Cadet Grows Wings At West Point
by Jorge Garcia
United States Military Academy at West Point
January 24, 2022
Before enrolling at the U.S. Military Academy, Class of 2023 Cadet Kai Burgman saw skydiving as a one-and-done task he would one day cross off his bucket list. Now, following his 127th jump with the West Point Parachute Team, skydiving is a practice that has become intrinsic to his being.
U.S. Military Academy class of 2023 Cadet Kai Burgman practices a six-way jump with the West Point Parachute Team in preparation for the 2021 National Collegiate Parachuting Championships in Elsinore, California on December 30, 2021. The West Point Parachute Team earned three gold medals including one in individual novice accuracy won by Class of 2023 Cadet Kai Burgman, one in team accuracy and a victory in two-way formation skydiving by Burgman and Class of 2024 Cadet Stephen Keyes. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from courtesy photos by U.S. Army West Point Parachute Team.)
“Skydiving makes your everyday problems look smaller by comparison. It’s like seeing all of your problems grow smaller and smaller as you go up on the plane,” Burgman said. “Coach always talks about how he thinks that one of the reasons why members of our team typically do well academically is because once you jump out of the plane, it’s just you and the sky, and there’s really nothing else out there like it ... skydiving is very freeing.”
For Burgman, skydiving on the team became much more than simply jumping out of a plane. Thomas Falzone, the team’s head coach, taught Burgman the importance of teamwork and trust and has repeatedly emphasized that “you can’t do well in the air if you hate each other on the ground.”
Before jumping as a team, everyone becomes familiar with one another’s idiosyncrasies. From traveling on the road, staying in hotels, and eating and training together, Burgman managed to find himself an extended family through the team, he said.
“Two of the biggest things in the air are communication and trust. You can’t develop those qualities in the air. You have to establish that foundation beforehand,” Burgman said. “All it takes is one person doing something stupid when you’re all together in the air and everyone’s messed up with parachutes getting tangled, canopies colliding in the air and if something goes wrong in the air, everyone pays for it. So, it takes trust and camaraderie to go up there with people and feel comfortable with them in the air.”
Moreover, it’s very challenging to communicate verbally in the skies, so a parachuter must pay strict attention to their team member. Therefore, there are nuanced gestures that can be used to communicate a jumper’s intent while gliding in the air, Burgman said.
“We make sure to always have the most experienced people on the bottom guiding the new team members during a jump so that we don’t make mistakes,” Burgman added. “Occasionally, there’ll be a small slip up, but I have yet to see someone just go careening downwind.”
So, after two years of parachuting at the academy, Burgman’s love for skydiving was accompanied by accolades he and his teammates earned during the 2021 National Collegiate Parachuting Championships Dec. 19-Jan. 2 in Elsinore, California.
“My mindset was, ‘I’m just gonna go do the best I can,’ and that was the mindset of some of my teammates I talked to as well,” Burgman said. “As long as we do that, then regardless of what other teams do, it’ll be a successful competition.”
Sticking to that winning mindset was all the team could do with the limited training schedule they were granted last year. Before the competition started, the team had missed out on many practice opportunities due to COVID-19 mitigations.
Typically, the team conducts part of their training sessions at a facility called Ifly, where indoor fans, known as wind tunnels, generate vertical wind speeds over 150 miles per hour so that the team can perform sky diving maneuvers.
Also, a significant part of the competition involves formation skydiving, which relies on precise movements in the air, and the wind tunnel is a time-efficient way to perform the sequenced skydiving move-sets, with guidance from Falzone, Burgman said.
Nevertheless, management changed at the Ifly, which made coordinating the usual training schedules difficult. Regardless, the team managed to squeeze in some practice time.
“We were jumping through some hoops with the people at Ifly,” Burgman said. “We just haven’t had as much wind tunnel time, and so we really did our practice in the short time leading up to competition where we were able to get into the wind tunnel a couple of times and then practice some maneuvers.”
During the competition, half the team’s families came out to California to show support. In addition, every day, the families got together to bring lunches to the team during the event.
“Whether it was some catering, or one of the parents who made homemade fajitas and brought them for the team, they were just insanely supportive,” Burgman said.
Another critical aspect of skydiving that a parachuter considers is weather and temperature. Moreover, the temperature decreases about 5 degrees for every 1,000 feet the plane gains in elevation.
“It’s like 50-60 degrees outside (on the ground), and then you go up, and you’re like ‘oh man, it’s 10 degrees up here.’ It gets absolutely freezing up there,” Burgman said. “Typically, when we go all the way up in altitude, we usually get up to 13,500 feet which is above most mountain tops. When you open the door (to the plane), there’s also 80 mile per hour winds you deal with.”
As Burgman ascended the skies, all he could do was think about the skydive and what he would do during the competition. Mental visualization, Burgman alluded, is essential for a parachuter.
“Especially during competition, you’re really focused on every turn and move set you have to make. And then one thing that I always found super interesting. I don’t know how it works. But the moment you jump out of the plane, all the cold vanishes,” Burgman said. “The adrenaline just takes over, and you don’t even notice anymore because you’re so focused on the dive.”
And so, as the competition culminated, the team earned 32 medals from the championships, competing in formation skydiving, more commonly known as relative work. The team took first- and third-place in two-way relative work and second place in vertical relative work.
During relative work, two or more skydivers fly adjacent to one another while holding on to each other in a hovering position with their bellies facing downward as they descend.
Vertical Formation Skydiving is where two or more skydivers fly relative to each other while locking hands, typically with their head up or their head down.
Each jumper uses specific body positions to aid in staying relative to another team member.
Consequently, the West Point Parachute Team earned three gold medals. Burgman earned one in individual novice accuracy and a victory in two-way formation skydiving along with Class of 2024 Cadet Stephen Keyes.
“I’m just super proud of what our team was able to accomplish,” Burgman concluded. “I couldn’t be more thankful that I’ve had the chance to work with these people over the past two years.”
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