There are days when everything feels up in the air. Like Day One of Gowen Thunder, when I showed up with my press pass and a bucket full of enthusiasm. With this press pass and a direct line to my POC (point of contact), Kyle Mead, everything was a go for my second airshow with the US Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. If you’ve been with me a while, you know a little bit about these Army ambassadors. You know they jump from planes in international competitions and at airshows like the one that took place at Gowen recently. You know there’s a Black Team and a Gold Team. Last time, I flew with the Black Team. This time, the Gold Team. I always ask which team is better. One of the guys from the Gold Team informed me that if you go onto Instagram, you’ll find that the Gold Team has millions of followers, as opposed to the Black Team. I haven’t fact-checked him, but I will say that given the opportunity, I’d fly with either team. Besides, my first experience with the Golden Knights was with a member of the Gold Team, Ty Kettenhoffen. He arranged for me to go up with the Knights a couple of years ago, despite the fact I had no press pass. That’s the kind of guy Ty was. Instant friend. I wish I’d gotten to know him better. Regardless, he’s the reason I connected with the Golden Knights in the first place. Him and Mr Wilson, my buddy down at Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos.
Press pass in hand, I checked in at the media trailer. The PAOs (public affairs officers) informed me that the Golden Knights had not coordinated my flight with them, and that they had to. I put them in touch with each other. Keep in mind, this was show time. Everybody was busy as hell, and phone tag was game of the day. Between the airshow and the airfield was a moat, and security guards. Josh, the PAO, let me know that if I happened to somehow slip past the guards, the entire airshow could grind to a halt on my behalf. in other words, don’t do it. I made my way to where the airshow met the airfield and introduced myself to the guards. No way I was going to make it on time. The game of phone tag continued. Eventually, an LTC (Lieutenant Colonel) came over and told me to tell the next guy down the chain that he’d cleared me. Ehlers was the next guy’s name. I walked down to Ehlers and told him what the LTC said. He cleared me to continue, asked me if I knew where I was going. I knew the Golden Knights were somewhere on the airfield, so I assured Ehlers I knew where I was going. I didn’t. I walked and walked and walked, searching for an opening to the airfield. Everything was blocked, and there were big signs warning about active aerobatics drop zones or something like that. I backtracked and eventually found my way to where we were supposed to gather.
If you were to read the bios of the parachutists, you’d learn that they’ve each made thousands of free fall jumps. They’re all highly decorated, with tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. In their free time, they enjoy family time and hobbies like woodworking, running, surfing, golf, traveling, fishing. Some even enjoy skydiving during their time off. Spend a few minutes with these guys, and you’ll notice not only that they’re serious pros and badasses, you can tell they spend a lot of time with each other. They are completely in sync. And yet, they also make each of us guests feel like we’re part of the gang.
We’re only going up to six thousand feet today, which means we could put on our jackets or not. I chose not to jacket myself. They strap us in, including anything that could fly out the open door. But there’s plenty of room to turn and lean on our tethers. I’m in the seat closest to the open door. That’s where I want to be. That’s where the guys show up to lean out the door and check out conditions. A parade in ones, twos, and threes. Robbins, the Team Leader, says, “oh, a funny guy!” when I tell him I do stand-up. I asked several of the guys if they knew Ty. “Of course.” The question makes them thoughtful. “We all know the risks.”
It’s hard to hear with earplugs on, but everyone’s grinning ear to ear. We’re all just glad to be up here. Twenty or thirty minutes later, high fives and fist bumps all around, then out the door they go. It’s not like in cartoons, where you float for a moment before dropping like a sack of lead. No, out the door, and you’re gone. Gone gone gone. The plane is eerily empty. “Who the hell’s flying the plane?” is my stock question to anyone within earshot. That’s how you can tell who’s afraid to fly but up here anyway.
Back on the ground, Gowen Thunder’s in full swing. F35 Demo team, the USAF Thunderbirds, wall to wall people of all ages, food trucks, displays, info booths. There’s an Army rock band playing on top of a tractor trailer, and a fire truck spraying the kids. I wade into the crowd, making friends and capturing everything but the actual airshow. You see, I favor little cameras with wide angle lenses. Lets me get up close and personal. Those other guys with the big lenses can capture the pilots’ nostrils. I’d rather hear people’s stories, like ninety-five year old Logan, and his son Eric. Logan moved here from Laguna fifty years ago. Ahead of his time. Eric’s been taking care of Logan for the past six years, when Logan’s wife Doe passed away. “She was an amazing mother. Phenomenal snow skier and racer.” Then there’s Jessica, combat midwife. She trains all the helicopter medics here, there, and everywhere. And deploys to hurricanes, like Idalia. Part of me wants to deploy to a hurricane, to capture the aftermath. Part of me feels like I’d just get in the way.
Now what about some stories about the Golden Knights Gold Team? There was an opportunity for interviews at the Airshow, but I missed it somehow. I was too busy panicking about getting onto the airfield. Logistics aren’t my strong suit, especially when multiple pieces are involved. Besides, I prefer conversation to an interview any day. I reached out to Megan the media coordinator a week later in hopes of further contact with the team. Maybe she can make it happen. I know I’m a high maintenance PITA, but I’m old and unlikely to change. I’m WYSIWYG, too. You’ll have to either like this story as is or find some other story you like better.
One more thing. The Gowen Thunder Airshow, I’m told, does not cost us taxpayers a single additional dollar. All the costs are covered by vendors and sponsors. For Guardsmen pulling duty on show weekend, it’s their monthly training. All you and I have to do is show up and not get in the way.
How cool is that? When you get right down to it, there’s nothing “up in the air” about the Gowen Thunder Airshow. It’s a buttoned-up operation. All those moving parts, in sync. Just like the Golden Knights. Sure, some of it gets improvised on the first day. But by the second, that lesson’s been learned, and there’s a new entry in the procedures manual. That’s how life ought to be. Not up in the air. Except for the aerobatics, of course.