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Freefalling to overcome fear

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, and Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, conduct a tandem jump high over Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Army photo/Sgt. Trey Martin)

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, and Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, conduct a tandem jump high over Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Army photo/Sgt. Trey Martin)

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, and Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, prepare to land after a tandem jump at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tim Norton)

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, and Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, prepare to land after a tandem jump at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tim Norton)

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, gives some pre-jump instruction to Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, prior to a tandem jump at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tim Norton)

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, gives some pre-jump instruction to Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, prior to a tandem jump at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tim Norton)

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, gives a thumbs-up with Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, after a successful tandem jump at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tim Norton)

Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald, tandem instructor with the U.S. Army Parachute Team: The Golden Knights, gives a thumbs-up with Maj. Brooke Cortez, 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief, after a successful tandem jump at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., on Jan. 29. The Golden Knights are conducting their sixth straight year of winter training at Homestead ARB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tim Norton)

HOMESTEAD AIR RESERVE BASE, Fla. -- I used to let the fear of jumping out of an airplane control me. But this year, I faced and conquered that fear.

Throughout my career, I've been in the background, facilitating familiarization flights in numerous airframes including T-38s, F-16s, F-15s and even KC-135 refueling flights. I've done the paperwork for hundreds of community leaders and congressional staffers to experience what it's like to fly with the world's greatest Air Force.

I've always kept a stash of barf bags for them, learning a huge lesson after one tanker flight left a congressional staffer nauseated from a bumpy refueling mission.

My first experience flying with the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, was awesome. I watched as they studied the winds, altitude and clouds for a jump. Taking photos when I could, I relished the cold wind keeping me from being nauseous as the aircraft circled the jump zone.

My huge smile then prompted one of the Golden Knights to comment on how much I'd enjoy jumping. I knew he was right, but my stomach flipped at the thought of falling through those looming clouds a few hundred feet below the aircraft.

As a supervisor, I wanted to make sure everyone else had a chance to jump before I did in the Public Affairs office... but that excuse ran out this year and I knew I needed to face my anxiety. I let the fear of falling through those clouds control me, but I found myself looking forward to the fall, knowing that I was in good hands with the Golden Knights.

The day of the jump crept up, and I searched myself for any signs of fear and the only emotion that kept coming through was excitement at facing my fear.

Suiting up in the gold and black, almost racecar driver-like jump suits, I could feel the excitement of other tandem jumpers. But, it felt a bit surreal to me, even though I kept a smile plastered to my face. I kept my focus on my instructor, Sgt. First Class Jon Ewald, knowing he'd probably been on thousands of jumps. In what seemed like seconds, we were loaded into a van, headed to the flight line.

The aircraft was humming, ready and waiting for us to board. Its humming propellers were a sound that is both comforting and familiar to me, except this time, I wouldn't be landing in it. I'd be jumping out of it. The videographer, Sgt. Trey Martin, filmed me boarding the aircraft, and I kept that smile plastered to my face, climbing the ladder into the plane.

During the ascent up to 13,000 feet, Ewald and Martin joked around, trying to keep me from focusing on fear of jumping. While I appreciated their candor, Ewald noted my lack of excitement as a trait that's good in emergencies. After that barbing quip, I busted out a genuine laugh and relaxed.

Ewald walked me through the exiting procedure, and we shuffled together to the back of the aircraft to jump. The first tandem jumper vanished out of the open door, then the second jumper and then it was my turn. I could feel my feet unconsciously growing roots into the aircraft until Ewald tapped my leg, breaking me from my tree stance trance and allowing my body to go with the flow, exiting the aircraft.

Some skydivers describe loving the thrill, the excitement of the experience. For me, it was like barreling through the crisp January air was healing...I left behind me energy that had held me back from this experience for too long. Despite wearing goggles, my contacts threatened to pop out, and I blinked them back into place, wanting to take in the beauty of soaring through the sky.

When the parachute opened, the world stopped whizzing by and my skin tingled from the air. The Miami skyline welcomed me to one of the most amazing views I've experienced. Ewald twisted and turned the chute's strings to show me the full panoramic of South Florida. I was almost disappointed when the buildings on base became larger and larger, and the wind picked up, tossing the chute to the left, Ewald countering it back to the right, guiding us to the landing zone.

I have stood by so many times on that landing zone, watching Golden Knights raining from the sky, sometimes with canisters of red smoke attached to their ankles and sometimes in tandem jump gear. And today, I was thrilled to be part of the show, expertly landing as instructed on my bottom with a thud.

Martin was there waiting, videoing my lovely landing and as Ewald unhooked me from the tandem gear, he asked me how it felt. The first thought that popped into my head was that I felt lighter, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. But, my lips were a bit numb from the slightly chilly morning and I think I mumbled something about being so relaxed from the experience.

By facing my fear, I had opened up a door to an amazing experience, described by my boss as once in a lifetime. Fear left me standing on the sidelines, but facing it opened me up to growth and an experience I will remember forever.

The video documenting the experience can be found here.

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