Team 6—The Aircraft Crew Behind the U.S. Army Golden Knights
by Jessica Haugaard
It is just before 7 a.m. at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida. Sergeant Kyle Pratt, smartly dressed in a black flight suit with the words “U.S. Army Parachute Team” embroidered in gold on his back, glances up at the C31A Fokker aircraft positioned 25 meters in front of him.
In the cockpit ahead, seasoned pilots Ken Breeden, a Department of the Army civilian, and Chief Warrant Officer Four Joey Baker glance down at Pratt as they complete their preflight checks. As the aviation crew chief for this morning’s flight, Pratt knows that Breeden and Baker rely on him to be their eyes around the outside of the aircraft, ensuring that no personnel or objects are in the way of the propellers or around the engines.
Soon, a dark blue school bus ambles to a stop on the road nearby. Clad in jump gear, members of the Golden Knights Gold Demonstration Team walk off the bus, their gold jumpsuits cloaked in the sunlight peeking over the horizon. Their team leader, Sergeant First Class Teigh Statler, leads them in a quick dirt dive, then they patiently wait for the signal to walk toward the aircraft.
The Fokker’s two Rolls Royce Dart turboprop engines slowly spring to life. Once Pratt receives a thumbs up from Baker, he signals to Statler, who leads Gold Team as they walk toward the aircraft. Another morning of training during the Golden Knights Annual Certification Cycle has begun.
Several minutes later, they are airborne; the high-pitched hum of the engines is blocked by Pratt’s noise-cancelling headset, which he uses to communicate with the pilots. At 2,000 feet, Breeden levels out the Fokker for a streamer pass over the drop zone. A member of Gold Team throws out three wind-drift indicators to help determine wind direction (and to calculate when to exit the aircraft). The pilots fly a slow circle around the indicators, each jumper looking through the doors and windows to see where they land. Once the streamers hit the ground, the Fokker slowly climbs to 4,500 feet for a low pass.
As the aircraft turns back toward the drop zone, Breeden keys his mic and says, “Golden Knight Ground, this is 608 [the aircraft’s tail number] requesting hot target and winds, please.” A quieter voice replies over the headset, “608, Golden Knight Ground, you have hot target, winds are four to seven.”
Pratt listens intently to the transmission over his headset, then confirms the information with the pilots. He turns and stands squarely facing the rear of the aircraft. Using hand and arm signals as he yells, Pratt booms, “Inbound! Hot target! Winds are four to seven!” The jumpers echo his words to their team leader, Statler, who walks toward the left rear door.
Pratt watches him and relays his movements to the pilots over his headset. Statler kneels and looks straight down at the ground below. (Pratt: “Spotter in the door.”) He sees clear airspace and the fully displayed target in the landing area. He then gives a crossed arm signal (“hot target”), makes small corrections to the aircraft heading to improve the spot (“five right”), stands up and finally gives a thumbs up to signify that his team is about to jump (“stand by”).
Statler gives an exit count and launches out the left door. In an instant, the rest of Gold Team clambers safely out behind him through both doors in the rear of the aircraft. Pratt counts each jumper as they leave (“All jumpers away!”), and in an instant, only the three members of Team Six remain. He sits down in a black passenger seat near the front as the Fokker begins its descent. It soon touches down on the runway back at Homestead Air Reserve Base. Traveling down Taxiway Charlie, the aircraft and its crew stop in front of another group of jumpers for the next of several more loads that day.
The United States Army Parachute Team, famously known as the Golden Knights, is one of the world’s premiere skydiving teams. Formed in 1959 and based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the Golden Knights constitute a full-sized battalion in the U.S. Army, consisting of nearly 100 personnel. They include two demonstration teams, four competition teams, a tandem team, a selection and training team, a headquarters section and the aviation detachment. Regardless of how an officer, soldier or Department of the Army civilian serves within the organization, all have the same mission: Connecting the American public with America’s Army.
Behind every hour spent in the plane, every jump performed and every mile spent on the road, a group of hand-selected professionals works to ensure success from the air: the Golden Knights Aviation Detachment, known as “Team Six.” Composed of commissioned officers, warrant officers, enlisted soldiers and Department of the Army civilians, this tight-knit group gets Golden Knight jumpers safely into the skies.
Regardless of their role within the organization, everyone who is part of the Golden Knights must go through an extensive and extremely selective process. Within Team Six, pilots are commissioned officers and warrant officers who are specifically handpicked for this highly competitive opportunity; each crew chief is an enlisted soldier on active duty who is individually interviewed and assessed. Regardless of their positions, each member brings vast Army aviation experience to the unit. Most will serve a 3- to 4-year assignment with the Golden Knights; many of the best performers are invited back to work for the team once they retire from service. A highly skilled group of contracted aircraft mechanics, all of whom are experts within their particular specialties, complement the team.
The average day for members of Team Six begins before dawn, as they prepare each aircraft slated for use that day for takeoff well ahead of departure time. As the pilots file into the Team Six headquarters to begin their preflight paperwork, mechanics and crew chiefs begin a series of on-aircraft preparations such as stowing tie-down equipment, checking fluid levels and ensuring that seats and equipment are configured for the day’s mission. All of this occurs at the Team Six hangar, located at Pope Army Airfield adjacent to Fort Bragg.
Team Six is home to five of the Army’s fixed-wing aircraft. Its inventory consists of two iconic C31A Fokkers and three UV-18C Twin Otters. Both Fokkers, acquired in 1985, have two jump doors positioned on each side at the rear of the aircraft, and they are primarily used by the Golden Knight demonstration teams as they travel around the United States. The Twin Otters, similar to those found on many civilian drop zones, are predominantly used by the competition and tandem teams.
Along with most jumpers on the Golden Knights, members of Team Six spend a lot of time away from home. (Those on demonstration teams will spend approximately 270 days per year on the road.) Different missions often occur simultaneously between teams: While the Golden Knights Vertical Formation Skydiving Team is training at the private military drop zone in Laurinburg, North Carolina (approximately 40 miles southwest of Fort Bragg), the Tandem Team may be hosting a tandem camp in Fort Knox, Kentucky, while the Gold Demonstration Team may be making a morning visit to high schools in San Diego, California.
When traveling long distances, teams may be gone for several days at a time; they rely on members of Team Six to operate and maintain Golden Knights aircraft as they travel alongside them. Whether on the ground or in the air, Team Six supports members of the United States Army Parachute Team. Before each jumper, clad in the distinctive uniform of the Golden Knights, departs the aircraft and before their black and gold canopies glide into each performance, the Golden Knights will be expertly escorted from above by members of Team Six.
More information on Team Six and the Golden Knights is available at goarmy.com/events/golden-knights.html.
About the Author
Jessica Haugaard, C-42673, is a crew chief and logistician with the U.S. Army Parachute Team Aviation Detachment (Team Six). In her free time, she enjoys competitive skydiving and spending time with family. She is originally from Mitchell, South Dakota.