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Wings of Blue: 60 Years of Excellence

USAFA Parachute Team Members Learn about More than Jumping out of Planes

It’s brisk and overcast as the US Air Force Academy parachute team cadets hop into the waiting Twin Otter plane. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Sitting side by side on the metal benches, they buckle up. Close the door. Roll.

“Go! Go! Go!” the team chants as the plane taxis down the runway, then quickly climbs to 4,500 feet. This is a training mission–a cadet is working on his jumpmaster certification. He drops red and yellow wind drift indicators out of the open door and performs a final check on the first two jumpers. After tweaking a couple of things, out they leap, with the next group following a few minutes later.


Each year, about 700 cadets take the Academy’s basic freefall parachuting course: Airmanship 490 (AM-490). It’s the only certified jump program in the world where students make their first freefall jump unassisted.

Cadet Lauren LaDuque says she barely remembers her first jump, but she jokes that she does remember thinking: “Who let me do this? How is this an approved program?”

The sophomore from Liberty Hill, Texas, says her second jump is easier to recall: “It’s the closest thing I can describe bliss as.”  

Before their first jump, everyone must have more than 40 hours of rigorous ground training. LaDuque buckles into a harness suspended from the ceiling in the 98th Training Squadron facility to demonstrate what cadets practice over and over (and over) before their first jump. Things like hand and foot positions, running through equipment checks and making sure the airspace is clear around the plane.

Instructors throw them countless complications during ground training to prepare them for almost any situation during an actual jump. In an emergency, they want muscle memory to kick in. Seconds could mean the difference between life or death and the program has never had a fatality in its 60-year history.

“You are going to be prepared,” said Maj. Lauren Franks, jump flight commander.

After five solo jumps, about 400 cadets earn their jump wings. Of those, 200-ish typically try out for Wings of Green (WoG), a one-year program that trains cadets to become official members of the elite Wings of Blue jump team. 

Roughly 25 are chosen. 

Wings of Green + Wings of Blue

LaDuque made the cut last year and now, as a so-called WoG, is helping her Wings of Blue counterparts train AM-490 students. “We really do put them through the ringer,” she says.

It’s about safety. But it’s more than that. Many cadets will never make another jump after they leave USAFA, but the lessons will stick with them forever—learning to deal with stress, working through fear, leading in the face of danger, trusting fellow airmen.

Lt. Col. Matthew Tuchscher, commander of the 98th Flying Training Squadron, says the program gives students exposure to aviation and teaches leadership, with cadets serving as instructors.

“I feel like a lot of the stuff we do here is helping people grow. … helping us be better officers,” says LaDuque, who hopes to serve as an intelligence officer when she graduates.

Payton Rawson, a sophomore from Atlanta, Ga., agrees. As the Twin Otter circles over the Air Force Academy and he awaits his turn to make his 86th jump, he explains the procedures, saying he’s “so grateful” that he was selected for Wings of Green.

Although it adds hours to his already busy schedule each week, he loves it. What is he looking most forward to? “I’m excited to send my first student out,” he says.

The primary mission Wings of Blue is to run the AM-490 program. But when these world-class jumpers aren’t teaching underclassmen, they’re performing and competing around the world.

Demonstration + Competition

When Wings of Green graduate to Wings of Blue, they are selected to serve on either the competition (comp) or the demonstration (demo) team.

The comp team has been competing since 1962 and is the winningest collegiate parachute team in history. The demo team comprises the remaining team members and represents the Wings of Blue at college and NFL football games, air shows and dozens of other precision jump events each year. In May, they’re jumping into the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500. And before that? The day before USAFA’s graduation, they’ll jump into the graduation parade.

Parker Garrison is a senior on the Wings of Blue demo team, with 622 jumps. One of his most memorable experiences was his first pro-rated demonstration jump at a Nebraska Cornhusker football game. The Highlands Ranch, Co., native says he didn’t know much about Nebraska, except that it had a lot of corn. Then he jumped into a 90,000-seat, sold-out stadium to cheering so loud it shook his parachute. “They treated us like celebrities."

As he wraps up his time at USAFA, the business management major says being on the Wings of Blue has been one of his favorite parts of college. “There’s nothing quite like it,” Garrison says, later adding, “It’s hard to put into words. I’ve met my best friends on this team. I’ve gotten to do some amazing things that no other college experience would offer.”

Facebook: @USAFparachuteteam
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