The crew of Polaris Dawn recently completed the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Basic Freefall Parachuting course (AM-490) in Colorado, the only program in the world where students make their first skydive jump solo — entirely untethered from their instructors.
Thanks to the extensive ground training provided by the Academy’s “Wings of Blue” team, including practicing emergency procedures in a vertical wind tunnel, the crew was well-prepared to handle a series of real jumps made later in the week. Based on historical accounts, the Polaris Dawn crew is the first civilian group to complete the AM-490 course and earn their jump wings.
The solo skydiving experience gave the crew continued valuable practice in making rapid, high-stakes decisions, similar to the dynamics they encounter during fighter jet training and other off-site team-building events such as scuba diving and mountaineering.
“We climb mountains, we fly fighter jets, we scuba dive, but freefall skydiving is – for our mission – maybe the best training analog of them all,” shared mission commander Jared Isaacman. “In many ways I found the program even more challenging than some of the demanding flying I have done throughout my career. The moment you jump out of the airplane, you have seconds to stabilize, deploy the chute, assess nominal flight or begin executing a contingency procedure — after which you assess the winds, setup for a pattern, and land safely.”
“We train extensively in the simulator and prepare academically, but it is useful to have stressful training that requires executing complex procedures in a high-consequence environment,” Isaacman continued.
In addition to earning their jump wings, the Polaris Dawn crew also completed the 10-meter jump — an Academy graduation requirement — at the Cadet Natatorium. These extracurricular training activities additionally serve to strengthen the already-close bond and teamwork acumen between the Polaris Dawn crew.
“Preparation for the first jump was really intense, requiring a lot of practice both inside and outside of class to ensure we were ready to pass the final examinations,” shared mission specialist Sarah Gillis. “By the time I was standing in the door of the plane for my first jump, I knew I had the knowledge to successfully execute any required emergency procedures, and safely make it to the ground.”
“This discipline and focus has a lot of similarities to spaceflight,” added mission specialist & medical officer Anna Menon. “Timelines may vary depending on scenario, but the same practice of needing to stay cool under pressure and execute wisely applies across the board.
The Polaris Dawn crew recognize they received the best possible skydiving instruction offered anywhere on the planet and are confident the experience has further prepared them for their upcoming spaceflight.
“The training we received from the USAF Academy was simply amazing,” shared mission pilot Kidd Poteet. “The USAFA Cadets and Airmen of the 98th Flying Training Squadron are true professionals, and we are extremely thankful for their selfless dedication to helping us prepare for our mission.”
“Trust was enormous in this training, and it reminded me a lot about the relationships that we develop and depend on in spaceflight,” said Menon. “At USAFA, we learned from and quickly developed high trust in our instructors; they are incredibly experienced and knowledgeable, and it showed in their every action and instruction.”
“The academy instructors are the best in the world; they did not give us any margin for error, and they wanted perfection,” added Isaacman. “We are taking a lot away from how the AM-490 program is structured and incorporating it in to how we train for spaceflight. There is so much to carry over to the world of human spaceflight, especially the spacewalk portion of our mission.”
“The cadet instructors at the Academy were remarkable,” concluded Gillis. “Not only have they already achieved what for many is a full career’s worth of jumps by their junior year, they are also true professionals when it comes to training.”
The entire Polaris team is deeply grateful to the U.S. Air Force for providing an engaging, educational, and safe training experience.
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See more photos from the Polaris Dawn crew’s ongoing training on our Flickr page.