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,
“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
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
“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
“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