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Jump-starting the cheers: Cadets parachute into Orange Bowl game

Growing up in Miami Lakes, Jonathan O’Neill used to go with his brother and dad to watch planes land at Miami International Airport. Now as an Air Force cadet, he jumps out of them.

On Tuesday, he’ll parachute into the Sun Life Stadium before the kickoff of the Orange Bowl.

Six members of the Wings of Blue Air Force Academy parachute team will leap out of a plane flying 4,500 feet above the screaming fans in the stands and football teams on the field.

“It’s an overwhelming experience — really just sensory overload,” O’Neill said. “It’s incredibly loud with the wind rushing past, and visually, you see everything coming at you. It’s so loud in there, you can feel it vibrating.”

The jumpers, who are all seniors in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs — will travel about 1,000 feet in 10 seconds before pulling their parachute cords. Then for about three minutes, they’ll navigate the winds into the stadium, aiming to land on an orange painted on the 50-yard line.

Parachuting into the Orange Bowl is “the grand finale” of two years and about 545 jumps with the Wings of Blue team, O’Neill said. On Tuesday he’ll be the third cadet out of the plane, wearing a Florida State University football jersey and carrying that school’s flag. His brother, a sophomore at FSU, will be cheering from below.

The other cadets will be carrying a Discover flag, the Northern Illinois flag, the Air Force flag, the game ball and the U.S. flag. Lt. Col. Anthony Mincer, the director of operations for the jump, expects there to be dueling chants and boos when the cadets carrying the two university flags enter the stadium.

“Part of the idea is to get the fans hyped up before the game,” Mincer said. “Then there’s this great patriotic moment when everyone sees the U.S. flag and cheers together.”

Mincer said the jump is also a proud moment for the Air Force Academy, when they get to show off some of their finest students and future members of the armed forces.

Jumping out of a plane into a football stadium — and onto an orange target — takes a great deal of planning and focus, with very little room for error.

The plane will be traveling about 100 mph into the wind when the cadets jump, about a mile before their target. The weather forecast for Tuesday is clear, so the wind will be the biggest consideration. Mincer said the jumpers look at everything to help gauge the speed and direction of the wind: smokestacks, flags and “in this case, palm trees.”

The first practice jump on Monday was cancelled with winds blowing more than 16 mph, but game day should be less breezy.

O’Neill said he likes to flip on his back in free fall and watch the plane get smaller as he goes barreling toward the ground. When the altitude sensory in his helmet beeps at 3,000 feet, he’ll pull his parachute cord and steer into the vibrating energy of 75,000 screaming football fans.

When he graduates in May, O’Neill said he hopes to be “in the cockpit, flying something fast.” He’ll have a year and a half of additional training before he joins the Air Force as a pilot.

“I didn’t realize exactly what I was getting into,” O’Neill said of his college experience. But he said to be representing the Air Force Academy, doing something he loves, so close to home, “is really just an honor.”