By Brandon O'Connor, Pointer View Assistant EditorOctober 17, 2018
It was a moment Class of 2019 cadet Thomas Rounds had been waiting for the last decade and a half. Standing at the door of a helicopter more than 4,000 feet above Michie Stadium, it was his job to deliver the game ball at the start of the Army West Point Football team's game against Hawaii.
Rounds came to the U.S. Military Academy with zero skydiving experience, but in the more than three years since, he has jumped 520 times as a member of the West Point Parachute team.
This jump was different, though. Watching the parachute team jump into football games when he lived here in third through fifth grade is what inspired him to join the team in the first place. And now, it was finally time for him to make that jump himself.
"That was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had from how nervous I was on the ground making sure I did it right to the crowd," Rounds said of his jump into the stadium. "It is so quiet up top and then as you get in the stadium you start to hear the crowd noise and your heart starts beating. Then finally, I landed on the field and it is an amazing feeling and all those years of work going from someone who has never jumped before to getting that opportunity."
The West Point Parachute team currently includes 22 cadets who do demonstration jumps such as those at home football games as well as jumps in competition. The team practices throughout the week with lower altitude jumps out of a helicopter onto The Plain at West Point. On the weekends, they head about an hour away from West Point and practice their aerial skills while jumping out of an airplane more than 13,000 feet above the Earth.
"During Beast, I saw the parachute team jumping in as I was on The Plain, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that," Class of 2020 Cadet Dion Perinon said. "We were cleaning rifles and the jumpers would come out after class, they'd fist bump the pilots, go up, jump out of the helicopter, land, pack, go back and fist bump the pilot and do it again. I said, 'I have to be a part of that.'
"My first jump onto The Plain, I finally saw the work I had done over all the years manifest itself into me coming back from class, going and fist bumping the pilot, going up and jumping onto The Plain."
Team members go through an extensive tryout period during their plebe year that includes interviews, a fitness test and a wind tunnel tryout before taking their first tandem jump during spring break.
It is not until their second year on the team, after they have earned a license, that they are allowed to make their first solo jump onto The Plain. The hard work paid off for the Class of 2021 cadets on the team when they made their first jump onto The Plain during practice Tuesday.
"The first time we get to see them is when they come for physical day," Sgt. 1st Class Ian McGlynn, the Parachute Team NCOIC, said. "They are young and full of energy and excitement. Then, the first time you take them up in the airplane, there is always that moment when it becomes real that they are leaving. You are not jumping out until the moment you are at the door and can see you are two miles above the Earth. Every single jumper has that moment where their face goes from nervous excitement to what am I doing to let's do that."
Once they have learned to jump, members of the team can start competing. Team members start by competing in two-way relative where two jumpers exit at the same time and work together to make choreographed formations in the air during a freefall period.
Team members also compete in teams of four and six where they work to make larger formations as a group.
McGlynn said cadets on the parachute team reach a level of proficiency in two and a half years that it typically takes a civilian jumper 10 to 15 years to reach. They do that through detailed coaching and the sheer number of jumps they make. Rounds estimated that as a firstie, on a clear week with good weather, he can make upwards of 20 jumps.
"The first couple times you do it, it is very hectic," Rounds said of competing in six way. "You are crawling all over each other trying to get out the door. Through coaching and practice and ground training you do before you ever put anything in the sky, it gets to a point where everyone knows what they are supposed to do in their spot. We have been practicing six-way for a couple years now so we all know exactly what we're supposed to do in our spot."
The most advanced members of the team earn the chance to compete in vertical formation competitions. Whereas other team members compete with their bellies to the ground while making the formations, these jumpers change their axis and build formation while in standing or sitting positions or while flying head down.
"It takes a lot of time to teach," McGlynn said of vertical formation flying. "It is pretty easy to teach someone how to fall out of an airplane normally, but when you are talking about learning how to change the axis and feel and fly the winds, that is different and weird and takes time."
Team members can also compete in accuracy disciplines. In classic accuracy, they use a large canopy to control their decent with the goal of landing directly on a small target. In sport accuracy, they use a smaller canopy with the intent of landing on a dinner plate sized target.