Sucking oxygen, defying gravity and fate above Garfield County |

Sucking oxygen, defying gravity and fate above Garfield County

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
John Colson/Post IndependentA pair of Golden Knights plunge earthward after leaping out of an airplane door and into the 125 mph slipstream.

RIFLE, Colo. – Famed aviatrix Patty Wagstaff was doing stunts in the air, hanging upside down for seconds at the top of successive loops; corkscrewing her single-engine plane high into the sky and then plunging to make daredevil passes just feet above sagebrush that dotted the mesa.

The pilots and parachutists of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, meanwhile, got ready for their practice run on Thursday at the Garfield County Airport.

It was all part of the preparations for the 2009 Air Fair, a free show that opens at 1 p.m. today at the airport near Rifle, and continues on Saturday. The parachute team, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., will do shows both days, and were going on their first practice run.

A World War II vintage Pacific Prowler bomber had just landed, disgorging its passengers – Garfield County Administrator Ed Green and his able administrative secretary, Linda Morcom. The pair made a beeline for the parachute team’s plane, preceding a reporter up the rickety metal ladder into the Fokker F-27’s interior.

The group of three passengers got a quick briefing from Staff Sgt. Drew Starr, assistant team leader for the Golden Knights squad, about such topics as:

• Stay in the seats no matter what (“If you unhook the seat belts, we’ll tackle you like halfbacks, close the doors and land the plane. We can’t afford to take any chances.”)

• Use the airsick bags (“If you do get sick, don’t get sick out the door, because with the wind blasting by it’ll just come back in and hit you in the face … and you have to clean it up when we land, OK?” Laughs all around.)

The doors were two large openings fashioned into either side of the tail section of the F-27, a European plane originally designed to haul cargo, but modified for paratroopers. It is one of two Fokkers used by the parachute team, with an 1,850-horsepower engine capable of being boosted to 2,000 hp if the turbo-prop is kicked on. It has a 1,000-mile range and capacity to take up to seven passengers in addition to the team.

The team, which numbers 90 or so members in all and consists of four different squads doing shows around the U.S., also flies two DeHavilland Twin Otters, which have a shorter range and are largely used for East Coast shows and training missions, according to one of the pilots, CW4 Steve Lowell.

Hanging around waiting for the plane to be readied, the parachutists were happy to answer silly questions from a reporter, such as whether parachutists eat before they jump.

“Some do, some don’t,” said crew chief Sgt. Taylor Lamm of Florida, sitting in the plane eating a sandwich. “It’s a matter of preference, depends on how nervous they are.”

This was the team’s first trip to Colorado, and Lamm said he was impressed by the mountains, coming from a state where the highest points amounted to “a few ant mounds.”

Starr, in response to a question about whether he and his teammates get nervous, replied, “Sure we do. But it’s not, ‘Oh, am I gonna make it,’ you know? It’s more, ‘Oh, are they gonna like what we do?’ We travel the country putting on shows, and we like to do the people that we represent justice.”

Once in the air, the temperature began to drop by what Starr said was an average of three degrees Fahrenheit for every thousand feet. Another member of the team had said the drop was steeper, in degrees Celsius, but whatever the technical description, it was soon quite cold.

Different members of the team drifted to the front of the plane every now and then to breathe in from an oxygen tank. Staff Sgt. Aaron Figel, who was one of them, said it was standard procedure at high altitudes to relieve light-headedness due to the thin air. Figel said that when the plane gets up to 12,500 feet, oxygen is mandatory.

The F-27, he added, can get to 25,000 feet, but at that altitude the doors must be closed and sealed so the cabin can be pressurized.

After what seemed an eternity circling the airfield below, to permit stunt pilots to finish practicing and to allow the airport crew to clear a plane that had driven off one end of the runway (no injuries), the men prepared to jump.

Bellowing in anticipation and performing a complicated series of hand-slaps and fist-touches in salute to the undertaking, they stood in two groups at the back of the plane and stepped out through the doors on command. As they dropped into the slipstream of the plane, the sound of the wind taking hold of their bodies was indescribable, spooky and swift. Quicker than an eye can blink, they were gone.

Far below they reappeared, chutes deployed and pink smoke trailing from the smoke bombs attached to their ankles so that spectators on the ground could track their movements.

Although delays had robbed them of the chance to practice a formation they were working on, they considered the jump a success when, within minutes, both they and the plane were back on the ground and the crew was reunited once again.

The Air Fair will be open from 1-11 p.m. on Friday and from 9:30 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. on Saturday.

Fly-bys and aerial performances will be Friday from around 2-4 p.m., and from 5:30-9:30 in the evening, as well as on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

To get to the airport, go to exit 94 on I-70, between Silt and Rifle, and follow the signs.

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