Wineka column: For champion parachuter, sky’s the limit
BERMUDA RUN ó Jack Helms had two careers. One, you might say, was pretty normal. He taught military science in Forsyth County Schools for 21 years.
A lot of his time was spent drilling Junior ROTC students and supervising them at competitions.
But Helms’ other career is storybook stuff.
An original member of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, which later became known as the Golden Knights, Helms is a former national and international champion, a holder of 42 world records.
He also is a war hero, a winner of the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his gallantry in Vietnam. Helms retired as a major, college degree in hand.
Not bad for a kid from Kannapolis, who had lost both of his parents by age 12, dropped out of school to work at Plant No. 4 and enlisted in the U.S. Army as an 18-year-old “to get away from the cotton mill, more or less,” he says today.
No one knew it then, but Helms had a special talent ó a talent for taking a flying leap out of airplanes.
“I realized how good I was, and it made me like it even more,” says Helms, who over his career made about 1,500 static-line and free-fall jumps.
“It was a thrill, a high, a rush, and I loved the competition part of it against other men and teams.”
Helms earned a “D” level parachuting license ó the highest available ó from the U.S. Parachute Association. His “D-19” designation years ago meant that he was only the 19th person to reach that level of proficiency.
Helms had only two “malfunctions” during his jumping career when his main chute failed to open. His reserve chute worked each time. He never suffered any broken bones or other injuries in all those jumps.
“It was a serous business, every time you packed that parachute,” Helms says. “The weather, the wind ó you wanted to be safe.”
To trace Helms’ early military career is to follow the birth of the Golden Knights, which became the U.S. Army’s official parachute demonstration team, arguably the best in the world. Among Army jumpers, the Golden Knights are the elite of the elite.
Headquartered at Fort Bragg, they annually reach a third of the country through their live parachute demonstrations.
Fifty years ago on this day, Helms received his first set of orders to be part of a 13-man Strategic Army Command Parachute Team (STRAC) to compete in a then communist-dominated sport of free-fall parachuting.
“We wanted very badly to compete against their records,” Helms recalls.
The team performed its first demonstration in Danville, Va., on Nov. 1, 1959.
By 1961, the STRAC team was formally activated and became the U.S. Army Parachute Team. A year later, the members earned the “Golden Knights” nickname.
“Golden” referred to its reputation for bringing home gold medals.
“Knights” alluded to its members’ conquering of the skies and portrayed them as champions with ideals and principles.
“We took back 93 percent of the world records,” says Helms, now 74. “We got better and better as we continued to jump as a team.”
Helms volunteered for jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., after he finished basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. in 1953. Jump school meant extra pay, he recalls, and it proved to be a grueling three weeks.
Military jumping at the time was static-line jumping, and a soldier had to jump five times to be qualified airborne. To stay qualified, he had to jump at least once every three months.
Helms became part of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. He eventually earned the rank of sergeant, became an instructor at airborne school, then developed an interest in free-fall parachuting.
In 1957, the military gave its first approval for soldiers to free-fall, and the various military groups at Fort Bragg formed free-fall parachuting clubs, including the 82nd Airborne.
“I became pretty good at it,” says Helms, who accumulated several hundred jumps.
The 1959 demonstration team was made up of the best men from different clubs at Fort Bragg. The jump team members were assigned to special duty for air shows, state and county fairs and parachute competitions.
These pioneers bought their own parachutes and, until the Army saw value in their record-breaking ways, the team members “were technically on our own,” Helms says.
In retrospect, their low-performance parachutes were a joke compared to the high-performance equipment today.
In those days, landing on a mark, such as a 6-centimeter disk, was not unlike scoring a hole-in-one in golf.
“A dead-center was hard to get back then,” Helms says.
Helms’ three-man team won the international championship in Germany in 1961. Helms captured the individual national championship in 1962 in Olathe, Kan.
His Army career took him to Germany and Officer Candidate School. He came back to the Golden Knights and, as first lieutenant, led the 1965 team that spent weeks in Lincoln, Calif., setting 60 world records.
Team members jumped three and four times a day, and Helms accumulated seven dead-centers.
The country awarded Helms the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1965 “for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight” and putting the United States in “a position of supremacy in parachute jumping.”
Helms continued with various airborne assignments. He served as a Special Forces commanding chief for high-altitude jumping. He managed a parachute club at Fort Bragg, where he also was jumpmaster.
All this time, Helms and his wife, Dagney, were raising three boys and a girl, and he was attending night courses to earn a college degree.
Helms served two tours of duty in Vietnam. In his first tour, he was part of the 101st Airborne. On his second trip, he belonged to the 27th Infantry.
Helms won his Silver Star for the heroic actions he took in protecting and reorganizing his unit after it came under heavy communist fire in December 1968.
“The following day, the company made its way to a helicopter pickup zone and was met by intense enemy attack,” his commendation said. “Capt. Helms organized an assault on hostile placements and was wounded by a Viet Cong projectile. Ignoring his own painful wounds, he refused evacuation until all other personnel were extracted.”
Helms eventually retired at Fort Benning in 1973 and made his last jump there when he was 38.
As a school teacher and in retirement, Helms transferred his competitive spirit to golf and bass fishing. He and Dagney live along the golf course at Bermuda Run in Davie County.
Over the past 14 years, Helms has battled leukemia and lymphoma, receiving treatments at hospitals across the country. He continues treatment at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
Dagney, a retired nurse, surprised him recently by taking his 1940 Ford coupe and 1953 Chevrolet five-window truck out of storage. They are now parked in front of their house waiting for more attention from Helms.
The couple will attend a Golden Knights 50th anniversary celebration at Fort Bragg in December.
Of course, they will. Once a Knight, always a Knight.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.