During the 2019 Milwaukee Air and Water Show, not all the objects that soared across the sky in defiance of gravity were made of metal. Some were men who fell to earth from high altitudes, only using flexible wing gliders – also known as parachutes.

Observers anywhere in the flight pattern across the city could look up to see supersonic jets streaking across the sky during the Air and Water Show. But for tens of thousands of spectators along the Lake Michigan, their front row seats offered a special vantage to watch precision landings on Bradford Beach.

Traveling at a vertical speed of 120 mph from 12,500 feet (2.37 miles) above the earth, the U.S. Army Parachute Team displayed their impressive aerial skills for the crowds over the July 27 and 28 weekend. Known as the “Golden Knights,” team members performed choreographed free falls and different styles of safe landings at the Lakefront. The parachutes they used were classified as flexible wing gliders, complete with the all the flight characteristics of an aircraft except for power. The event was also a welcomed return home for one of the Gold Team members, La Crosse, Wisconsin-native SFC Mike Koch.

“Skydiving, in general, is just an absolutely unbelievable experience. And, skydiving with this team, working with the members who are so professional and have so much knowledge in the sport of demonstration parachuting, it’s amazing,” said Sergeant Koch. “It’s an honor to work with this small group, because we’re more than just work associates – we’re all family. In fact, we actually see each other more than her own family.”

Sergeant Koch joined the army in part for the college benefits, the opportunities to travel, and to serve the country. While stationed at Fort Bragg, he watched his cousin – also in the Army – skydive at the base. He later met a few members of the Golden Knights team, and became convinced that it was the job for him. He understood that while the idea of jumping from a plane with a parachute is a terrifying idea to most people, it is a fear that can easily be overcome.

“The view is spectacular, and it’s the most exciting yet calming thing you will ever do in your life,” said Sergeant Koch. “Once the parachute opens, it’s just you and the silence, and its a truly amazing experience.”

Like many people, Sergeant Koch is not very fond of heights. Standing on the roof of a tall building, being able to see the tiny people and trees on the ground can be unnerving. But with skydiving, those references do not exist in the air. Above one thousand feet, the brain cannot fathom height. And Sergeant Koch’s biggest confidence comes from having 100% trust in the equipment and people around him, which makes all the difference.

Based at Fort Bragg, North Caroline, 2019 marks sixty years that members of the U. S. Army Parachute Team have been serving as “Ambassadors of the Army.” Brigadier General Joseph Stilwell Jr. formed the group in 1959, originally known as the Strategic Army Command Parachute Team (STRAC). Nineteen “Airborne” soldiers from various military units were assembled with the intent to compete in the Soviet dominated sport of skydiving during the Cold War. The team remains only one of three Department of Defense (DoD) sanctioned aerial demonstration teams, along with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

As “Ambassadors of the Army,” the United States Army Parachute Team conducts national parachute demonstrations and competitions to connect the U.S. Army with the American public. The Golden Knights have performed more than 21,000 shows in all 50 states and 48 countries. The team has earned the U.S. Army 2,148 gold, 1,117 silver, and 693 bronze medals in national and international competition. Team members have also broken 348 world records.

“We jump for the American public, put on a good show, and hopefully put some smiles on people’s faces. It’s a job that we love and we want to be here,” said SSG Houston Creech. “The skydiving part of the jumping is pretty fun, but the actual mission for us is to meet the people on the ground. We give out sticker to kids and people help pack our parachutes. It’s that kind of personal, one-on-one interaction that people like to have. And that’s the best part of the job for me, to get out and meet the people.”

To make their precision touchdown, several members kneel at the jump plane’s open door to observe the conditions of the landing zone. Wind streamers are deployed so the team can then calculate when to jump and reach their target. The Golden Knights can jump at wind speeds of up to 22 mph and 2,000 feet of visibility.

In the annual display for Milwaukee, one jumper exited the aircraft first to narrate the show for the attending crowds. All the team members later skydive from 12,500 feet, doing group maneuvers during their free fall. Colored smoke canisters, attached to their feet, made it easier for the thousands of families on the ground to follow the team’s rapid decent.

“I still have family here in Wisconsin, so I have been fortunate to see them quite a bit when I make it back to the Midwest,” added Sergeant Koch. “And now that I am five years away until retirement, I am getting close to the end of my military career. So, I’m really looking forward to coming back to Wisconsin. The people here are unlike people I’ve met anywhere in the world. You don’t realize the little things you miss until you move away, like cheese curds and Friday fish fries.”

The 2019 event also marks the last Milwaukee flight for the Fokker C-31A Troopship by Golden Knights. The demonstration teams purchased two new DHC-8-300 MSN 315 as their primary jump planes for air shows, with the second going into service as early as next month.

The Milwaukee Independent flew again with the Golden Knights for the third consecutive year, documenting their performance in the Air and Water Show with photos and 360° video – mkeind.com/airmke. This collection of images and video segments offers a look at the experience of flying with the Golden Knights over downtown and the lakefront with some of America’s best parachutists.

360° video (+ 360° still images) and feature video

SFC Joe Abeln

SSG Blake Gaynor

SFC Mike Koch

SSG Dan Gerlach

SFC Jacob Kerkow

SGT Jason Bauder

SGT Adam Munoz

SSG Ryan Reis

SSG Mitchell Stockenberg

SSG Houston Creech

SSG Michael Connors