Leap Frog: (LF): ...ATC may hold us to the south and have us do a south to north…
DF: The jumpers are huddled up on the ground near a parked helicopter as they finalize gear inspections.
LF: Luke’s in, stay extended three seconds. Stay extended. So, hey, go heavy…ready for me to go down. Ready. Coming down.
DF: Here they simulate the plan for exit, canopy opening, and inflight maneuvers.
Mimicking their planned actions physically and verbally, counting and repositioning themselves to engrain and review the jump plan.
LF: Come in right, come in right, come in right. We’ll try to bang in a 180. If we can’t fit in a 180, no issues, we can both land either side…
RADIO: We have lift off.
DF: A fear of falling comes naturally to almost everyone. What does not, however, is confidence and composure when free falling through the sky, headed straight for the ground. This confidence is earned through rigorous training and education evolutions. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today we go on location with the U.S. Navy's elite parachute demonstration team, the Leap Frogs. We’ll meet up with former guest, Luke Vesci, and the rest of the Leap Frog as they prepare to jump into Sam Boyd Stadium for the USA Ruby Sevens Championship match in Las Vegas, Nevada.
DF: These are the guys I’m looking for. How’s it going? I don’t think I’ve met you.
DF: I meet the team in the hotel lobby before walking outside to discuss the day’s plan. All of them dressed to match in Leap Frog uniforms or custom navy blue and yellow jumpsuits, professional and focused.
LF: This is Sean, who’s going to be our DZSO, so he will be mic’d up on the ground. …
DF: After introductions, we walk out to the parking structure and circle up to hear from the jump master. He gathers the team to confirm the day’s schedule and brief the group about any updates.
LF: General overview for the day today, we’re going to head over to Sam Boyd Stadium. We’re going to do our site survey. As soon as we get there, we’ll link up with the guys from US Rugby 7. The helicopter’s going to land at 12:05. If everything looks good, winds look good, weather looks good, then we’re going to take off at 12:50. Streamers, 12:55, 13:00 TOT, 4,500 feet for the three of us getting out for the practice jump into Sam Boyd today. After that, we’ll just get a good wrap up, debrief, make sure everything is prepped and ready for tomorrow and then go from there. Any questions, concerns?
DF: After the briefing, the team loads their gear into three vans, and we drive out of the hotel parking structure.
During the convoy to the stadium, the three vans move as one unit, unwilling to separate.
The ordinary act of following a friend to the game, becomes today’s first display of coordinated precision, movement and tactics.
DF: We arrive at the stadium and are ushered through parking security.
LF: just as a reminder, this grass is these guys’ livelihood, so don’t step on the lines, try to stay off of the edges and everything like that as we’re walking around.
DF: After a short walk, we arrive at the edge of the field. The grass an almost neon-green, abuzz with turf workers and freshly sprayed game-day paint.
LF: Ready to go?
LF: Yeah. I think so. Today’s looking good.
LF: Do you need anything from our side?
LF: You know, I think we’re good right now.
DF: The team is joined on the field by one of the event directors.
LF: ….Discuss any contingencies, do our brief and our dirt dive, and weather looks good, so we’re going to definitely push forward for the practice jump for today.
ED: And what’s the protocol for tomorrow in terms of the timing?
LF: For us really, you just have to let us know when, exactly, do you want us out of the airplane? When exactly do you want to start the anthem? We kind of work it backwards to when do you want us touching down on the ground.
ED: Yep, that’s perfect.
LF: Whenever you get me the schedule, we can kind of go from there. Because we’ll sort of deconstruct and say, “Okay, they want us on the ground at 13:06,” so that means from 5,000 feet, you’re going to depart the plane at this time. It should be timed to the point where he hits his last note, flag touches down one last time, “Ladies and gentleman, your United States Navy Parachute Team, the Leap Frogs,” turn, wave, the crowd goes crazy, and we haul off the field.
ED: I got your music just an hour ago, so I’ll load that in. When do you typically play that?
LF: Generally, one minute prior to them departing the aircraft. That’s when the music kicks off.
DF: After an initial discussion about timing we turn our attention to the landing zone.
ED: Thanks, boys, we appreciate you guys coming out, man. It’s going to be good.
DF: So, whenever you guys are doing site survey, you’re looking at stadium shape, wind. What other stuff are you looking for?
LF: Obstacles, cables, you know, light poles, things like that, kind of, and then, you know, depending on where the wind’s coming from, it’s going to dictate the pattern that we’re going to fly to. So, obviously, we want the safest pattern possible with the best crowd perspective.
DF: Is there any of this that you do beforehand? To what extent can you plan beforehand?
LF: We always take a look ahead of time just to kind of have a general overview and idea of the area and we use Google Earth, things like that to get that 3D look at the stadium as well.
DF: So, it’s kind of just like last minute checks, were we right about what we thought? Are there other obstacles?
LF: The only thing that, you couldn’t really see on the imagery is whenever they have the field goal nets. You can’t really see the nets on imagery, but you kind of assume that they’re there; but this one, I mean, there’s only the four main light posts, three on that side, two on this side.
LF: And like Luke was talking about earlier, about looking around the stadium and assessing all the obstacles, it’s kind of a double assessment how does it affect our pattern as far as safety, but also how is it going to affect the winds in here so we know, which areas have the gentlest wind, and which places are going to be relatively turbulent.
DF: One element has more impact on the success and safety of a parachute demonstration than anything else. Wind. The team must monitor the constantly changing wind direction and speed at all altitudes in order to insure the parachutes generate the lift required to safely fly them to the ground.
DF: Do you guys mind maybe give me a little unpack of the tool that you’re using?
LF: Sure, we’re looking at a tool – aviation tool – it gives us every thousand feet what the winds are being recorded at, a direction and speed. [DF: Real time, basically?] Yeah, it will actually forecast through, but the thing that we run into is unlike going to a skydiving drop zone that’s normally co-located with an airport, we’re actually, as you see right now, at a stadium, there is no sensors here grabbing that information. So, we have to do a mixture of, reading those numbers, but then also getting our own data locally, so that’s what we’re going to do before we jump. That gives us the assessment of exactly where we’re at.
LF: They get to see what’s going on up above the stadium and then us on the ground, we’re relaying to them what direction the wind is coming at them cause it could completely switch. What we want to do is pick the best direction for them to land into the wind. We choose the direction they land on the ground from what we’re feeling on the ground, and then the streamers tell them what they need to do up above so that they can set up for the ground landing.
DF: The final wind assessment is taken with a remarkably low-tech yet critically reliable tool; streamers. These highly visible fabric strips, similar to what you would see atop goal posts, are dropped from the sky by the team just before leaving the aircraft. The direction of these streamers is observed by the team on the ground and radioed back to the team in the air as a final check for wind direction at altitude.
LF: When we talk about entering the stadium, we’re looking at like the 50-yard line as basically where we come in, straight towards the 50-yard line and then fly the pattern with inside the bowl of the stadium.
DF: Oh, wow, okay. I didn’t realize you ever were making turns inside the stadium. Are you guys normally aiming for dead center of the stadium or the field?
LF: No, we actually try to stay off the paint. You know, they work really hard to make this paint look really nice. So, we try to stay off the paint as much as possible.
DF: We receive a phone call. The helicopter is on its way.
LF: Helo’s inbound.
LF: Helo is inbound. We’ll kind of finish the walk-around, and head out and start prepping…
DF: While the site survey continues, the singer who will be performing the National Anthem at tomorrow’s game is given a chance to practice over the stadiums sound system.
I suddenly notice that the team has completely stopped working. Together, they are standing still at attention. Honoring the collective historic spirit of our armed services’ pride and sacrifice.
Seeing the Navy Leap Frog team at attention serves as a poignant reminder that this group is committed to duty, sacrifice, and a larger cause symbolized by our red white and blue.
DF: The helicopter is now within earshot and we leave the field.
DF: Do you guys know what kind of helicopter it is?
LF: It’s an AS350 Bravo 2, the A-Star, is what they call it. These guys actually do a lot of the tours of the Grand Canyon and the Vegas tours and things like that. It’s the same aircraft we actually used in San Diego, same type of airplane we use in San Diego for the SWCC Comp back in June or July last year.
DF: The jumpers will be free falling through the sky within 30 minutes and back at the vans there is a noticeable shift in the group’s energy.
DF: We get into the vans to drive over to the parked helicopter.
LF: There she is in all her beauty.
DF: We spot the helicopter and park the vans in the grass beside it, and unload the parachutes.
LF: ATC may hold us to the south and have us do a south to north regardless of uppers, just based on traffic and things like that. So there’s a chance that we might be having a south to north run.
DF: After a brief conversation about the changing winds and air traffic control the team begins what is known as a “dirt dive.” The jumpers huddle up on the ground near the parked helicopter as they finalize gear inspections.
LF: Ready for me to come down? Coming down.
DF: Here they simulate the plan for exit, canopy opening and in-flight maneuvers.
LF: Honestly, it’ll be pretty much just on you when you want to put the flag out. We’ll try to keep you in the three stack until 2,000, but if position only, we got to put you up for…
DF: Mimicking their planned actions physically and verbally, counting and repositioning themselves to engrain and review the jump plan.
LF: ...ready and bring it up, nice and carve it in. Boom, separate and avoid the paint. Cool.
DF: Andrew, todays jump master, calls air traffic control to confirm that the team is tracking for an on-time jump and flight time.
LF: Hey, I just want to call and give you guys an update. Winds are looking good for our jump here at Sam Boyd Stadium today. We’re going to be taking off in landmark 28 from Sam Boyd. We’re going to go wheels up at 12:50. Do a streamer pass at 12:55 from 41 MSL, 25 AGL, and from there, we’re going to climb up to 61 MSL, 4,500 AGL, for three jumpers getting out right at 13:00. Awesome, sounds good. Thanks.
LF: So, that was to Las Vegas TRACON, or the air traffic control guys. This stadium sits right on the approach for McCarran International Airport for their two six run, which is their main run in, so with it being Friday in Vegas, there’s a ton of air traffic coming in, so we’re just calling to mitigate with them all of the potential aircraft issues. Whenever it’s time for us to jump, they’re going to move them to a different runway, give us the airspace for the 14 minutes or so and then let them back in.
DF: Do you know who the pilot is for the day?
LF: Yes, he’s a retired Navy commander helo pilot. When he found out that he was working with the jump team, he was pretty excited. So, what we’re going to do is, before we jump out, I’m going to present him with our coin. It’s kind of like the Navy tradition, you know, so I’ll shake his hand, and we’ll jump out.
DF: He’s going to have a story. He’s going to be so excited.
LF: Yeah he’ll like that.
DF: It’s remarkably casual for this part of the jump or the not jump, the planning, you know. I mean it’s a lot that goes into it at this point, between talking to FAA, all the other plans, travel, packing, kind of calm before the storm.
LF: Well, you know, the trip lead, days and days before this, he is talking to the local towers, coordinating with the aircraft guys, FAA, last minute waivers and NOTAMS and different things like that, so the trip lead really takes the brunt of it on his shoulders.
LF: Yeah, there’s a lot of administrative stuff, a lot of training, a lot man hours that go into each of the jumps, but I definitely think everybody on the team feels very lucky to be doing this job we’re really just doing this on behalf of NSW to kind of represent for the entire community.
DF: The pilot arrives to meet the team next to the parked helicopter.
LF: Nice to meet you [INTROS]
LF: So, we’ve done our site survey. Everything looks good inside. And I just talked to TRACON… they’re tracking a 12:50 wheels up, 12:55 streamers and 13:00 three jumpers away. They’re still good with the altitudes that we discussed yesterday, streamers at 2,500 AGL and jumpers at 4,500 AGL, so it’s looking good on their side. We were looking for the exit, just to kind of get us all out in as little time as possible. I think I’m actually going to spot and jump master, and then whenever it’s time, ready to go, I’m going to climb out onto the strut, move to the rear side of the door. Then Bennett’s going to get out and strut, and he’s going to cue the exit, ready, set, go. He’ll lead off, I’m going to bleed off, and then Luke will chase us out. We’re going to be opening within a couple of seconds of exit and basically building and flying it in from there.
LF: All right, guys, I’m going to close you out. Watch your elbows, knees.
DF: The helicopter takes off and heads to altitude.
RADIO: We have lift off.
DF: As the Drop Zone Safety Officer informs them of the constantly evolving wind conditions on the field.
RADIO: At the lip 11 to 12 at the current moment.
DF: Streamers are dropped by the jump team from the helicopter to measure the current wind direction and speed just before the jump.
LF: Streamer data as follows, 100 yards northeast, push on the lower end. How copy?
DF: This information is relayed to the DZSO on the field as a final check for wind conditions at altitude.
RADIO: 100 yards northeast.
LF: Affirmative. Push was on the lower end, 1,500 and below. [RADIO] Roger climbing altitude…Winds on the 11 to 13, occasional gust of 15.
RADIO: We are headed to altitude at this time.
LF: High bird DZ, roger, two minutes. You are clear to drop.
RADIO: Copy all clear. See you on the ground.
[AUDIO OF JUMPERS LEAVING THE HELICOPTER]
DF: Two of the jumpers break off of the group formation and fly down landing close together, the third, flying a huge American flag beneath him, lands last.
DF: The support team rushes to collect the flag as it touches down and the jumpers collect their canopies.
DF: The whole team quickly gathers up to begin an immediate debrief, recounting any timing or execution issues when the jump is still fresh in their minds.
ANNOUNCER: On behalf of the United States Navy, Navy Recruiting Command and Naval Special Warfare, it gives me great pleasure to present to you, your United States Navy Parachute Team, the Leap Frogs!
DF: They will repeat this entire detailed process tomorrow and across America throughout the year in over 50 different locations. Executing the Navy Leap Frogs mission to display Special Warfare excellence. Arriving on time, on target.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.COM and join us for the next NSW podcast.