The week of November 6-13, 2009 found me in Lake Elsinore, California participating in the effort to set the first National record for the Largest Wingsuit Formation Skydive. It was the most amazing week in my skydiving career. I have never been part of a record attempt, I had never made formation (multi-plane) skydives, I had never had 67 other people depend on me to make a perfect skydive.
There are things I remember clearly now, and don’t ever want to forget about that week…
It was hard work. Skydivers are notorious for not being anywhere very early, but we got there at 6 am every morning. We ate our free breakfast of muffins, bananas, milk, OJ, etc. while we milled around the open area, near the fire pit to stay warm. Briefings and skydiving started as early as possible.
It was stressful. Early on I struggled getting in to the formation. I was the next-to-the-last out of the last plane in the formation and had a long way to go to get to my slot. Diving so far and for so long was a skill I didn’t have to use much back home where I was lucky if we had three wingsuits jumping together. I wanted to be in the record badly and so I feared being cut. If you didn’t perform to their satisfaction, the organizers could and would cut you. My mood was directly related to how I did on the last jump. I either dreaded or looked forward to the debriefings. The joy I felt when a dive went very well was intense. The frustration when I felt like I did not do my job was deep.
We would go out into the landing area, all of us, in our gear and stand in our position to get a good visual of how it should look in the air. We would even lay down on our belly on the grass to better see it like it would be. We did that countless times.
We were all very focused. I closed my eyes on the plane and went through everything I had to do. Good exit…. speed… acquire the formation… Dive… find Andrea… Dive…. get to my slot but do not relax… fly fly fly fly… stay in the slot… watch the lines be sure you are where you should be… at 5,500 breakoff and go left… at 4,500 find your own lane… at 3,500 deploy your parachute… watch for traffic… land in the correct area and in the correct direction.
The mood in the plane was quiet, tense, focused. There was some conversation, but not much. Because I was nearly last out I was farthest from the door which put me up near the pilot. I could lean forward on my bench seat and look out the pilot’s window. Sometimes you could see the other three planes very close in front of our plane. That was a pretty sight.
For me the best moments were the last six or seven jumps, when I had tuned in the process, mastered the diving, and was able to get to my slot quickly (even ahead of some further ahead of me in the plane). I had learned so very much and was so much improved. It became fun. Diving became my favorite thing to do. I could bend my body just so and rocket down at whatever angle I chose and come out of it whenever I chose, I had gotten some good advice which helped me figure out how to handle the increase in speed and slow down without popping up (gaining altitude). I guess the saying “practice makes perfect ” really is true. We essentially did the same skydive 16 or 17 times, and by the end I could do it in my sleep.
After practicing with just our quadrant (18 skydivers in one airplane), and then with two quadrants (32 – 34 skydivers in two airplanes), we started jumping with the entire formation, in all four planes. During the event the organizers were shifting people around and cutting people. They even changed the person flying “Base” (the leader) from Jeff Nebblekopf to Purple Mike. We never knew how successful we were. We were just in one small part of the formation. I only knew if it looked good around me, and if we flew it for a long time. Mark Harris, flying below us on his back was snapping pictures and taking video. After the skydive we would gather in a large room used for packing. There were no chairs. We would all cram in sitting on the floor, some standing in the back, and view the video and get some advice and encouragement from the plane captains and Taya.
Success came on our 18th skydive, the 7th attempt with all four planes. When the organizers came in, we knew they were happy and then Taya made the announcement that we had successfully flown a slot-specific 68 way formation and this would be submitted to the judges. Cheers went up ! It was an amazing feeling. Pride.. relief.. many emotions.
I will never forget the people near me in the formation. Potter, JP, Raider, Pat, Andreea, and Troy who were near me in the formation. We made 18 jumps together and shared that small part of the formation for minutes that seemed like hours. Ed, our plane captain, was all business, serious, not a lot of smiles, but when he spoke, the words were almost always encouraging and motivating. Taya, the lead organizer, so very accomplished in life as well as skydiving, and she remains a down to earth, approachable, beautiful and fun individual. The other organizers and plane captains were the “gods of the sport” in our discipline of wingsuiting. They all did a good job of planning this huge formation skydive, and making the plan work in individual quadrants and then on the record jump. Scott Callantine was one of the other plan captains. Tall with bright red head, always smiling, intelligent, an excellent skydiver and a natural leader.
Scott was such a good organizer that when we were released to do fun jumps after the record he asked if anyone wanted to jump and 35 people walked up. In the space of about 20 minutes he had organized a 35-way, involving two airplanes, four rows of skydivers, three levels of vertical “stacks” over the first row and the back two corners. Then we jumped it, fresh off the intensity of the 68-way, and we did it ! Had I not just jumped a 68-way earlier in the day that would have been the coolest skydive I had ever been on. This was only possible because of Scott. Organizers have to have the imagination to come up with a challenging, but do-able skydive; and the leadership skills to make it happen with the skill levels available.
I will never forget Steve Harrington. Seeing him walking around the DZ barefoot or in flip flops even when everyone was cold and had their jackets on. Pleasant conversations with him around the koi pond, around the picnic table at breakfast, and at dinner at Don Jose’s the night before he died. After we set the record on Wednesday of that week, we were free to go jump for fun. I was on the sunset load with Steve. I remember talking with him on the plane before this last skydive of his. On the plane, doing the usual “fist bump” I said to him, “Have a great jump, man”. To which he replied with a smile, “I shall”. After I landed I heard that he had struck the tail on exit. There was great concern on the faces of everyone because everyone really cared about Steve. We all wanted to do something. We saw the dent on the airplane’s horizontal stabilizer and had a bad feeling. When we found out he had been found, and that a helicopter had been sent to get him to a hospital we were somewhat relieved, but then Scott Callentine broke the news to us that he had died. It goes without saying that Skydiving can be a dangerous activity, but it still hurts to lose a brother.
The week of the National Record 68-way was the most amazing of my skydiving career. It will be hard to top it.
Wingsuit Record Fact Sheet… click HERE