It’s All About Three Seconds, Part 1

It’s a three second accomplish that takes a lifetime to achieve. I am talking about the skydiving world record. Intertwined in these three seconds are 300 people, life long dreams, ambitions and desires. The personalities involved are extremely diverse ranging from a space shuttle astronaut to a State Senator to an 18-year-old kid with no job. For three seconds, 300 skydivers will fly as one formation, attempting to break the record of the world’s largest skydiving formation.

It’s a Zen-like hum of twenty-one tons of flying humanity rocketing toward earth at 122 miles per hour. Together linked forever in what will become the greatest skydive ever; the largest completed skydiving formation. How are we doing it? Or better yet, why would hundreds of people jump out of twelve perfectly good airplanes at the same time to meet in the same relative space for a goal that was so unimaginable only a short time ago?

The quest for the largest skydiving formation started many years ago with that same question. In 1993, Roger Nelson, owner of Skydive Chicago, and I talked about organizing the next world record in skydiving. Roger asked me to design and engineer the next world record. I have been skydiving for 15 years, along that journey designing many formations and teaching students how to skydive. At this time, the current record was 200, set at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 1992. Many people have attempted to break that record, with no success. To set a skydiving world record, the formation must hold for three-seconds, or it doesn’t count. The goal is attainable, but the design needs to be perfect for success.

I decided to continue my mountain climbing quest to climb the highest peaks on each continent together with my husband Stan. Spending so much time away gave us the required energy to gain new insight into the quest of the world record.

During a climbing trip in Tibet, I designed the world record formation. To me, this design of 300-people looked perfect and achievable. A formation this large would give us a nice number to shoot for and give us leeway in case we had to cut the formation down in size. The record attempt was set for July 1998. The four previous attempts over a four-year period all failed. The work begins by choosing ten captains whom would each hand pick 30 of the best skydivers, from around the world. The captains include: Roger Ponce de Leon, Jack Berke, Sandy Wambach, Mike Eakins, Tom McLaughlin, Pat Dodgin, Jim Wallace, Tonney Boan, Dave Courson, and myself.

Skydiving for a world record is grinding, physically and mentally. The endurance this requires, I can attest rivals any of my mountain climbing adventures including Mt. Everest.

The planning is enormous for the record attempts. After the formation is set, we make a color design. Each section of the formation will be a different color, so the skydivers can find their correct position. A ‘break-off’ plan is next. This is probably the most crucial part of the skydive safety. Starting at 6,000 feet, the 300 skydivers would “track” away from each other, and separate far enough to safely deploy 300 parachutes, without any collisions. We stagger the altitude which people will open their parachutes, giving us more air space.

The next step is securing 12 airplanes. We are using seven super twin otters, three super CASA’s, one DC-3 and one super skyvan. Logistically this could be a nightmare, however we are quite familiar with each of the pilots and are confident they can handle such a tough assignment. Flying formation loads is not unfamiliar to any of these pilots. However, flying in a formation of 12 planes, closely together has never been accomplished and this is a huge challenge to these men and women.

July came very quickly and soon hundreds of skydivers, from around the world, are calling Skydive Chicago ‘home’ for the ten days of the world record attempts.

There are 25 jumps scheduled for the 300-person formation beginning on July 19th, 1998.

Day one of the attempt begins with a thorough explanation on the ground, what we are about to try in the air. We are going to make three skydives a day. The weather is perfect, so we load the planes for our first attempt.

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