Myths are blown away when one talks to Joel Rowley about sky-diving.
For those not yet initiated, that means strapping on a parachute and taking a flying leap from an airplane into the cool, crisp air and landing on a designated target, all for the sake of sport.
Some might shudder at such a prospect, but Rowley knows better.
And he should. Before retiring from the military as a staff sergeant after 21 years, Rowley was a member of the Army’s vaunted Golden Knights for seven years.
“I stopped logging at 4,000 jumps,” says Rowley, now the civilian media relations official for the Knights, based at airborne-skilled Fort Bragg, N.C.
“Statistically, it’s one of the safest sports. Football guys get hurt all the time. If you do what you’re supposed to do, all the safety checks, and land like you’re supposed to, it’s safe. Flying is dangerous. Jumping is safe. You can jump out and leave the plane to the pilot.”
Attendees at the Friends of Coal Auto Show at the YMCA Sports Complex will get treated to the Army’s jumping prowess Saturday evening when a small team lands on the field.
Normally, in such events, X marks the spot, as opposed to huge air shows where individual jumpers land in front of each designated section, he explained.
Even the ride promises to be different — the highly maneuverable Twin Otter, as opposed to the standard fare of Fokker F-27, a turboprop airliner designed by the Dutch aircraft maker, Fokker.
Back in 1959, 13 solders banded together as the Strategic Army Corps Sport Parachute Team, at a time the Communists dominated the sport. Within two years, after a sterling performance by that maiden squad, the Army officially recognized the team as the Golden Knights.
Ever since, the team has delighted audiences globally with its skills in precision aerial maneuvers, plummeting to earth at speeds hitting 120 miles an hour.
Some 90 men and women make up the elite team, representing some 200 military occupational specialties.
“It’s a recruiting tool,” Rowley said.
“We go to air shows, and football games, and into high schools, and also do a classroom presentation. That’s what my forte is.”
Even elementary school age children are targeted as eventual soldiers.
“You always plant that seed — that you could be a future Golden Knight,” Rowley sad.
All volunteers, the parachutists chosen must have performed at least 150 free-fall jumps, excluding those mandated under obligations with their particular unit. Once accepted, a prospective Knight undergoes a trial that runs from six to eight weeks.
“There is an evaluation to see if you have the jump efficiencies, and the knowledge to be on the team, plus the ability to be in public,” he said.
“Ninety percent of our job is dealing with the public. Ten percent is jumping.”
Knights aren’t deployed as combat soldiers, although some members affiliated with the Special Forces, or Green Berets, are at times reassigned for such duty, Rowley explained.
Considering the team has performed a million or so jumps, the safety record is “remarkable,” Rowley said, noting the accidents have been few and far between.
“Once you become a competitor, it is possible to stay here for the rest of your career, as long as you keep winning golden medals and competing,” Rowley said.
“We’ve had people meritoriously promoted through the ranks. It has become basically their Army career.”
Rowley exploded one other misconception — modern parachutes are made of a rip-stop nylon, not silk.
“Hit the silk” is a slogan that harks back to the old barnstorming era.
“Now they’re made of nylon with reinforcements criss-crossed into small squares, so if there’s a tear, it doesn’t spread,” he said.
Just another reason to feel safe.
The Knights’ Auto Fair jump is slated for 6:30 p.m., prior to the concert by local band Taylor Made and The Charlie Daniels Band.
Tickets for the concert are $10 for adults and $5 for students up through high school age and can be purchased at the Beckley-Raleigh County YMCA; Co-Mac locations on Harper Road and Main Street in Oak Hill; and at the following Little General store locations, Nell Jean Square, Stanford, Glen Daniel, Oceana, Fayetteville, Glen Jean, Beaver, Lewisburg, Athens Road in Princeton and Madison.
Platinum sponsors for the Auto Fair are Massey Energy, Walker Machinery, Fairchild International, Superior Highwall Miners, Magnum Coal, Cline Resources, Bluestone Coal Corp., Cellular One, Ramey Ford, Riverton Coal, Petroleum Products, Brooks Run Coal, Appalachian Tire, United Central Industrial, Mountaineer Hyundai, Everett & Dannette Cook, Hometown Subaru-Kia, Marshall Miller and Associates, Nell Jean Enterprises, Patience Inc., Pritchard Mining Co. Inc., DBT and Eastern Arrow.