When it comes to skydiving, most people are content with a tandem jump and the ultimate thrill it brings. But the professionals want to push the boundaries and achieve much more.
To that end, a group of like-minded skydivers assembled at Skydive Chicago last month to attempt a new vertical world record. The plan involved 164 skydivers joining together to make a giant tower formation as they flew upside-down at speeds of up to 386kph. Red Bull Air Force team members Jon DeVore and Mike Swanson were co-organisers of the event, along with Rook Nelson of Skydive Chicago. We caught up with DeVore and Swanson after the new record was set to find out how they pulled it off. Click on the image above to watch the video.
You’ve been organising skydiving record attempts for a number of years, right?
Mike Swanson: That’s correct. We’ve been organising these events for the past 13 years. I think our first one might have been 18 people, unofficially. For the next we went through the proper channels to make it an actual record with the FAI [The World Air Sports Federation]. Our first official record involved 24 people.
How did the athletes qualify for this?
Jon DeVore: We have qualification camps for those who have never been to one of the previous record attempts and haven’t made a name for themselves yet. I’d say two-thirds of the people these days are from those camps, and then there’s always the accomplished members of the freefly world who have been around so long, so we already know what their strengths and weaknesses are.
When you’re in the formation and the record is set, there's this vibe where everything's effortless and people aren't struggling to connect.
How does the team prepare for the formation?
Swanson: We call it 'walking it' – we build the formation as it’s going to appear in the sky on the ground. We mock up all the people who are going to be in the different planes. We have people called floaters, who leave early and float up to the formation, and divers who leave late and dive down to the formation.
DeVore: We do 40- and 50-way dives that form the base of the formation, just to make sure everything is working. It’s just a process – if the gears aren’t meshing well, you go to the drawing board and rotate people. Someone might be stronger docking with their right hand than their left. It’s a constant game of moving things around until everything locks in and works.
How much time in freefall do you have to assemble the formation?
Swanson: Around 60-80 seconds. We were exiting between 18,000ft [5,486 metres] and 19,000 feet [5,791m], and the first wave of people leaving the formation was at 7,500 feet [2,286m].
DeVore: A typical skydive at any drop zone in the world is at 13,000 feet, so we were giving ourselves an extra 6,000 feet [3,962m], giving us around another 25 seconds.
How do you know when the record is reached?
DeVore: There’s no true signal. We’ve used communication devices in the past, but what works so well and is also so organic and magical about the whole thing is that when you’re in the formation and the record is set, there’s this vibe where everything’s effortless and people aren’t struggling to connect.
When you start feeling that, you look around at people across from you and they’re smiling and nodding, you know they’re not seeing anybody having trouble and they’re getting the same feeling from you. On this record, when everybody landed they were high-fiving without even having to see video.
How is everyone’s exit planned?
Swanson: We have audible altimeters in our helmets, which we all have set for our different break-off altitudes. The first wave breaks at 7,500 feet [2,286m], so they hear a beep and they take off. There are four waves of break-offs. It’s all planned out on paper and it’s very specific.
How is the official record determined?
DeVore: The judges review every single dock on video and in photos; they’re pretty meticulous. If we claim that this guy’s right hand was going to be on that guy’s right arm, it better not be on his right shoulder. They tear it apart in detail, going over each and every grip.
Do you have any plans for another world record attempt?
DeVore: In the past we’ve sort of stuck with the 2-3 year scenario. That seems to be the magical recipe where the skill level has grown enough in the sport to have a nice little leap so we’re not saying, “Oh, we beat [the record] by four people.”
Wind tunnels have really helped the learning curve. For a long time people like Mike and myself were among only 10-20 people in the world who could do it. It would take thousands of jumps to learn how to freefly so people would take seasons and seasons to learn. Now you can go into a wind tunnel and with a couple months of flying aggressively you’ve done 10 years’ worth of jumping.
Any predictions for the next record?
DeVore: All I can say is that it’ll definitely be over 200. There’s no way we’d do it if we didn’t break the 200 mark – we’re way too close to it.