Record Broken: Skydivers Raise the Bar in Chicago

164 skilled divers fly at speeds up to 175 mph to set a new world record at Skydive Chicago.
© Jon DeVore/Red Bull
By Kevin McAvoy

Whatever your passion happens to be, the goal is usually the same: Get better at what you’re doing and enjoy it even more. That holds true for skydivers — while you and I may be content with a tandem jump and the ultimate thrill it brings, pro skydivers want to develop more skill and control to see just what else they can safely do in the air.

To that end, a group of like-minded skydivers assembled at Skydive Chicago recently to attempt a new vertical freefly world record — a predetermined formation of linked divers flying head-down at speeds of up to 175 mph. Red Bull Air Force team members Jon DeVore and Mike Swanson were co-organizers of the event, along with Rook Nelson of Skydive Chicago. We caught up with DeVore and Swanson after the new record was achieved (a total of 164 skydivers — watch it happen in the video above) to learn the details. You’ve been organizing these record attempts for a number of years, right?

Mike Swanson: That’s correct. We’ve been organizing 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 was 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 really made a name for themselves yet. I’d say two-thirds of the people these days are from the camps, and then there’s always the OGs of the freefly world who have been around so long, so we know what their strengths and weaknesses are.

... when you’re in it and the record hits, there’s just this click and this hum and this vibration that goes on ...

How is the formation practiced?

Swanson: We call it “walking it” — we build the formation, as it’s going to be 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 would be 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 his right hand than his left, but he’s a good flyer, so let’s move him over here. It’s a constant game of moving things around until everything just 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 18,000 and 19,000 feet, and the first wave of people leaving the formation was at 7,500 feet.

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, giving us around another 25 seconds.

How do you know when the record is reached?

DeVore: There’s no true signal. We’ve had 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 it and the record hits, there’s just this click and this hum and this vibration that goes on where everything’s pretty effortless and people aren’t struggling.

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 thing off 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, 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.

Congratulations on the new record! Do you know when you’ll make the next attempt?

DeVore: In the past we’ve sort of stuck with the two to three 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.”

The wind tunnels have really helped progress the learning curve dramatically. 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.

Follow Skydive Chicago, Jon DeVore, Mike Swanson, Amy Chmelecki and Jeff Provenzano on Instagram and the Red Bull Airforce on Facebook for more.

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