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"You Smell the Fuel"

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From Altamonte Springs to the skies high above the most exotic destinations in the world, this competitive skydiver reflects on his unlikely destiny to join the Army’s Golden Eagles

Altamonte Springs product Jesse Stahler has leapt from an airplane thousands of times.

As a competitive skydiver with the Army’s Golden Eagles, he and his teammates have repeatedly broken records. But Jesse can recall every detail of the day he first peered out a plane at the Earth below. And jumped.

Jesse cut his teeth on self-enclosed, manmade wind tunnels that simulate the experience of dropping through the sky. He was midway through college, and his dad, David, was pressuring him to land a job. Jesse saw an opening for an attendant at an indoor skydiving attraction on International Drive.

In some ways, he was not suited for this line of work.

“I was scared of roller coasters,” Jesse admits. “I wasn’t an adrenaline junkie.”

But it sounded like a compelling job.

Fast-forward to a summer day in 2007, when Jesse was about to leap for real from a plane over DeLand. This was no tourist attraction. There was no safety net. Jesse was attending Valencia College at the time. He skipped breakfast, and, for that matter, lunch too. He could not eat.

Jesse attended a class that morning, but he could not begin to concentrate on it. At the same time, he tried not to overthink what lie ahead, because he might back out. Walking to the airplane, he realized it was impossible to keep his mind clear.
“You can’t be oblivious,” he says. “You smell the fuel.”

Jesse would jump with a mentor, attached by a brace.

Aboard the plane were about 20 hobby jumpers or weekend warriors awaiting their turn.

Jesse thought to himself, “Wow, this seems normal. No one else is panicking. It’s just another day at the office.”
Jesse and his friend were the last to leap.

“Here we go,” his mentor said, around 13,000 feet above the ground.

“I looked down,” Jesse recalls. “It was like a canvas. Your brain can’t comprehend the disconnect. You’re so high up.”
Then they jumped, the plane faded away, and as Jesse and his partner dropped to Earth, the pit in his stomach and “an eternity of thoughts,” he recalls, were replaced by... bliss.

Maybe it was acceptance of his fate, Jesse says. There was no getting back in the plane.

“What’s done is done,” as he puts it.

Obviously, Jesse would never again feel quite the same adrenaline rush in subsequent jumps. What replaced that, he says, is the never-ending quest for excellence in worldwide competitions, now with the Army.

“It’s a matter of success or failure,” says Jesse. “There’s no redo. One second can cost you a world championship.”

Mostly, it’s been success. Since joining the Army in 2009, Jesse has scored a mind-boggling array of achievements.

According to his father, men and women in the military can wait as long as 15 years before they are chosen to try out for the Golden Knights. Jesse, now a Sergeant First Class, did it in eight months.

Among his many team feats, Jesse was part of the Army’s eight-way Formation Skydiving Team that won consecutive World Meets in 2014 (in the Czech Republic) and 2016 (in Chicago). In another demonstration, Jesse jumped with a Golden Knights team that landed right by the Pentagon. He promptly changed clothes and joined a foot race that was part of the day’s festivities.

These accomplishments have not gone to Jesse’s head, his dad says.

“He is very humble and refrains from talking about himself,” says David. “He would prefer to talk about his team.”

The Golden Knights, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are all about delighting audiences with such feats as baton passing at 120 MPH and flying the American flag at 12,000 feet. But when they formed in 1959, the purpose was purely military, Jesse explains.

With the Cold War at its peak, the country was anxious to keep pace with the Soviet Union, and skydiving skills were part of that effort, he says.

“We were neck-and-neck with the Russians in emergency procedures for aviators,”  Jesse explains.

Today, the multiple teams that make up the Golden Knights are largely a recruitment tool to attract qualified young men and women into the Army.

Born in Coconut Grove, Jesse moved to Central Florida with his family at age five. Jesse and his siblings were told they were going to Disney World. What they were not told was that they would not be returning to South Florida.

Jesse now lives at Fort Bragg with his wife, Lauren. They have three children and a fourth that is expected to parachute into this world in January.

Jesse pauses briefly when asked if he expects to skydive competitively for the foreseeable future. He contemplates that first dive and all the subsequent jumps that transfixed his perspective.

“It’s hard to look at Earth and life the same way,” he says. “It’s hard to walk away from something that’s a part of you.”

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