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Army parachute team makes grand entrance into Woodstock

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

Smoke from a flare signals a U.S. Army Golden Knights
Smoke from a flare signals a U.S. Army Golden Knights parachutist's descent over Massanutten Military Academy during a performance Friday afternoon. The elite unit also landed at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds on Friday evening. Rich Cooley/Daily

member of the parachute team prepares for landing
A member of the parachute team prepares for landing on the MMA football field Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily

US Army Golden Knights parachute team prepare for landing
A pair of members of the US Army Golden Knights parachute team prepare for landing on the Massanutten Military Academy football field during a performance Friday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

Staff Sgt. Drew Starr packs his parachute
Staff Sgt. Drew Starr, 24, a member of the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team, packs his parachute while students from MMA look on. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK -- It's never a bird, there was a plane involved and it is a person whose super powers do not extend to being fearless.

The U.S. Army parachute team, the Golden Knights, may not be best described that way, but it's one way to do it, based on its appearance Friday afternoon at Massanutten Military Academy. The seven parachutists from the Knights' gold team were also scheduled to land at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds later in the day.

A plane 12,000 feet in the air drops the soldiers, who descend at speeds as high as 120 mph. In a meet-and-greet with MMA cadets afterward Friday, Golden Knight Staff Sgt. Steve Robertson answered one inquiry about whether he's ever hit a bird or been attacked by one while parachuting with a quick "no."

With 5,267 free falls on his record, Robertson, 38, has the most of any of the current Golden Knights gold team, which is one of two Army parachute demonstration teams. He joined the team four years ago, after it snowed 5 feet while he was stationed in Alaska and his wife had enough of that and asked him to find something new to do somewhere else.

About 1,500 of his free falls have come as a member of the Golden Knights.

"We are soldiers before we are Golden Knights," Robertson said.

The qualifications to become a member include having at least 150 free falls and going through eight weeks of training, he said. The team formed in 1959 and received its name in 1962. There have been fewer than 1,000 members in its history, Robertson said.

"It's an elite group," he said.

Staff Sgt. Drew Starr, the team's photographer, has made 1,828 jumps in his Army career. A cadet asked him what it felt like to fly.

"It's almost indescribable," he said. "It's not like that roller coaster feeling. ... When you jump out, the plane is going 120 mph, so as soon as you step out, you're still going 120 mph. It's like sticking your hand out of the window going down the street, just way, way faster."

And this point goes toward the third leg of the aforementioned description of the Golden Knights -- in doing something "way, way faster" than sticking his hand out of a window, Starr admits he was "terrified" the first time he jumped.

"If you're not scared when you do it for the first time, then there's something wrong," he said.

Robertson said Starr's assessment was correct.

"You need to land and go, 'Oooh, do I want to do that again?'" he said.

The answer tends to be "yes," as Golden Knights today serve between four- and eight-year hitches. Including civilian jumps, Friday's seven parachutists had a combined 15,197 free falls.

Robertson said he still gets nervous occasionally. Most recently, that happened at a Baltimore Ravens game.

"The only out was the river," he said. "I've flown into the Statue of Liberty grounds. The Ravens stadium was more of a challenge."

Descriptions like those are what Winchester resident Courtney Rose may not want to hear. Her 3-year-old son, Hunter, enjoyed Friday's performance and said he would jump out of the plane.

"If that's what he wants to do in life," Rose said. "I'll be saying my prayers, too."

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