The first time I met him was at the Ranch's bonfire pit, the night before this year's Pond Swooping Nationals. Standing there was a slim, young man with an open, friendly smile and warm eyes, whose speech has such a liberal use of the word "y'all," that I knew it was safe to assume that he wasn't from the area. He introduced himself simply as Chris. It wasn't until well into our conversation that I realized that this was Chris Talbert of the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army Parachute Team.
Being a fledgling jumper myself, I wanted to be in awe of this man and his accomplishments. Chris, however, is far too down to Earth to allow that. We spent quite some time talking that evening. Actually, I think it would be safer to say that I spent most the time interrogating him, but he answered all my questions with Southern charm and style. Later I found myself wishing I could have taped that conversation, to share it with others like myself who are just starting out.
When I realized this past Saturday night that Chris was sitting just two seats away from me at our local hang out, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to say hello. By the end of the evening, he had graciously agreed to let me interview him on the record. Given how tight Chris' schedule is, and that on this trip he would only be at the Ranch for one more very busy day of coaching our 8-way team, we decided to conduct this interview via email.
Name: Christopher Michael Talbert
Home Town: Monrovia, Maryland
Marital Status: Single
Children: One Goddaughter, that's all
Year of First Jump: 1993
Number of Jumps to Date: 3800
US Army Rank: Staff Sergeant
Currently Stationed at: U.S. Army Parachute Team, "The Golden Knights," Ft Bragg, NC
Licenses and Ratings: National Judge
Awards and Medals: 12 HR Badge, cant find it, don't know the number!
What made you first decide to join the Army?
Seemed like the thing to do at the time, the same reason I have done a lot of things in my life! That, and I knew I didn't want to go to college, and was too shy to tell the recruiter to take a hike.
If you weren't a Golden Knight, what would your duties be?
Bradley Fighting Vehicle Systems Maintenance manager. That's Army talk for being a tank mechanic.
What was it that first sparked your interest in skydiving; in trying out for the Golden Knights?
I was in a leadership course that everyone in the Army needs to get promoted to Sergeant. I met a guy named Matt Hustead who was on one of the demonstration teams. He got me into skydiving and later on convinced me, along with a few other people, to go to tryouts for the Knights.
Did you do static line or AFF? Where? If the training method were your choice, which one; why?
I did AFF, it seemed like the easier way to go. And at that time there were 2 parachute clubs on Ft Bragg. Both of them got helicopter support on the weekends from the aviation units. (free jumps from Hueys and Blackhawks) $420 to get your a license, provided you didn't have to redo any jumps. How cool is that? Of course I didn't know it would take me nearly 20 jumps to graduate levels 1-7!
A lot of jumpers run into opposition from family and friends when they first start skydiving. Did you?
Not outwardly. I am sure my mom wasn't crazy about me skydiving but she has always strongly supported me in anything I wanted to do. The first time she saw me jump, I had my first malfunction, at jump 87. That was enough for her to see that day, but she has never even hinted that she wanted me to quit.
When you first started skydiving, did it all come 'naturally' to you, or was there any area that you had some trouble with and needed to work harder at?
When I first stared skydiving I was 6'1" 165 pounds soaking wet with rocks in my pockets. The only thing that came natural to me was eating and being a skinny geek! Everything else it seemed like I had to really work to figure out. RW has come more natural then anything else, but I still feel like a rookie and have a lot to learn. Accuracy is a big part of GK tryouts, and that was very hard for me to figure out. I finally got it, but it is the aspect of skydiving I have to think about the most to get it right.
What "mistake" did you ever make that you learned the most from?
Too many to list I think. One collective thing I have learned from all of them is you have to be able to laugh at yourself, because everyone else is gonna too.
How many different teams does the Army currently have?
There is one Army parachute team, with four different teams within the Golden Knights. Two demonstration teams, named the Black and Gold teams. The two demo teams travel in excess of 200 days per year, performing at airshows, civic events and military functions. They are the ones most people think of if you mention the Golden Knights. Then there are two competitions teams: the RW, or 8-way team, and the Style and Accuracy team. Both of whom train on a regular basis at the PK airpark in Raeford, NC. Traveling mostly for competitions, but also for a few training camps during the year.
What's involved in trying out for the team?
Its like pledging a fraternity and going through basic training at the same time. It's a high stress environment, yet there are very few hard standards. Jumping skills are totally secondary to attitude, ability and willingness to learn. And to how much of a team player you are. It's usually 6 to 8 jumps a day, 6 days a week, for 6 weeks. Most of the people cut are for attitude, or lack of experience. The latter are usually urged to try again, if they keep jumping and gain some experience.
How often do slots on the team become available?
Slots on the competition teams usually come available after a World Meet, which is every odd numbered year for formation skydiving. Slots on the demo teams come available every year, and that's what the people in tryouts are being looked at for. Slots on the demo team. It is possible to go straight to a competition team. Someone has to make it thru GK tryouts first, then if there are comp. team tryouts that year, they are welcome to attend.
How many applications are received; how many are accepted?
It varies from year to year, there are far fewer skydivers in the Army then most people think. Roughly 55 to 65 applications are submitted, about a third of those are usually accepted (that's just the trend, not a hard stat.) and about a third of those who are invited to tryout make the team. Usually ends up being 7 to 10 of the applications submitted that actually make it.
What do the Knights look for in the candidates; how do they choose?
See the question about what's involved in tryouts, combine the two if you want. Teamwork, attitude, willing to learn, humility, (yes the GK's actually have some humility!) and a good attitude in the face of adversity.
Tell us about your tryout and how it felt to be chosen.
One of the hardest things I did in my life. I had to talk myself out of quitting at 4:30 every morning when I was getting out of bed. When it was over I said, "Damn right I made it!" The people who make the team truly earn it, and when you do, you know you deserve it.
How many competitions do you enter each year?
As many as the Army can afford. Our budget usually allows for 3 Americas Cups, the US Nationals, and the World Meet, or World Cup, which ever is being held that year.
How much time do you spend on the road each year?
About four and a half months collectively, five weeks of which is all in one shot, from mid January to mid March, when all the GK's go to Arizona for winter training.
What is an average day/week like for you and the team?
Meet at the dz somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30, depending on the time of year, do physical training for an hour or so, (running, pushups, sit ups, etc. Play soccer a lot as well.) Then start jumping around 8 or 8:30. Make 8 to 12 jumps, debrief and go home.
Wind tunnels are becoming a very popular training tool for many individual and team jumpers. How do you feel about the use of them? Are they a good substitute for actual freefall time? How do the commercial wind tunnels compare to the one the Knights use?
I think wind tunnels are great, if you keep it in perspective. They are NOT a good substitute for jumping, but they are great for teaching individual body position, piece turns and developing smoothness and speed. The only wind tunnel I have been to (other than the one at Ft Bragg) is the one in Orlando. With two people in it, it seems comparable to the one here in NC. The one at Ft Bragg can support as many people as you can fit in the column, which is about 12 feet wide. 4 people fit well and can get a lot out of it.
When you do have a day off, what do you do to relax and unwind?
What's a day off? Just kidding. I play a lot of golf, spend time with my Goddaughter when I can. A little woodworking as well.
How much longer will you be on the team; in the Army?
My time on the team is a bit uncertain, depends on how things go with the US Nationals at the end of September. Then the World Meet. I have 9 years till I can retire from the Army though.
Do you plan to continue competing even after your time with the Knights ends?
I hope so. There are a lot of people out there I would like to do a team with someday.
What plans do you have for once you leave the Army?
Ask me in 8 and a half years.
Recently you spent your days off coaching the Fantasy Flyers, the Ranch's 8-way team. What do you get out of coaching? What methods do you use, have you found to be most effective?
I get a lot out of coaching, mostly just pure fun. I talk a LOT, just ask my teammates. Now someone is going to fly me to another DZ for the weekend and EXPECT me to talk?! How cool is that? I also like to share my knowledge. I have been lucky in skydiving in regard to the people who taught me. Its just my way of doing the same for someone else. Most teams are really eager to learn, and want to know exactly how we (the Knights) do things. I have learned you keep it simple, and try to make very few physical changes. Instead, just change where someone's focus is, or what they are thinking about. Most people, by the time they are on a team know how to move from point a to point b, so I try not to change a whole lot of physical stuff. It's hard to relearn something after so many jumps. On top of all that, I have this golf habit that I have to pay for somehow!
As a Knight you obviously do a lot of RW. When you're doing fun jumps, do you try any of the other disciplines?
Recently I was accused of being scared to try anything other than RW. I actually freefly as much as I can. That isn't very often, but I do enjoy it. I just point my head at the ground and smile! That and flying my canopy. I am not a great canopy pilot, but do have a blast with it.
With the growing popularity of Freefly and Skysurfing, and with all the media interest that's being generated by competitions like the Space Games and the XGames, is the Army likely to start fielding teams for these events? Do you think they should or should not?
Come on, this is the government. The fighter that was just introduced last year was first designed in like '87? I don't see a freefly or skysurf team in the near future, but I do think it would be a great idea. Above and beyond all else, we are about public relations, recruiting, and competing for the Army. Those are the 3 missions we have to keep up front, along with safety. How many millions of people would get a chance to see something about the Army they never knew, or thought of, if we participated in the X-Games, or Space Games?
What kind of rig do you jump when you're competing with the team; what do you jump for your personal rig?
Javelin TJN, Stiletto 120 and a PD 113 reserve, and CYPRES of course. That's my team gear and my personal gear.
Obviously you've jumped at dropzones all over the world. Are there any that you would consider a particular favorite?
Every drop zone I have ever jumped at I enjoyed. Hell, I was skydiving and hanging out with skydivers. I couldn't say a favorite though. I tried and can't even narrow it down to four. My home DZ is Raeford, NC. I guess I would actually say that's my favorite. That's where it all started for me, and that's where I have the most friends.
Is there any one jump in the thousands you've made that really stands out for you as being especially memorable?
Three that are equal. Flying the American flag into Olympic Stadium in Atlanta in 1996, for the opening ceremonies of the Paralympics. Flying the American flag into the dedication of the George Bush Memorial Library in College Station, Texas, in 1997. Round 10 of 8-way at the 1999 National Championships.
If you could build a team made up of any skydivers in the world, past or present, who would you include?
I waited till the end to answer this. Its more difficult than you realize. I have always looked at myself as a little fish, lucky enough to not get eaten in a huge pond. There are several people I would love to compete with. Anyone from the GK's that I have been teammates with gets a standing invitation. Also any past GK's from the 11 straight World Meets they won. AFTER them, any seven (this is MY team, it's gonna be an 8-way team) of the '98-'99 AIRSPEED world champions that would be willing to jump with me. The four members of Deland PD Blue, formerly Deland Genisis, along with John Hoover (my current piece partner on the 8-way team), Solly Williams, and Gary Smith from the '97 South African 4-way team. Or any 7 of Perris Passion 8. Hell, all 8 of them. I can shoot some killer video!
Because AIRSPEED is a great organization. I have learned a lot from them and I would like to try training under their mind set sometime. The PD guys and Gary and Solly? I have stood on the outside watching those guys work so well together, they have great team dynamics. And Hoover would KILL me if I didn't offer him that last slot! (this is MY team) And Passion 8? If you have to ask, you're either a wuffo, or have never seen Passion 8!
Who are some of your influences, mentors and idols?
So many, I don't think I could list them all. My family is my biggest influence. They don't get half of the love and support from me that I get from them; yet they never say a word and just keep on cheering for me. My mentors? If they been on the Golden Knights 8-way team in the past 7 years, they could probably be on this list. Charlie Brown, Eric Hienshiemer, Vern Miller, Trevor McCarthy, Carey Mills, John Hoover, Kurt Isenbarger, Paul Rafferety, Joe Trinko, Craig Girard, Rob Work, Paul Raspino, J.K. Davis. Get the picture? More than anyone though, a guy at Raeford named Kenny Lovett. I think I would have quit a long time ago if it were not for him. Outside of my family, Vince Lombardi is my biggest idol. He is the original tough guy. Ever read his speech about what it takes to be number one?
Is there any area of skydiving as a whole that you see as needing more attention, anything that concerns you?
Well safety is always an issue. I get spoiled jumping with the same 8 people all the time. It's very reassuring. People between 20 and 500 jumps are my biggest concern. Freeflyers, bellyflyers, whatever. We need to make sure they are getting worthwhile help in their progression. Not just in flying skills, but SPOTTING (How many current jumpers, less than 5 years in the sport KNOW they can spot an aircraft?) canopy skills, and recognizing the old/bold skydiver theory.
What advice would you give to low-time jumpers and those still on student status?
When in doubt, ask the person YOU trust most, your instructor, S&TA;, DZO, whoever. Remember, just because you started skydiving today, or this week or this year, doesn't mean you were born then too. If it doesn't seem right, ASK! A long walk is better than a short crawl.
And now -- just to see if you've actually read this far down -- What's your favorite color, food, quote and swear word?
Favorite color? Black and gold....DUH! ...Favorite quote? "You just have to believe," Kurt Isenbarger at the '99 Nationals. Favorite food? My teammates can tell you I am a bitch to my sweet tooth, has to be ice cream or Cinnabon. Favorite swear word? I don't cuss. Just ask my teammates!