Special operations parachute team returns to Hillsboro's 31st air show at the Hillsboro Airport.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - A member of the US Special Operations Command Parachute team drops onto show center during the Oregon International Airshow at Hillsboro Airport last year. 
Visitors to the annual Oregon International Air Show will have their eyes fixed on the skies this weekend, as the 31st annual aerial ballet returns to Hillsboro.

Along with the familiar sights and sounds returns a group that has become a fixture of the show since they first deployed their parachutes three years ago.

The Special Operations Command parachute team, known as the SOCOM Para-Commandos, will perform all three days of the air show, which runs Friday Sept. 28, to Sunday, Sept. 30, at the Hillsboro Airport.

Based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., the United States Special Operations Command oversees the military's various special ops commands, from Navy SEALS to Army Rangers, Green Berets and other American Special Forces units stationed across the globe.

The Oregon International Air Show is the largest civilian air show on the West Coast, drawing thousands of spectators from across the region each year.

"It's a really big show," said Air Force Lt. Col. Erin Karl, a spokeswoman for the team who traveled with the team to last year's air show. "It's a fantastic crowd."

On Friday, the team will perform a special evening demonstration, jumping with sparklers attached to their legs to be easily spotted in the darkening sky.

"We're like floating fireworks," Karl said. "It's a really cool night show, which isn't something we get to do very often at air shows."

Saturday and Sunday, the team will perform twice each day, kicking off the show by bringing in the U.S. flag to "The Star Spangled Banner." Another jump later in the day will be done with smoke cannisers attached to the jumpers, to track their freefall formations before they land on the Hillsboro Airport runway.

"We pride ourselves on smooth landings," Karl said. "We'll land as close to the crowd as the air show allows us."

The team will jump from about 10,000 feet, about two miles straight up.

"When you're looking down at the show, it's really cool," Karl said. "And we jump with GoPros, so we can post those for fans on social media to give people an idea of what it looks like from (the team's) perspective."

The 25-member jump team perform at shows across North America a few times per year, volunteering their time in between active military operations they carry out all over the globe.

"We're limited to the number of air shows we do every year," Karl said. "We only do about 12 a year, so it's kind of a big deal when air shows are able to gets us. Those spots we have available snatch up quickly enough."

PHOTO COURTESY: SOCOM PARA-COMMANDOS - The SOCOM Para-Commandos start the show holding the U.S. flag while 'The Star-Spangled Banner' plays. Unlike other parachute teams performing at air shows across the country, the SOCOM Para-Commandos are the only join demonstration team run by the Department of Defense.

"The Para-Commandos are set up differently than other demonstration teams in the military," Karl said. "The other parachute and jet teams, like the Blue Angels, are from a single service. They are all members of the Navy or the Air Force. Ours come from all the services."

SOCOM formed in 1980 to oversee all special operations, regardless of military branch, which had previously been run separately, Karl said. Working and training together make SOCOM missions more successful, she said.

"Our job is to represent the mission of Spec Ops command," Karl said.

As Navy SEALS, Army Rangers and Green Berets, much of the work done by SOCOM members isn't discussed outside of military circles, Karl said. Parachute teams like the Para-Commandos are one of the few ways the public can interact with the group.

"There's not a lot of information releasable about what SOCOM does," Karl said.

The team volunteers their time to perform at the air show, Karl said.

"These guys don't get extra money to come do this. They give up their weekends, but they love jumping out of planes … They understand the importance of SOCOM's mission. It sounds cheesy, but this is a way to show people who we are and what we do," Karl said.

Often, Karl said, people's perceptions of special operations teams come from film and television, which offer a fictionalized version of military life.

"The vast majority of SOCOM isn't talked about," Karl said. "We're the quiet professionals. This is one of the few times we get to talk about what Special Operations does and the capabilities of what we do."

About 85,000 people are assigned to SOCOM across more than 80 countries around the world.

"We represent all those people at these shows," Karl said. "It's pretty incredible."

The Para-Commandos aren't the only military demonstration team at the air show this year. The show is headlined this year by the Canadian Forces 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Snowbirds.

Tickets to the air show are available at its website.

By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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