If you’re a fan of college football, there’s a good chance you’ll see Air Force Academy cadets fall from the sky in coming weeks.
The academy is taking a local tradition to the national stage at as many as three bowl games, including the Insight Bowl on Saturday in Phoenix and the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4 in Miami. Academy jumpers are waiting to see if they’ll also leap into the Military Bowl on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., that pits Air Force against Toledo.
Locals who have watched games at Falcon Stadium know the drill and thrill of the flying cadets. At each home game, except when dangerous winds intervene, cadets parachute onto the field flying the American flag.
“It’s more nerve-wracking in the plane,” said senior cadet Dane Lannon, who will jump into Sun Devil Stadium for the Insight Bowl. “Then you have three or four thousand feet to take it all in.”
For decades, cadets have jumped into bowl games as ambassadors for the school.
The cadet parachute program, run by the 98th Flying Training Squadron at the academy, trains hundreds of cadets every year.
The program includes an intense, cadet-run ground school that prepares first-time parachutists to pull their own rip cord – unlike other programs that begin with students strapped to instructors or use “static lines” to automatically deploy the chute.
The highest level of the cadet program is the “Wings of Blue” parachute team, which handles the pregame jumps and also competes against parachute teams from around the country, this year earning a national championship at a November event.
Getting to the elite level, though, requires falling from the sky hundreds of times.
“You have to have 500 jumps to jump into a stadium,” said sophomore cadet Taylor Scott, who is aiming for the bowl game duty when he’s a senior, but has 462 more jumps to become qualified.
The military has traditionally used sporting events to showcase the armed services. Military flying teams soar over college bowl games and the Super Bowl.
The Army’s Golden Knights parachute team has been parachuting into events since 1961.
But the academy crew is different because the participants are college students who learn to wow crowds between classes and other military training.
Lannon and others note that before the challenge of falling from the sky for the public, they have a big hurdle to clear: the notoriously tough final exams that precede the holiday break.