A blue and white DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft powered by two Pratt & Whitney turbines takes off from Gardiner Airport carrying 20 skydivers, 10 of whom are the Black Knights—the Skydiving Team of the US Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. Team Captain, Cadet Raheem Ishmael, a senior, leads the squad to a position by the door. At West Point he has his sights on being a physician. The sound of the prop prevents any conversation. Head Coach Tom Falzone leans out the open door and checks the plane’s bearing.
Falzone lives in Gardiner and coaches the Black Knights. The program started in 1958 at the Galeville Military Airport, (now The Shawangunk Grasslands) which was the original drop zone. They trained alongside military pilots, the FBI and the US Marshall Services. Falzone believes the Black Knights may be the best leadership program at West Point. “Seeing a cadet build confidence, provide mentorship, develop personal skills, and express humility in the face of a highly charged activity—no timeouts in this sport—is what keeps funding and support directed at the Knights,” Falzone says. The team works in a mission-oriented environment with a form of stress and experience that few other cadets experience. Ishmael agrees. “The training teaches us to assess and mitigate real risks that come with serious consequences.”
Coach Falzone, 56, is a professional skydiver, originally from California. He made his first jump 30 years ago and has been invited to coach military teams in Spain, Italy, Czech Republic and a two-year stint coaching the Thai Army. Ultimately, his 15,000 jumps helped secure his invitation to be full time coach at USMA—his dream job. He also trains our military in High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) and High Altitude High Opening (HAHO), a confidential assignment he assures is not up for further discussion.
The team also practices in a Sikorsky Lakota, a light utility helicopter, for demonstration jumps into places like Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, or the Army-Navy game. “The most exciting part for the crowd,” Ishmael says, “is when we land with the Stars and Stripes and one of the cadets catches the flag. After one demonstration at the Army-Navy game, a young boy told us that “the real MVP is the guy who caught that flag!”
The Black Knights recently took the National Collegiate Parachuting Championships in Lake Wales—with 101 competitors from UCLA, UCONN, Virginia Tech, and other institutions—from its closest competition, Air Force, by winning the Gavin Gavel award, the Most Competitive Collegiate Skydiver award, and the most medals overall.
Joe Richards is co-owner of The Ranch Skydiving Center on Sand Hill Road, a Drop Zone renowned for its international clientele, its quality aircraft, and the high level of skydiving talent that dots the sky. The surrounding vista is icing on the cake. Gardiner Airport has been there for more than half a century and the Ranch has welcomed collegiate and military teams for decades. “Having West Point here [since 2005] is a big positive,” says Richards. “I think they make us more credible as a business and they bring revenue into Gardiner. The jumpers love having them here.”
Tom Falzone believes there is something greater at work. “The huge support from the skydiving community validates and legitimizes the sport.” The team recently was down an aircraft for a demonstration jump into the Special Olympics. Richards donated a Pilatus Porter single engine turbine. The mission was executed to the absolute delight of the crowd. Richards says, “You have to admire someone who wants to serve their country—students whose future job is to defend our liberty and freedoms.”
Falzone says, “This is the nation’s academy. It’s 102 years old and its mission has never changed. These cadets representing the Academy at the Ranch, interacting with folks in town, executing their mission, make me proud and it gives me a window into what these young men and women will become.” The conversations of Ranch jumpers corroborate Falzone’s enthusiasm.
On this day, the plane has reached altitude. The weather is CAVU, aviation jargon for Clear And Visibility Unlimited. Falzone takes one last look at the airport 13,500 feet below. The team performs safety checks. A quick look at the team and the Coach spins out the door and holds on. Ishmael follows. Six jumpers are crouched and coiled, ready to exit. Falzone calls out, “Ready, Set, Go!” but the words he shouted to the sky might just as well have been,“I love this job.”