-6652, Roy Utley
8 a.m.: Gates open
8 to 10 a.m.: National anthem, Golden Knights flag jump, Abilene R/C, EAA time trial
10 a.m. to noon: Two B-1 takeoffs, MiG 17 and Giles 202 demonstrations
Noon to 2 p.m.: Golden Knights full show, single and formation passes (P-40, A-26, B-25), bomber flyover
2 to 4 p.m.: Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor re-enactment, Red Steel Demo Team, Vietnam War convoy demonstration
Four grown men in black jumpsuits stand crammed together beside an open door at the back of an airplane.
Their heads are turned, looking up the central aisle toward a crew chief at the front of the plane, just awaiting one final go-ahead. They wear the antsy, poorly hidden grins of four boys anticipating a parent's permission to jump into a swimming pool.
This plunge, however, measures about 14,000 feet.
When they get the thumbs-up, the men somehow manage to squeeze themselves out the door so that all four of them hang from the open portal, two on each side. When they release their grip, they get sucked out into the wild blue yonder like dust mites snared by a vacuum cleaner.
This is all just another day at the office for the U.S. Army's Golden Knights Parachute Team. Set to perform today at the Dyess Big Country AirFest, this elite group of parachute performers went into the skies above Abilene on Friday to rehearse their routine.
As they plummet toward the earth, group members interlock in elaborate formations while devices attached to their left feet deploy colored smoke for the benefit of spectators on the ground. The official demonstration team roster numbers 11, supported by a pair of small crews in the plane and on the ground.
The group has been active since 1959, founded as a Cold War-era retort to the Soviet Union's sky-diving dominance. The nickname "Golden Knights" came a few years later, inspired by all the gold medals the group had won at parachuting competitions, along with the assertion that the squad had "conquered the skies."
Today's unit flies in style: a custom C-31 Friendship aircraft, painted white with a golden bar running along its body and a giant Arthurian sword emblazoned on each side. The parachutists wear black coveralls with gold trim, each sporting a custom patch with a knight's helmet on the right breast.
They are among the world's best at what they do, and carry themselves as such.
Which way the wind blows
Every one of the jumpers oozes talent and blazes with a daredevil's spirit. But to join the Golden Knights, a parachutist has to possess an even-keeled demeanor and dependability to work as part of a close-knit unit.
"Skill just gets your foot in the door," said Staff Sgt. Brian Karst, 31. "We travel together 250 days out of the year. You have to be able to live and breathe and be next to these people and not kill each other."
Likewise, it isn't just a matter of flying up to altitude and then jumping out of the hatch, although some guys on the team undoubtedly wouldn't mind that sort of smash-and-grab approach. As the team's aircraft ascends, the pilots level the plane off at intervals so that the team members can gauge the wind.
Starting at 2,000 feet, team members toss yellow banners off into the sky to see how far they drift. This test gives them an inkling of what the winds might do to a man in a parachute.
As capable as the parachutists are, there are limits to what they and their gear can handle. Once they step off into the sky, their bodies propelled from the plane at about 125 miles per hour, the Golden Knights are at the mercy of the winds. Any gusts over 25 mph can prove too risky for a formation jump.
On Friday, the Abilene skies were clear but the winds were fierce. Gusts were falling between the range of 20 and 25 mph, the "razor's edge," as one crew member put it, for certain types of jumps. In fact, not long before their final leap, the Golden Knights decided to switch parachutes â" trading their somewhat cumbersome and ornamental "demonstration rigs" for smaller, more pragmatic chutes.
The green light to jump was about to glow.
"You'll never go back"
This is the sort of last-minute switch-up that might have rattled Staff Sgt. Kevin Presgraves in the past. The one-year Golden Knight might be the most unlikely member of the current squad.
After returning from deployment in Afghanistan in 2009, Presgraves found out that his unit was "over strength" in his particular specialty and rank. His Army superiors seemed to think that he would take to parachuting, and decided to transfer him into the 101st Airborne's parachute demonstration team.
At his initial interview, Presgraves tried to make it abundantly clear that he was the wrong guy for this job. He didn't want to jump out of planes â" he was afraid of heights, for crying out loud. But he still made the team.
"To me, that was like walking into a job interview and saying, 'I don't like to cook burgers and I'm mean to customers,' and still getting it," Presgraves said.
His first tandem jumps made him nauseous. Still he stuck with it. It probably took 300 or 400 jumps before Presgraves accepted that this was his new lot in life.
But one way or another, the scorching exhilaration of free fall worked its way into his blood. Now as a member of the Golden Knights, he's one of the most eager to jump, like a kid on Christmas morning.
"It's hard to keep me on the plane," said Presgraves, 27. "As soon as the doors open, I want that green light to go on to let me go."
This isn't an uncommon experience. As Staff Sgt. Richard Sloan explains, when most service members transfer out of a unit, it's said that they're moving on to bigger and better things. With the Golden Knights, it's just said that they're moving on.
Even more telling is the Golden Knights' motto, recited in a group circle just before takeoff:
"Out of the gold, into the black, once you're there, you'll never go back."