LAURINBURG — Sgt. 1st Class Joe Ablin has always avoided heights.
May 24, 2001, was the first time in his adult life that he was able to rally enough courage to board an airplane.
It was also the first time he jumped out of one.
“I went skydiving with a bunch of friends, and when I got up there I jumped because I didn’t want to be ‘that guy,’” he said.
“It was one of those life-changing events, when you remember all the songs on the radio, the weather, you remember everything about that day.”
Sgt. 1st. Class Derrick Coleman saw a movie at the age of 16, in the mid-1990s, that painted a glamorous portrait of skydiving. It was pure luck that his friend’s dad owned a drop zone.
“Everyone else played sports and stuff like that — I liked jumping out of airplanes. It was different. I liked the appeal of it.”
The men’s paths eventually landed them in roles as Army parachutists — and each has now notched thousands of jumps at about 14,000 feet as members of the US Army Golden Knights.
The Team, made up of more than 90 people who put on grandiose arial shows at stadiums and festivals, ballgames and special events, serve as the public face of the Armed Forces — “ambassadors” who extend Army values to an audience watching them hurtle towards the earth at 124 miles per hour.
Ablin and Coleman are part of a team that is working to train 13 hopefuls who may someday become one of those ambassadors by wowing hundreds or thousands of onlookers, including kids who might one day answer the frequent question of what they want to be when they grow up with the words “I want to be a Golden Knight.”
For the Golden Knights’ Assessment and Selection Candidates, the road will not be easy. It will begin by rolling over a bumpy maze of paved tarmac through fields of grass and weeds at the Laurinburg-Maxton airport drop zone; through a graveyard of commercial airliners that are utilized for parts; and to a hangar where they will gather with other team hopefuls, who arrive at the zone before the sun hits the horizon. They will spend hours in physical training that prepares them for pounds of air resistance and hard landings. Between assignments, they will grab handfuls of food packed from home — for the health conscious, grain and nut bars; for the rest, cheese puffs or caramel popcorn.
The candidates spend their time running, stretching and “dirt-diving,” or completing practice runs of what they’ll do once they pull their parachute. They take turns playing announcer while fellow Knights drift to the ground. They will then spend all day taking their practice to the skies, over and over again, until the moon shines on the round dirt target.
“It’s tough,” says Golden Knights hopeful Staff Sgt. Shelby Bixler. “You have to be a good teammate and you have to be motivated all the time. There’s times when you’re sore, you don’t feel like going up and jumping 10 to 12 times a day.”
This year’s training is Bixler’s second time through the program. Last season, after interviewing, being accepted and going on her first-ever skydive, she left the group when an injury made practicing impossible. It’s an event she calls “a blessing in disguise” because it allowed her time to realize once again why she wanted to be a part of “something bigger than herself.”
Bixler now recruits for the program.
“This is the epitome of why I joined the Army. This is probably the last stop for me before retirement … . We all have different reasons for being here, but ultimately it’s to be a part of a team that is the best in the world and to represent our country to others.”
Bixler, like most other candidates, has already represented America during one or multiple tours to Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait. Sgt. 1st Class Sunnydale Hyde has been deployed three times, and fought in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom 2, Operation Enduring Freedom 16 and Operation Anaconda. He “slipped his way” in the Warrior Free-Fall Program in July.
“There is absolutely nothing more exhilarating,” Hyde said. “To jump out and be free as a bird, flying and doing maneuvers in the air, it’s absolutely exhilarating.”
But his reason for joining the Golden Knights carries more meaning.
“They stand for something bigger than me, bigger than the Army,” he said. “They represent the Army that I love.”
As Coleman says, the Golden Knights competition teams are “the reigning world champions.” To be a Golden Knight, he says, trainees have “got to want to be the best in the world.”
This means they endure a rigorous schedule, and the demands of team leaders who push, harass, and pit them against each other at every turn. It’s part of a test to see who can handle the pressure and remain a team player both on and off the drop zone.
“We don’t pick people who aren’t good teammates. I can change your jumping ability, but I can’t change your personality,” Coleman said. “You have to know what everyone is doing so that no one gets hurt or injured, because it’s a dangerous job. If someone does something wrong, the result can be catastrophic. You have to know what everyone’s thinking and what everyone’s doing.
“It’s like a family here.”
Candidates rate each other’s teamwork on a scale of 1 to 17 that serves to solidify team leader’s perceptions.
Those who make the final cut, made later this month, will be knighted, and will go on for further training in Homestead, Fla. From there, they will decide if they want to jump competitively, or be a part of a tandem team that takes past presidents, film stars, writers and members of the press on a ride through the sky.
“Everyone’s got their own things they like to do, I personally like traveling the country and jumping in different places every weekend,” Coleman says.
As for Ablin? He just likes to jump as often as possible. But he refuses to climb a ladder or look down from the roof or high window of a tall building.
“It’s a perception thing,” he said. “And with this team, there’s never a time I go up that I don’t feel completely safe.”