'Chute For The STARS

Special Tactics Teams Drop In To Assist Recruiting

STARS team members jump from a C-130E Hercules during practice at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida

Staff Sgt. Tim Donovan stays prepared to deploy with little notice. Trained to slip silently behind enemy lines, the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., pararescueman has been quietly doing his job for 16 years with little fanfare.

That is until now. These days, Donovan often wows crowds of 100,000 people and millions of television viewers as part of Air Force Special Operations Command’s Parachute Demonstration Team.

Called Special Tactics and Rescue Specialists, or STARS, the team is comprised of combat controllers and pararescuemen (known as CCTs and PJs) who help recruiters attract potential enlistees, especially those interested in special tactics jobs.

“We talk to people about the Air Force as a whole, such as quality of life and skills training. But because CCT and PJ career fields face critical manning shortages, we obviously encourage them to try these demanding jobs, if they qualify,” said Wayne Norrad, STARS coordinator, and a retired CCT chief master sergeant.

Norrad, who once served as AFSOC senior enlisted advisor, said STARS evolved from McChord AFB, Wash., CCTs “jumping here and there” to support a nearby recruiter. At one event the chief attended in 1996, people mistook the BDU-clad airmen for Army paratroopers. Afterwards, CCTs coaxed him into starting a team clearly stamped as Air Force, one that could perform and support recruiters nationwide.

Working with Headquarters Recruiting Service, Norrad suggested the concept to AFSOC leadership, and on July 22, 1996, STARS was born. Just two months later, as part of POW/MIA Recognition Day, one jump team landed in the National Football League Carolina Panthers’ stadium, while another team landed on the 50-yard line of a nationally televised NFL game at Foxboro, Mass.

“We were pushed to the very end waiting for parachutes to be manufactured with the ‘Aim High’ Air Force logo and with last-minute training and coordination, but we made it,” Norrad said.

Unlike the Air Force Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, STARS isn’t Department of Defense sanctioned. In other words, they have other full-time jobs. The 30 jumpers belong to operational squadrons at Pope AFB, N.C., McChord AFB and Hurlburt Field, and could be parachuting at a New York air show on Sunday and deploying to real-world contingencies in Southwest Asia or some other hot spot on Monday.

“Whenever we perform, I always stress that we are combat-ready, that we could be sent into hostile fire the next day – that catches everyone’s attention,” said Norrad, who earned three Bronze Star Medals in combat and also came up with the rescue scene for producer Wolfgang Petersen’s blockbuster movie “Air Force One” starring Harrison Ford, before retiring in 1997 with 30 years’ service.

Because of the high operations tempo for AFSOC special tactics members, CCTs and PJs from other major commands, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command were asked to try out for STARS this year. “We really needed their help,” Norrad said. “Without them we wouldn’t be able to muster a full team for more than half of our shows.”

To become a STARS member, airmen must have at least 200 free-fall jumps. And for some special events, such as dropping into a stadium, they must be “pro-rated” by the U.S. Parachute Association, which requires 500 jumps and being able to land standing up in a 10-meter circle, 10 times in a row. Slip on your ninth try and you start again.

And they must be proficient with show parachutes much smaller than military ones. With demonstration canopies, jumpers go faster and maneuver quicker as they race toward the ground.

“It can be a little hairy sometimes,” Donovan admitted. “Especially when the winds swirl.”

Since 1996, STARS teams, typically four parachutists, a ground controller and a narrator, have jumped two or three times monthly at packed air shows, open houses, car races or ballgames, essentially all on off-duty time.

“We know recruiters have a tough challenge finding potential candidates who can qualify for the CCT or PJ career fields,” Norrad said. “Plus, we have an awareness problem. Most people know of the Army Rangers and Special Forces, Navy SEALS or Force Recon Marines, but few are aware that the Air Force has ground combat forces.”

But they also do it for the excitement, according to Donovan, who served in Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, Provide Promise and Urgent Fury.

“There are special moments,” he said, “like when we mingle with Medal of Honor recipients.”

Plus, Donovan said, laughing, “We’re guests people don’t mind having drop in for a while.”

Staff Sgt. Anthony Canterberry, also from Pope, hands out special tactics and STARS team literature in Key West