March 11, 2008 — Tuesday was a beautiful day to fall nearly two miles with a soldier strapped to your back.
Five University of Virginia students, three faculty and two staff members volunteered to take part in tandem jumps with the U.S. Army's Golden Knights skydiving demonstration team. They landed in the soccer practice field at the intersection of Massie and Alderman roads, next to Klöckner Stadium.
In a tandem jump, a volunteer is strapped to a member of the Golden Knights and the two of them fall together.
"It extended well beyond what I expected," said Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty advancement, who decided to jump to push her own boundaries. "As we left the plane, the reasonable side of my brain said 'Don't go,' but the other side said to just give up control."
• AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Vice Provost Gertrude Fraser describes her experience.
Fraser said she was euphoric in the air and felt very secure strapped to a member of the Golden Knights. She also said she enjoyed the view.
"I could see the contours of the mountains, the green of the land," she said. "We stop appreciating them and it becomes ordinary."
"I could see the whole Grounds," said third-year student Crit Taylor Richardson Jr., a member of the Inter-Fraternity Council. "It was the most intense rush I ever had."
Richardson was part of the first group of three to jump, and he said he did not want to wait. "I didn't want time to think about it," he said. "I only got about two hours of sleep last night."
Third-year student Kimberley Diaz described her jump as "the experience of a lifetime. It was so cool. I am glad I did it."
She thanked the members of the Golden Knights and the U.S. Army ROTC for making the jump possible. Diaz said her jump was a way to call attention to Hoos for Open Access, a group that educates potential students about AccessUVa, UVa.'s financial aid program, and provides financial education support to students who receive assistance.
Diaz's family drove from New Jersey to Charlottesville to watch her jump. When she landed, they crowded around her, congratulated her and took photographs.
Antonio Rice's family also came to watch him jump. His children rushed on to the field to greet him once he landed.
"I did it for my 4-year-old and 2-year-old, to show them to take calculated risks," said Rice, who manages ITC's training program. "And this was a wonderful opportunity to do it with professionals. I had to take advantage of it."
The weather was nearly perfect for jumping, according to Lt. Col. Jay Dymek, commander of the Army ROTC program at U.Va.
The volunteers left the airplane at about 13,500 feet and were in freefall for about a minute, with the parachutes opening at around 6,000 feet. A small drag chute initially slows the skydivers to about 120 miles per hour before the main chute opens and further slows the parachutists to about 20 miles per hour.
Diaz likened the freefall to the drop of a rollercoaster.
"It's a rush when you jump, and when you slow down, that subsides," she said.
Friends and family members were at the landing zone to greet the skydivers. Several members of the provost's office came to the field to watch Fraser jump.
The spectators were anxiously scanning the sky when the plane first came into sight about 10:30 a.m. and circled the field, gaining altitude. The skydivers, clad in yellow and black jumpsuits, were barely visible during their freefall, just specks in the sky. There were several "ooohs" from the audience as the parachutes blossomed against the blue of the sky and the Knights started maneuvering the chutes to give their passengers a more memorable ride.
"The Golden Knights represent the best in the U.S. Army, and it is appropriate that we have been able to bring them to U.Va., which is dedicated to academic excellence and commitment to public service," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason H. Alexander, senior military instructor with the University's Army ROTC program. "This was a chance for some of our best to jump with some of the Army's best."
The Golden Knights, who represent the U.S. Army at air shows and demonstrations, are visiting the University to promote U.Va.'s Army ROTC program.
Other jumpers included Christina Polenta, vice president of the third-year class; Michelle Henry, president of the second-year class; Kadeem Cooper, vice president of the second-year class; Lauren Crow, an account executive with Virginia Sports Properties; Emily Drake, an associate professor at the School of Nursing; and Jim Kuznar, general manager of Virginia Sports Properties.
Drake, who was scheduled for a later jump, watched the first group float down to the field.
"I trust these guys completely," she said. "You can't say I never did anything for my students."
The Golden Knights began in 1959 as the Strategic Army Corps Sport Parachute Team, with 13 members. Two years later they were redesignated the Department of Defense's official aerial demonstration team, the U.S. Army Parachute Team. The Golden Knights currently tour the country performing at air shows and sporting events, appearing before about 14 million viewers a year.
Among the passengers of previous jumps have been former president George H.W. Bush, Miss USA 2005 Chelsea Cooley, Miss North Carolina 2005 Brooke McLaurin, Vanessa Manillo of Music Television, actor and famed tough guy Chuck Norris, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and golf legend Tiger Woods.