04/19/09 — Knights away

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Knights away

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 19, 2009 2:00 AM

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A member of the Army Golden Knights Parachute Team comes in for landing at Laurinburg-Maxton Airport during a practice run for the Wings Over Wayne air show.

LAURINBURG -- A typical Wednesday morning for some was anything but ordinary for a pair of children taking in the action unfolding at Laurinburg-Maxton Airport -- a humble airfield near the North and South Carolina border that houses a small terminal and runway.

They were watching planes take off from a lawn along the flight line -- and following, with their fingers, the men and women falling out of them moments later.

"Whoa," said the little girl, prodding the boy next to her to look up. "A parachute."

Then another burst open and her eyes lit up.

A few minutes later -- after plenty of twists, turns and spirals -- the jumpers hit the ground and the little girl ran up to one of them.

But he wasn't startled.

Members of the Army's Golden Knights Parachute Team are used to awestruck fans.

And when they jump from Goldsboro skies next weekend at Wings Over Wayne, they expect to meet thousands like that little girl.

Sgt. Daniel Cook used to be just like her.

He remembers when he was just a face in the crowd -- a 7-year-old little boy watching the Golden Knights at an air show.

"I had that little bug deep inside of me for years," Cook said.

So he understands just how much his example might mean to those he comes across during his two-day stint in Wayne County.

"Once you put on that uniform, it's hard to describe. It's almost like you have to be their Superman," he said. "But it's a really great feeling. That's why we're here."

But the members of one of the elite parachute teams in the world are not only role models.

They are also Army recruiters and representatives of all the men and women currently deployed to two major war theaters and beyond.

Sgt. Aaron Figel embraces those roles.

Before he joined the Golden Knights, he completed six tours in the desert as a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

"It feels good. I know what I did when I was over there ... I fought for America's freedom," Figel said. "So this, it's kind of an honor thing."

Sgt. Jennifer Schaben agrees.

"A lot of the soldiers overseas, the only media coverage they get is the bad stuff," she said. "So we try to put a positive spin on things. The Golden Knights is just another face of the Army."

It was just after 2 p.m., several hours after that little girl and boy looked up with wide eyes.

Cook, Schaben, Figel and other members of the Knights' Gold Team were packing up their parachutes after another successful landing.

Each parachute -- worth $12,500 -- is every bit of 370 square feet, so stuffing it back into the bag properly took nearly 10 minutes.

Schaben didn't seem to mind.

She knew that with each roll and fold, she was closer to another jump.

"It's just another day at the office here," she said with a smile. "This is great."

And that is the other side of these soldiers/recruiters.

Each is also a thrill seeker.

"It was just always something I wanted to do," said Schaben, who had tried hang-gliding and bungee-jumping before her first skydive.

"I was hooked before I even went," said Cook, who, at 19, started going to the drop zone near Fort Bragg. "You just want more."

And Figel's first jump left him "instantly addicted."

For the Golden Knights, Wednesday was, in part, practice for Wings Over Wayne.

And if that little girl's reaction was any indication of how the 150,000 expected to grace the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line will respond to their stunts, they should be well-received.

Cook hopes so, anyway.

"It's going to be a lot of fun. We're doing our full show," he said. "When I was a kid and got to see the Golden Knights, that was why people were there -- to see them."

For a full air show schedule, including approximate start times for each of the air show performers, follow the News-Argus this week.