Army Golden Knights parachutists such as those who performed in Chicago on Saturday can jump out of a plane 21/2 miles above the Earth, deploy a parachute 2,000 feet off the ground and land like ballerinas on a target that is 10 feet square, often touching down on a spot the size of a medium pizza.
They do this thousands of times each year.
So the accident this weekend at Chicago’s annual Air and Water Show, in which a Golden Knight fell unconscious to the ground after colliding with a parachutist from the Navy’s Leap Frogs, came as a shock to the team and the horrified spectators who saw it happen. The death of Sgt. 1st Class Corey Hood, 32, was a rare tragedy among a group of rare athletes who become as close as family while traveling the United States and the world as aerial ambassadors for the Army and competitors for team U.S.A.
“The team is devastated and still in shock,” said Donna Dixon, spokeswoman for the Golden Knights, based at Fort Bragg. “This is the first loss that members of this team have seen.”
Since the Golden Knights were formed in 1959 – a Cold War response by the U.S. to Russia’s headline-grabbing skydiving team – the military’s official skydivers have seen only a handful of actual parachuting deaths. Most of the losses over the years have come from airplane mishaps. The worst, in 1973, happened when a C47 transport plane hauling a team from Fort Bragg to Kansas spiraled to the ground, killing the 11 jumpers and three crewmen aboard. The Army later said the plane was overloaded; a heavy metal plate had been added while it was in service in Vietnam but the modification was never entered in the log book.
In 2002, a pilot of a Golden Knights turbo-prop plane was killed when his aircraft crashed after colliding mid-air with another plane in Marana, Ariz.
The last time a team member died during an actual jump was in 1994. Jose Aguillon was practicing a maneuver called a Diamond Track in Yuma, Ariz., when he and teammate Dana Bowman collided in the air. Bowman lost parts of both legs in the accident.
The Golden Knights consist of only 86 active jumpers, Dixon said. Just to apply, soldiers must have at made at least 100 jumps and be able go through a rigorous eight- to 10-week training program, at the end of which they find out if they made the cut. If they do, they’re given a three-year assignment to the Black or Gold demonstration team; to the competition team, which travels the world competing against parachutists from 40 other countries; or to the tandem team, which takes VIPs and others on tandem jumps. President George H.W. Bush went on many tandem jumps with the Golden Knights, Dixon said.
The parachutists spend most of the winter at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, training. The demonstration teams have a show season that runs from March to December, keeping them on the road for about 240 days a year. They drop in at air shows, university and high school events, auto races and professional football games. While the Army pays the Knights’ salaries, event promoters pay for their travel. Because the teams are in such demand, promoters have to request them for an event about a year in advance.
Recently, the Army made being a member of the Golden Knights an occupational specialty in itself. Many members stay on the team 15 years or more, Dixon said, and for many of them, it’s the achievement of a lifelong dream. Soldiers often say the first time they ever met a member of the U.S. military, it was a Golden Knight they watched parachute onto their school grounds or into an air show and got to meet afterward.
The teams, with their distinctive jumpsuits and insignia, are considered by the Army to be a powerful recruiting tool.
In an interview last year after a jump he made at a school, Hood said he especially loved jumping at high schools. A native of Cincinnati, Hood graduated in 2001 from Lakota West High School, where he played football and wrestled, according to school principal Elgin Card. Hood joined the military immediately afterward and started jumping from airplanes in 2010, according to his military biography.
Hood was a forward observer who had survived five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning two Bronze Stars along the way. He had logged more than 500 free-fall jumps and 75 static-line jumps. He was married to Lyndsay Hood.
At Saturday’s event, the Golden Knights were performing with the Leap Frogs, which Dixon said they had done before in Chicago, though the team usually performs alone. The Air and Water Show drew an estimated 1.5 million people last year, and Dixon said the precision parachuting is one of the most popular features of that – or any – air show where the teams perform.
Dixon said a group of about 13 parachutists had just performed a Bomb Burst, a circular formation in which jumpers hold hands, trailing red smoke that spectators can see from the ground.
After they separated, Hood and the Navy parachutists collided and Hood was knocked unconscious. As he continued to fall, his parachute deployed, Dixon said, but he crashed onto a sidewalk.
He was taken to a hospital, where the Army said Saturday he was being treated for a head injury. But on Sunday, the Army announced he had died.
The Leap Frogs’ parachutist landed on a Lake Michigan beach and suffered a broken leg, the military said.
A military investigation is underway.