GK8 – The END of an ERA?!

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The Golden Knights US Army team is the most successful parachuting team in history. The 8-way formation skydiving team has more World Championship medals than any other

Yet, incredibly, the Competition Section, including the 8 way team, has been disbanded. Matt Davidson, former Golden Knights team member, outlines the history of GK and the current situation…

Author Matt Davidson with original Golden Knights team member Jerry Bourquin 

US Army 8-way team

Recently, I competed at the U.S, Indoor National Championships at Paraclete XP Skyventure in Raeford, North Carolina. During the competition, I received some very disturbing news. I was shocked to hear that the 2022 Indoor Nationals would be the last competition for the US Army Parachute Team’s Competition Section.

Team History 

US Army Parachute Team, “The Golden Knights” 

Brigadier General Joseph Stilwell

In 1957, seven soldiers from the US Army’s Special Forces received training in what was then called “delayed fall” parachuting. Delayed or freefall parachuting showed extensive military potential for tactically inserting clandestine forces behind enemy lines. In addition to its direct military applications, freefall parachuting was considered a valuable propaganda tool for displaying dominance in the field of competition. 

In 1959, visionary leader, Brigadier General Joseph Stilwell formed the Strategic Army Command Parachute Team, or STRAC, with the original mission to compete during the Cold War effort. This new US all-Army team comprised of 19 Airborne enlisted soldiers swept the international competition circuit, in what was then the Soviet-dominated sport of skydiving. 

At the World Parachuting Championships in 1960, STRAC team member Jim Arrender won the United States its first gold medal in competition. 

Original Golden Knight team member Lee R.K. Smith 1961

The Golden Knights team has inspired me and so many people in and out of skydiving. 

Eliana Rodriguez

In 1961, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced that the STRAC team would be formally activated and redesignated as the United States Army Parachute Team (USAPT), one of only three authorized DoD aerial demonstration teams along with the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds jet teams. 

Golden Knights training with Red Devils 1960s

The Knights have been great ambassadors for the Army. They are the reason I joined the 82nd Airborne.

Bob Barnes

USAPT 1968

The USAPT was given a three-fold mission: 

  1. Perform live aerial demonstrations for the American public and spread goodwill for the Army
  2. Compete in national and international parachute competitions 
  3. Research and develop new parachuting techniques and equipment. 
Jerry Bourquin after landing

On 15 October 1962, the team earned the nickname, “The Golden Knights” for their dominance in competition. “Golden,” signifying the gold medals the team had won; “Knights,” proving they “conquered the skies” as World Champions. Four years after Jim Arrender won gold for the United States, his teammate Dick Fortenberry became the overall World Champion. 

First Golden Knights 4-way team, 1976
Mike Sweeney, Al Navarro, Stephen Salisbury, Gary Wong 

Over the coming decades, the Competition Section evolved, creating the Style & Accuracy and 4-way/8-way Formation Skydiving Teams and later adding Canopy Relative Work [CRW], Canopy Piloting [CP], and Vertical Formation Skydiving [VFS] teams. 

Cheryl Stearns and Terry Vares (center left) CISM team 1983

By the 1980s the Golden Knights added female competitors to their ranks of champions. Cheryl Stearns and Terry Vares paved the way for recent champions Elisa Tennyson [Style & Accuracy]; Angela Navarro, Dannielle Woosley, Laura Davis and Jen Davidson [female 4-way Formation Skydiving National and World Champions]. 

GK4, World Champions Jen Davidson, Laura Davis, Angela Navarro, Jennifer Espinosa, Dannielle Woosley 

Current team member, Master Sergeant Jen Davidson was also the first woman to serve in a competition slot with the World Champion Golden Knights 8-way team [GK8]. In GK8’s 46 year history, Jen is the only woman to have earned a slot and achieved the titles of National and World Champion as a Golden Knight in the 8-way Formation Skydiving event. 

GK8, World Champions 2016

The Golden Knights competition teams sport an impressive record of more than 460 National Champions, 100 World Champions, 54 National and 45 World Team titles. The teams have earned 2,492 gold medals, 1,307 silver medals and 750 bronze medals. 

Over the past 63 years, the US Army Parachute Team has broken 348 World Records, to include military records held in the Counseil International du Sports Militaire [CISM]. 

These achievements have made them not only the most successful DoD sports team, but also the most successful parachute team in the world. 

GK8 at US Nationals 2017 with original Golden Knight team member Jerry Bourquin 

Positive Global Impact 

Matt, aged 16

Since 1959, the Golden Knights competition teams have fully dedicated themselves to establishing and continuing a rich and storied legacy, interwoven with that of the national and international skydiving communities.

For over 63 years, the US Army Parachute Team has set a shining example of team and individual excellence and has inspired countless people, including myself. As a 14 -year-old boy, I was impressed by the professional way members of the Golden Knights Competition Section carried themselves and interacted with the public. I was in complete awe of their many accolades as National and World Champions and even more impressed by their humility and willingness to help coach and mentor other skydivers. 

The example which the Golden Knights set was so powerful that it inspired me to learn to skydive at age 16 and to join the Army two years later. At age 19 and with guidance and mentorship from members of the team, I was fortunate to make it through Golden Knights Assessment and Selection and went on to serve 25 out of 27 years of my Army service with the US Army Parachute Team’s Competition Section, fulfilling my childhood dreams of becoming a National and World Champion athlete in the process. 

Hearing the news of the Golden Knights Competition Section being dissolved saddens my heart and hurts my soul. Motivated by my strong feelings on the issue, I felt compelled to write a couple of posts on social media. I was touched to read comments from over 200 people from around the world who’ve been positively impacted by the Golden Knights Competition Team since its creation. Some are quoted through this article, you can read the full posts and comments here and here

Having personally been a drop zone owner and operator for 33 years and a competitor, I understand and have seen first-hand the enormous positive impact the Golden Knights have brought to the skydiving community as a whole. This is not only shocking, but I believe a huge mistake that will have a greater impact than the powers at be even know. 

Melanie Conatser, Owner, Skydive Perris

Golden Knights 4-way competition team 2022 at Paraclete XP
Michael Connors, Jesse Stahler, Drew Starr, David Flynn, Mitch Stockenberg  

Current Competition Team Situation 

An internal statement given to the Golden Knight Alumni Association states, “This year, the US Army Recruiting Command [USAREC] Commanding General has deemed the Army’s recruiting mission as a “No Fail” effort. As such, direction from senior levels of leadership is that the Golden Knights will not pursue any mission which distracts from the singular focus of supporting the Army Accessions Enterprise. As of now, the Competition Section has been tasked with a change of mission: to pivot away from competing into a supporting role that assists recruiting NCO’s [Non Commissioned Officers] across the nation to enhance their chances of mission success.” 

In my opinion, the current command’s outlook for the Golden Knights is short-sighted in many ways and is a far cry from the powerfully inspiring vision which General Stilwell put into action 63 years ago. Throughout this great land and the entire family of nations across the globe, members of the Golden Knights serve as goodwill ambassadors for not only the Army, but also for the United States of America. Through their superior performances, conduct and accomplishments, the Golden Knights Competition Section has been a conduit for extending goodwill and friendship through sport on behalf of the United States and the US Army, compounding its positive effects in ways which only the Competition Team can.

Competition skydiving and the sport in general would not be the same without the Golden Knights leading the way. I cannot imagine the sport without them.

Dan BC

Call To Action!

If, like Matt, you feel strongly about this issue, we encourage you to write to the decision-makers. Contacting elected officials is one of the best ways for US citizens. 

For over 63 years, the US Army Parachute Team has set a shining example of team and individual excellence
Photo: Golden Knights Demo Jump in front of Iron Mike statue, Ft Bragg, NC 1960s

Meet: Matthew Davidson

Matt Davidson served for 24 years on the Golden Knights 8-way team and played an important part in their finest achievements, three world records in 1997 and 2015. At 45, he retired from the Army after 27 years and did a season on Arizona Airspeed 4way team.

Acceptance to the US Army Parachute Team (1993)
Multiple National Medals/Titles (Gold, Silver, Bronze Medals), 4, 8, 10 and 16-way (1996-2019)
 3 x World Cup Champion, 8-way (1998, 2011, 2017)
 5 x World Champion, 8-way (1997, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018)
 2 x World Air Games Champion (1997, 2015)
 3 x World Records, 8-way (1997 as alternate – 31 points, 2015 US Nationals – 32 points, 2015 World Air Games – 33 points)
 2 x World Meet 8-way Silver Medals (2008, 2010)
 1 x CISM Military 4-way World Record (2006)
 1 x CISM Military 4-way World Champion (2006)
 1 x CISM Military 4-way Silver Medal (2007)
 1 x CISM Military 4-way Bronze Medal (2011)

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