On the Way Down

On the Way Down

BY MARIA IANNUCCI

Most people have heard of “Bring your Child to Work Day” – a day when parents and kids can share time in the workplace and children can experience a little of what their moms or dads do on a daily basis. Imagine turning the tables and spending a day with your child at work, especially when his employer is the United States Army and his job is to jump out of planes. A lot.

Winter Haven has been home to Susie Mages for many years and, like every mom, she has always been concerned for her children’s happiness and safety. Her son, Tom Pryjda, is part of something quite rare; Tom is a Parachute Maintenance Technician and Demonstration Parachutist with the Black Demo Team of the United States Army Golden Knights. The Knights perform at a host of airshows across the country and throughout the world, demonstrating a variety of technical group jumps that can even involve elite skydivers coming together in midair and using special effects like smoke. One of only about 500 since the group’s inception in 1959, the thirty-year-old has come a long way to discovering both his passion for aviation and a way to share it with his family.

Golden Knights Jump

Tom, originally from Vero Beach, spent his early working years pouring concrete. While the work was steady, he found it to be unfulfilling. “My cousin Jayme had enlisted in the Army six months before I did,” Tom said, and her positive experiences eventually drove him to the recruiter’s office.

After completing some screening tests, he was suggested the career path of becoming a parachute maintenance technician. Having “no idea what to do,” Tom thought it sounded too good to be true; his brother had jumped from a plane and enjoyed it, but he had never done it himself. “After 3 years in the skydiving world, the Golden Knights almost became like gods to me,” Tom shared. “I mean, what an amazing job to be able to travel the world to do skydiving demonstrations.”

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He was stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina where he remains today when he completed his prerequisites and sent his application. “When I was accepted, I knew I was headed for great things,” Tom said. In his first 8 weeks of training, he jumped about 170 times. “To become a Golden Knight,” he said, “it’s all about your attitude, not your skydiving experience.” After performing at airshows and jumping into places like Yankee Stadium, Tom’s favorite part is “meeting true American patriots. I get to touch the lives of people supporting the military wherever I go. That means a great deal to have that kind of impact,” said Tom.

As he added jumps to his resume and ticked off the states he’s visited, Tom really wanted to share the experience with his family. “I talked to my mom often about doing a jump together,” Tom revealed. His mother, Susie, kept her son at bay over the matter for about a year. “I kept saying that I wasn’t going to do it,” Susie told us. But Tom’s grandmother, Patti Bough, insisted that she wasn’t going to be left out of this opportunity. Things were starting to come together.

susie and tom

Tom met his wife, Sigita, while stationed in Germany and married in 2010. She had a 6-year old-son, Jordanus, who makes their family a trio. The three met Tom’s mother and grandmother at a civilian skydiving location in North Carolina in October 2011 for one shot at a three-generation jump. Patti (then 75) was excited to go. Susie admits that once she arrived, “I just decided to stop arguing with him. As we arriv ed to the jump area, I did start to get excited. How could I not? Tom was so excited that his grin was ear to ear. I can’t describe how excited he was. You can see plain as day in every picture. His excitement was transferring to me by the loads. He was like a little kid as we were helped into our suits and going thru our short pre-jump instruction. As we made our way to the plane, he just had this huge smile, ear to ear, on his face.”

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Having never skydived before, Tom had arranged a tandem jump for each of the women, where an individual is literally strapped to an experienced skydiver for the duration of the jump. Tom, naturally, jumped solo. He had enlisted a couple of his Golden Knight comrades to film and photograph the jump for the family. Sigita and Jordanus were on the ground awaiting the show that was about to unfold. When the plane reached 12,500 feet, the jumpers all made their way to the exit door. “I get to the door and Tom is already there hanging out the door waiting for me to go,” said Susie. “The last thing I heard was, ‘I love you, Mom.’ As I exited the plane, it took my breath away, but only for a split second. I was so surprised that Tom was able to get close enough to me that we were able to touch hands. So cool! Two pictures of us in the air above the clouds are so special… It was all over way too soon… The field that we jumped into was the same field that Tom was “Knighted” on when he became a “Golden Knight” just a year earlier.Wow, what an experience!” Tom landed first and was able to see his family touch ground where they united for photos documenting their special trip. These, paired with the video, truly tell the story.

While Tom treasures the experiences he has with the Golden Knights, he is looking to move on and hone other skills due to his passion for aviation. “I have applied to become a pilot and would love to fly the Blackhawk UH-60,” said Tom. “If I end up having to give up skydiving, I’d be going out with the best team in the world.”

Susie is truly proud of all that Tom has accomplished and cherishes the memory of the day that she, her mother and her son were able to fly together. “I’m so glad I had the chance of a lifetime to jump out of a perfectly good airplane with my son, “said Susie. “I wouldn’t hesitate to jump again; my mother was ready to go again, too. But of course, Tom has been jumping out of perfectly good planes since he was 19.”

 





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