High-flying acts

The Baltimore Sun

Army Sgt. Steven Robertson straddled the open doorway of the twin-propeller plane, half of his untethered body exposed to the whipping wind, and strained to spot the 50-yard line of M&T; Bank Stadium 4,000 feet below.

The Fokker C-31A Friendship of the Army Parachute Team banked 10 degrees left and right according to the hand signals of Golden Knights squad leader Sgt. 1st Class Harold Meyers, who was crawling an all fours, alternately poking his quickly reddening nose out of the two rear open doors.

But it wasn't until seconds before the scheduled jump into the 108th Army-Navy football contest's pre-game festivities that the elite parachutists from the ground and sea forces knew whether the skydiving mission would be cleared -- or aborted, as it was the previous two years because of high winds.

"It's not normally so jumpy," yelled Sgt. Brandon Valle over the deafening roar of the engines. "Ground crews say it's 12 knots in the stadium."

That wind speed was borderline. One or two knots higher in the wind-whirlpool of a large stadium, and the jumpers could risk landing on a football fan or being impaled on a goal post.

Moments later, two short horn blasts -- the "go" signal -- rang from the rear of the plane, and the four Navy Parachute Team Leap Frogs blithely skipped out the door.

They were followed by seven Army jumpers, leaving behind in the frigid aircraft just a gaggle of journalists fighting their seatbelts for a fleeting photograph of the plummeting men.

Navy SEAL Nix White, 37, of the Leap Frogs had a better view. The former special operations instructor's helmet was outfitted with video and still cameras that beamed live footage of his jump onto the stadium's video screens.

Nix uses a "bite switch" in his mouth to operate the shutter on the still camera, leaving his hands free to maneuver the canopy above him.

After about a 10-second free fall, the parachutists deployed their canopies for the two-minute sail to the ground. Under parachute, a jumper falls at the rate of roughly 1,000 feet per minute.

As he deployed his canopy at about 2,500 feet, Valle could hear the roar of the crowd below, he said after the game. "As we were coming down, I could hear them cheering for each person."

As for Army's record sixth-straight defeat by the Midshipmen, Valle, 23, tried to muster some optimism. "They got next year."

Between them, the Army and Navy team parachutists log tens of thousands of jumps a year -- at air shows, college football games and winter training sessions. But they rarely appear together, and the annual Army-Navy gridiron rivalry holds special significance, jumpers said yesterday.

"There's just such a big rivalry," said Army jumper Sgt. Joseph Abeln of Missouri before the flight. "Even in parachuting, it's Army versus Navy."

For safety reasons, the rivalry in the skies is limited to friendly smack-talk, and not the legendary pranks of the military academies.

In February, the two teams train together in Arizona -- a warm destination that was on everyone's mind yesterday when the wind chill sank sky-high temperatures into the teens.

"You'll be in Yuma soon," said one Golden Knight to a Leap Frog as both squads huddled for a chilly safety briefing and prayer before takeoff.

Admission to the parachute squads is highly competitive, and acceptance means a full-time job jumping out of airplanes to thunderous applause. All of the Leap Frogs are pulled from the ranks of Navy special operations units, said White.

The Navy team is known for difficult acrobatic stunts, such as barreling face down to the turf in tight formation, before quickly righting themselves. The Army jumpers pride themselves on precision parachuting.

Precision is particularly important in timing jumps during televised football games, where commercial breaks are carefully choreographed. Yesterday, both teams had to hit their marks on the ground within a seven-minute window.

That was fairly easy compared with a Tennessee Titans football game in which Abeln was told by NFL officials he had to touch down at 12:10 p.m. and 19 seconds -- on the final note of the national anthem.

If he missed the exact time by more than 20 seconds, the Titans would have been fined $25,000.

"I made it with two seconds to spare," he said with a grin. "Our pilots are good about putting us right where we need to be at the time we need to be out of the plane."


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