“Stand in the door!”
Never before had four words caused such extreme anxiety. Circling above the Air Force Academy in the back of our trusty Twin Otter at 4,500 feet, I sat shoulder-to-shoulder in nervous anticipation with seven cadets. A warmer day than usual, sweat covered our faces. Maybe nerves were a factor? This would be our first jump.
Several cadet instructors looked over our equipment for proper fit and function. These checks took on extra significance, as the academy is home to the only skydiving program requiring a “solo” first jump.
We had just completed more than three days of intense ground training. But lingering questions remained: “Was it enough?” “Would our parachutes function properly?” “Would we maintain a stable body position or spin wildly out of control?” As the academy’s vice superintendent, I was the first of my 70 classmates about to answer these questions. Like many, I considered acting remaining in the aircraft, but decided that being the laughing stock of the cadet wing was far worse than risking my life — pride sucks.
Parachuting is one of several flight programs that ramp up at the academy during the summer months as cadets learn to jump, soar in gliders and pilot powered aircraft. Each program gives cadets skills they will need while defending America. As I readied to take my leap, those skills were on display.
Our 21-year old instructor, Cadet Ben Martin, opened the aircraft’s side door. Over the engine noise and wind, I followed his directive, “Stand … in … the door!” I stood, grabbed the bar above the large opening in the side of the plane, placed my foot along the edge and forced my head into the slipstream. As if watching the ground move beneath us wasn’t sobering enough, the 80-mph blast of wind caused an additional adrenaline rush.
With my heart beating wildly out of my chest, I was cleared to jump. All I had to do was let go of the bar and side-step into the wind. Fighting instinct, I let go.
During the next few days, my classmates and I completed our five jumps to earn our military “jump wings.” Each jump brought nearly as much anxiety and emotion as the first.
But the real lessons occurred on the ground with the cadets. I enrolled in Freefall to better understand how the academy prepares cadets for service in the Air Force.
Freefall forces cadets to face new challenges and push personal boundaries. It provides intense and effective training that positions them for success.
At times, we were overwhelmed by the amount of information we were required to memorize. My classmates and I wondered if we would ever master such a wide span of material. In this program, rote memorization is insufficient. Students must memorize, and properly apply the information under stressful conditions. These skills serve cadets well as they pursue operational flying careers in the Air Force.
The leadership exhibited by the cadet instructors stood out as the cornerstone to program success. This summer, Cadet Steve Rumsey leads roughly 50 cadet instructors. These upper-class cadets serve on the academy’s skydiving team, “Wings of Blue” and regularly perform demonstrations, generally winning national competitions throughout the year. During the summer, their focus is training more than 450 students.
The cadet instructors ensured each student met the standards of performance. Following each jump, an instructor reviewed video of every student’s performance, ensuring we remained safe and met standards. If required, they directed additional training and in extreme cases, might recommend removal from the program.
Through hands-on experience, these young leaders are refining skills that will serve them well throughout their Air Force careers. I couldn’t have been more impressed.
Having just notched my 47th birthday, my adrenaline-seeking days have long passed. The real value in my experience was found in my cadet classmates and highly capable cadet instructors.
Col. Cantwell is the Air Force Academy’s vice superintendent.
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