The 2017 Milwaukee Air and Water Show took place under mixed weather conditions along the Milwaukee lakefront on July 15 and 16, attracting crowds of thousands to Bradford Beach and Lincoln Memorial Drive as aircraft propelled by blade and turbine buzzed downtown.

While sleek machines filled the sky at high speed, not all participants in the airshow had wings. Eleven members of the elite United States Army Parachute Team left their plane behind and free-fell to earth. Known as the Golden Knights, the precision military parachutists touched down on their mark to cheering fans within three minutes of jumping from their Fokker C-31A Troopship.

“Everyone on the team has spent lots of time deployed, often multiple times deployed in both to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are very few who were on a team prior to the war,” said crew chief Sergeant First Class Justin Runion, who is part of the aviation team and jump qualified. “Their specialty is so great, and they’ve won so many medals, that the Army decided that their experience for safe skydiving in competitions was more important.”

The Golden Knights are a demonstration and competition parachute team of the United States Army. The Gold and Black demonstration teams travel the United States 240 days a year for airshow performances. The Black Team attended the Milwaukee Air and Water Show this year, easily identified by the color of their jumpsuits.

Both teams of the Golden Knights serve as official ambassadors of the Army, having performed more than 17,000 shows in all 50 states and 48 countries. Their free-fall demonstrations are often the only opportunity the public has to connect with the U.S. Army and meet the soldiers who have the duty to protect the country.

“We could jump from as low as 2,000 feet, or we could be as high as up to 12,500 feet,” said Sergeant Daniel Gerlach, member of U.S. United States Army Parachute Team and free-fall photographer for the Golden Knights.

Sergeant Gerlach used a specially designed helmet rigged with both digital video and still cameras, and wore a modified wingsuit to help adjust his speed and position to capture stunning photographs at a terminal velocity of around 53 miles per second, or 122 mph.

Prior to the two-day air and water show, the Milwaukee Independent was invited for a ride with the Black Team as they performed a practice jump over Milwaukee on July 14. Because of the wind and weather conditions, the team made several passes at the minimum altitude of 2,000 feet before scrubbing the attempt.

As a result, the Milwaukee Independent was invited back on July 15 to photograph their performance during the air show. For that run, weather conditions were perfect and the team made their jump at the preferred height of 12,500 feet.

Milwaukee is not known for its hot summers. The Golden Knights typically leave their plane in extreme cold and encounter the opposite at their landing site. For the entire flight, the team’s Fokker C-31A Troopship keeps its jump doors open. The only time they would be closed during a performance is for a flyby at speed after the team jumps.

Air temperature decreases by about 3.3° for every 1,000 feet in elevation. Therefore, with a 79° ground temperature in Milwaukee, the air was about 39° when the Golden Knights made their jump, along with a wind speed of more than one hundred miles per hour.

To make their precision landing, several members kneel at the plane’s open door to observe the conditions of the landing zone. A wind marker is dropped, which is a flag and spoke dispenser. The team can then calculate when to jump and reach their target based on the wind drift.

From an altitude of 12,500 feet, the Golden Knights have two demonstration shows they can perform. In the mass show for Milwaukee, one jumper exited the aircraft carrying the national flag. That Soldier then narrated the show for the attending crowd. The other ten members remained grouped closely at the plane doors in wait of the jump signal. When it came, they all exited together and formed a large mass formation above the city in free-fall. Colored smoke canisters attached to their feet made it easier to follow their rapid decent.

Images from the two flight days with the Golden Knights, along with a news article about their demonstrations at the Airshow event and video report of the team’s free-fall performance, can be found in the extended coverage.

Black Demonstration Team

SSG Marcus Denniston

SSG Travis Downing

SGT Daniel Gerlach

SFC Roman Grijalva

SGT Luke Olk

SFC Kevin Presgraves

SSG Ryan Reis

SFC Cory Rush

SSG Kenneth Severin

SGT Fredirico Sifuentes

SFC Tеіgh Statler

  • Lee Matz
  • Sergeant Daniel Gerlach (Golden Knights - Black Demonstration Team)
  • Staff Sergeant Travis Downing (Golden Knights - Black Demonstration Team)
  • The United States Army Parachute Team
Produced by the Milwaukee Independent, with footage from:
  • Lee Matz
  • Staff Sergeant Travis Downing (Golden Knights - Black Demonstration Team)
  • The United States Army Parachute Team