Chasing Lightning: Skysurfing in a Thundercloud

Find out what happens when Red Bull Air Force athlete Sean MacCormac dives into the edge of a storm.
By Michelle Hurni

Jump zones shut down during a thunderstorm because it would be insane for people to jump out of an airplane into one, yet Sean MacCormac is poised to leap from 2 miles above central Florida with laser beams of lightning randomly igniting the sky and no way to tell which direction is safe. He charges out, feet strapped to his board to surf into a hostile thundercloud at speeds up to 130 mph.

See what happens in the video above.

What started in the late '90s as a challenge to an old Vietnam war pilot to drop the solo sky warrior at the edge of a storm, morphed into the wildest, craziest adventure MacCormac could ever imagine. For two decades, his career has evolved from X Games to Hollywood stunts, to training the military and doing innovative projects with the Red Bull Air Force. But it took 25 years before the chance to skysurf a storm presented itself again. "By definition, an incredible and unique experience is incredible and unique because it’s a rare opportunity," MacCormac says.

Get the behind-the-scenes story in the video below:

While reminiscing with other Red Bull Air Force athletes about his only storm-jumping experience as a teenage phenomenon, the idea to repeat it came to fruition. With a confidence built from 25-plus years of skysurfing experience, MacCormac launched himself into the project but found that catching a lightning storm was more difficult than he remembered.

"I’m not a lottery guy," he says. "My dad is Irish and to him, the lotto is like a retirement plan. I’m not taking that risk. To me, in a reverse lotto fashion, I think getting hit by lightning is random. It is not as intense as your fear would have you believe."

You are jumping into it with the full understanding that you are going through a mine field that could pop off somewhere.

MacCormac has over 20,000 jumps and he’s jumped in clouds hundreds of times — but those clouds were benign. The thundercloud jumps are a rare opportunity for his team of "people who had the balls to just go for it." For 2016, that team included the pilot of a single-engine Caravan (a cowboy in every sense of the word) and Jon DeVore, a daring fellow Red Bull Air Force pilot who got the money shots by skirting the edge of the clouds. Project safety was up-leveled from the days of that mid-'90s dive with the help of UBIMET weather tracking, which helped identify when conditions would be optimal.

The danger MacCormac faced © Robert Snow / Red Bull Content Pool

Living a life of adrenaline-fueled adventure, MacCormac asks, "If you are compelled to do it, why wouldn’t you? I think of the many cool experiences and adventures I’ve had — and we are perpetually trying to top them. I don’t like to say we break the rules, but we bend them furiously, beyond their tensile strength capabilities."

He admits skysurfing into an electrostatic-charged cloud is on the wild side. "If you see pictures of me on these jumps, there’s a look of intensity in my eyes. I am not frolicking through the fields. It’s intense. But I’m still on my board, exceeding 120, 130 mph — zooming in a descent [with] a lot of ridiculous faith that I will be able to thread the needle in that moment. Or that the needle will thread for me because it’s all completely random and I have no control over it."

MacCormac surfs through channels and tunnels in the clouds, looking for safe passage. "You are jumping into it with the full understanding that you are going through a mine field that could pop off somewhere."

The most intense moments in Southwest Florida came during a night jump, with lightning striking less than a quarter mile away. "It’s close," MacCormac says. "A quarter mile is fucking close. You can’t time it and you have no idea where it’s going to end up or where it’s going to start. It went against absolutely everything everyone tells you to do, and that’s why it was the best thing to do.

"In a really intense situation like that, I’m trying to be calm and in the experience. It’s such a rare thing, so you are just trying to absorb as much of that moment as possible. There are these magnificent glowing colors. If you happen to get that one-in-a-million moment where lightning is going off somewhere, the whole thing lights up like a big ball of some otherworldly thing. You might as well be on Mars or wherever your imagination will lend itself."

Descending into danger © Craig O'Brien / Red Bull Content Pool

There’s a difference between bravery and courage, and adventures like flying through thunderstorms have helped MacCormac figure it out. "Mother Nature is a thing, a beast, and you don’t have a relationship with it. You are an observer."

MacCormac’s intense life has morphed over the years as he exceeded his own expectations, but his career in skysurfing is all about passion and the innovation to envision jumping into a lightning storm. "That’s the X factor, that’s the thing that carries you through and makes it happen," he says. "Things that didn’t seem possible are possible. You can have an original journey. It doesn’t have to be this cookie-cutter thing that might be great for many people. You have the potential to do the craziest things possible and have a wild journey of life." And he has, indeed.

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