By Carol Cain
Senior Producer and Host
WWJ-TV CBS Detroit “Michigan Matters”
No one mentioned or maybe I missed hearing them say how tough it might be to breathe as I walked towards the front of the military plane where I planned to jump out at 14,000 feet above Lake St. Clair with Army Sgt. Jon Ewald. I was nervous and excited as I prepared for my first parachute jump – guided by the world famous U.S. Army Golden Knights tandem team.
It was 1959 when 13 men first joined to form the Strategic Army Corps Sport Parachute Team to compete in the then communist dominated sport of skydiving. The American team performed so well in 1961 the Army officially recognized, designated and activated them.
Watch Video Of My Skydive
Today, the Army’s Golden Knights is a handful of highly trained men and women who you sometimes see descending via colorful parachutes at sporting events or air shows. And they compete against other country’s teams.
It’s all about raising awareness of the Army and these tandem jumps with politicians, entertainers, media types and more are part of that effort. I was invited by the Army for a ride only few have taken – golfer Tiger Woods, former president George H.W. Bush, actors Bill Murray and Vince Vaughn are some who have jumped with the Golden Knights. It was an invitation too good to pass up even for someone who is a nervous flier and known for closing her eyes on roller coaster rides at Cedar Point.
I boarded that plane for the trip of a lifetime. It was 90 degrees and humid on the ground but at that altitude much colder — which Army instructors had warned we might feel. I crouched in position at the plane’s door as instructed when I suddenly realized I couldn’t quite catch my breathe. I knew from listening to Lieutenant Colonel Joan T Sweeny Dent just before we boarded as she explained precautions and what we needed to know to make the five minute jump. She is also in charge of recruiting for the Army in the state and talked up opportunities and careers in the Army. As I sat on the edge of that plane with the wind whistling in my ear, I wondered: could I hold my breath that long if I had to? I thought of magician Harry Houdini who died while performing an escape act involving a water tank in Detroit? How long did he hold his breathe? Was that how he died? (I found out later it was appendicitis or some other ailment.) I thought of the movie “Titanic” where Jack Dawson tells his beloved Rose to hold her breathe as they got sucked underwater by the ocean liner as it sank. She lived, he died. Surely my situation would have a happier ending if I had to hold my breath. After all I was diving with the best: the Golden Knights. If there was such a thing as a safe skydive this would be it. The team has thousands upon thousands of dives under their collective belts.
Ride Of A Lifetime
We hit our cruising altitude of 14,000 feet about 15 minutes after takeoff from Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township. We were high above the wispy clouds and clear blue skies. Sgt. Jon Ewald was the person I would give my life to during our jump. He mentioned this was his fourth season on the Army Parachute team. We would fall for 10,000 feet and parachute open and glide about 120 mph most of the way down. Ewald had my back … literally … as we were attached by harness as he had the parachute (which had a backup in event the main one malfunctioned) in his elaborate back pack. I didn’t have to do much other than listen for his cues when to arch my back and hold my legs when we landed. My heart raced, my stomach gripped by excitement, anticipation and no food as I didn’t want to throw up on the way down. I was startled when Ewald said loudly to be heard over the wind: “Are you ready? On a count of three. One.. Two.. Three.. Jump!” This was my time of reckoning. Time to dig deep and be “Army Strong!”
I dived like a swan, eyes wide open as I couldn’t believe the incredible scene of Michigan unfolding beneath me. This was Pure Michigan as no ad campaign could possibly have captured. I forgot about breathing. I tried to take it in as this likely the only time I will skydive and certainly with the Golden Knights. We were so high I didn’t notice Lake St. Clair and the finger lakes around it until a minute or so into our descent. I did spot GM’s headquarters in Detroit and the Pontiac Silverdome. I also forgot about Sgt. Joseph Abeln, another Golden Knight who did double duty that day as videographer as he captured our jump on camera who jumped seconds before us and reached out to get my attention. I waved at the small camera mounted on his helmet. I did an air guitar and gave a thumbs up. Alas, I forgot the “Hi Mom” I intended to say as it was my Mother who had convinced me to jump. Ewald then gave a salute to Abeln which was a sign we were to open our parachute. Abeln continued on with his own path with his own parachute and I felt a strong tug as we lurched up by our parachute’s opening.
It was during that final 4,000 feet descent I had that roller coaster feeling as we seemed to be going faster. With hand controls on either side, Ewald controlled our direction. He asked if I wanted to guide it to which I said, “why not!” We glided over Lake St. Clair and saw incredible views of sailboats and the lake and also on land on we continued on that scenic tour I didn’t want to end. I spotted our final destination as Ewald skillfully guided us in a picture perfect landing.
I was out of breathe when we touched down but giddy with adrenaline and thankfulness we made it. Would I do it again? You bet! Only I wouldn’t worry about breathing and I sure wouldn’t forget to say hello to my dear Mother!
Carol Cain is Emmy winning Senior Producer and Host of WWJ-TV Detroit’s “Michigan Matters” airing 11 a.m. Sundays. You can read her columns on politics and business in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press. You can reach her at 248-355-7126 or via email.