Phoenix quickly becomes a distant memory as you drive south through Arizona’s arid deserts. The Mexican border is straight ahead, and tends to feel like it’s creeping closer as the radio station begins cutting out. Suddenly, the Google Maps app chirps with a command to turn right in 400ft. It’s a simple paved road that seemingly leads further into the middle of nowhere.
Overhead, what looks like a flock of birds zips through the endless desert sky. Except these creatures appear to be soaring at speeds faster than even the swiftest hawks.
With a 'whoomph', canopies open and a handful of the world’s most elite skydivers begin floating in formation toward Kirby Chambliss's Flying Crown Ranch.
Welcome to the Red Bull Air Force training camp.
It's here in this remote desert outpost that Red Bull’s top tier of wingsuit pilots, BASE jumpers, skydivers and aerial acrobats have convened for a week-long session of pushing the boundaries of aerial sports. Even Felix Baumgartner (the living legend who successfully jumped from the edge of space in the first-ever supersonic freefall) was on hand to pilot the team’s recently reintroduced aerobatic helicopter.
Considering this is a brain trust like no other in the world of aerial performance, we had to tap Red Bull Air Force Team Manager/Captain Jon DeVore to explain how this annual meeting of the minds translates into high-flying spectacles of epic proportions.
Set the scene for this year’s training camp.
Jon DeVore: We’re out in Arizona at Kirby [Chambliss]’s ranch for a week working on up-levelling our demo routine for 2017. We’re looking to find new routines with Kirby’s plane and our skydivers. It’s always good to get everyone comfortable and build the trust for pulling off the stuff that we pull off. It gets everyone’s morale and energy pumped up for the new year. Everyone gets fired up and trains as team.
How often do you guys do training camps?
We’re lucky to get one big one a year. But we get four to six guys together a few times a year. This year, we’re hoping for a second one out at Lake Tahoe – it should be more fun; a week-long session of aerial debauchery.
What was the purpose of this camp?
To train routines with the Red Bull helicopter. It’s not like we show up at air shows and learn on the job. We take pride in what we do.
What new formations/tricks are you working on?
One of the biggest additions we worked on was the low-exit, low-pull demo, which will look like a BASE jump. The jumper uses special [parachute] equipment and we’ll use it to open the air show demos.
We also worked on XRW – canopy flying in formation next to wingsuit flyers. That one isn't always so easy [but] we can insert it to any given demo. We also worked on precision timing – down to the very second. So we know the exact length of our routines.
Talk about working with Kirby.
Luckily we’ve known him for a really long time because I wouldn’t really trust anyone else to do what he does – like fly his propeller right next to me while I hang off a helicopter by the skid. He’s the heart of it all when it comes to our air show routine. He’s the best out there. Plus, he’s a guy who can take adverse conditions and turn them into gold.
To your average observer, it all looks groovy. But how many times do you screw up a routine during practice?
Depends on which ones we’re doing [laughs]. The camp is a humbling experience. One day, we were just blowing it on our timing. The screw-ups can happen, but they’re not dangerous, and wouldn’t be noticeable to your average viewer. It’s all practice. In demos, we have 100 percent success rate when it comes to safety and pulling off the shows.
What are you guys doing to push the sports of skydiving and wingsuit flying to higher levels?
We’re doing what we’ve been doing for a number of years: being very innovative and creative when it comes to the sport. Red Bull gives us the tools to explore our passions and we go out and do just that. It opens the eyes of all the sport jumpers around the world. It inspires people to take the next step.