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Older Veterans Build Community, Spread Diversity Through Skydiving

Team Blackstar consists of over 270 skydivers from six countries

Team Blackstar grew from six members to over 270. Clockwise from Top Left: Mike Linares in freefall; Sean Sylvester; Harrison Wallace
Team Blackstar grew from six members to over 270. pictured Clockwise from Top Left: Mike Linares in freefall; Sean Sylvester; Harrison Wallace.
Courtesy Mike Linares / Jackie Sylvester / Team Blackstar

While most take up the sport earlier in life, Sean Sylvester skydived for the first time at age 42. He enjoyed it so much, he started going to a drop zone every weekend. However, after two years of jumping, he had only met two other Black skydivers.

That’s when a friend proposed they organize a group skydive with as many African Americans as they could. The corresponding March 2014 jump included six skydivers who created a star formation in free fall over Fitzgerald, Georgia.

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Thus, Team Blackstar was born. Their mission: to promote diversity, strengthen ties within communities of color and provide community service.

To the group’s surprise, the local newspaper in Georgia and the official magazine of the U.S. Parachute Association, Parachutist Magazine, wrote articles about the record jump.  “By doing that, it actually spread the recognition amongst other skydivers and people outside the sport who were interested, which helped the group to grow,” said Sylvester, now 53.

Today, Team Blackstar has over 270 skydivers from six countries. Members not only include those within the African diaspora, but also Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous people.

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“When you talk about skydiving, the response is often ‘Oh, we don’t do that. Black people don’t skydive,’ ” said Sylvester. “And we’re sort of ambassadors where we show, ‘Yes, we can.’ ”

The military veterans of Team Blackstar 

Several members of the team are military veterans who served as paratroopers in airborne units before learning to skydive in their free time. Others initially graduated from military free-fall courses and later added civilian licenses.

Sylvester attributes this to the exposure that the military offers to different activities and social environments. The end result is often trying an activity that might not have been available back home.

For himself, the Brooklyn native joined the Army out of high school in 1987 and served for eight years as an electronic communications technician. While on duty in Berlin (his favorite city) he met his future wife, who is also an experienced skydiver. After leaving the military, his interest in electronics compelled him to get his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering with the help of GI Bill benefits.

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For other veterans on Team Blackstar, the group serves as an opportunity to continue their love of skydiving that began while they were in the armed forces.  

Mike Linares, 58, served in the Army as an infantryman and continued jumping out of planes on and off throughout his 20-year military career.

“Being a member of this community is an outlet that lets me share my joy of skydiving,” he said.

One of the group’s oldest members, Harrison Walker, 69, had always held an interest in skydiving thanks to the 1960s television program Ripcord and seeing skydivers from his back porch while growing up.

He enlisted in the Navy during the Vietnam War in 1971 and eventually joined a team of aircraft mechanics as a parachute rigger. His duties included preparing gear for the pilots, packing parachutes and helping the aircrew with survival equipment in case they needed to eject from their aircraft. When he started jumping, he knew of only one other Black skydiver, also a parachute rigger.

“Being a part of Team Blackstar means a lot. It means that we have support for each other in a space where we’re definitely the minority,” he said. “It’s rewarding. I spent a lot of years not seeing very many black jumpers. And then to be on a record attempt with all black jumpers was really, really neat.”

Creating community, giving back

As recently as 10 years ago, Sylvester said, there were almost no black skydivers visible in the sport.

“It seemed like such a big deal when we’d encounter them,” he said. “We started a Facebook group and some outreach activities and others started to come. Now it seems to be like it’s not such a big deal anymore."

Whenever the team attends a boogie, the term for a large gathering of skydivers, Blackstar members typically wear matching shirts, patches and ribbons to raise awareness about their cause and showcase their community.

To fulfill another part of the group’s mission, the team partners with nonprofit organizations to provide educational programming and even award donations. One of their most recent events was with Legacy Flight Academy, a nonprofit that hosts flight events for Black and Hispanic youth. The all-day event included STEM classes and an introductory flight, and featured some notable attendees including the legendary Tuskegee Airmen’s Charles McGee.

“People started seeing others as mentors. We try to ensure that there’s not a divisive field to the group, that it's racially segregated or separated in a way that others aren’t involved,” said Sylvester. “We allow people in the group of any race. It’s more about who’s willing to promote the sport among African American people of the African diaspora.”

Anyone interested in joining Team Blackstar can go to their Facebook group and answer a few questions about their experience in skydiving and why they want to join the crew. The team’s primary requirement is that potential members have completed more than just a few jumps and have taken a strong interest in the sport.

“We have people who are just coming into the sport in their late 60s,” Sylvester said. “I have a student right now who is in their early 50s, so it’s not too late. You have to understand your body. We do have limitations as we age. But we also have the ability to narrow those limitations.”