Arizona it was, and once again I was on track. For a couple of years I spent time doing a few training camps and getting to know the DZ’s and the skydivers in Ontario. It was slow going at first, but then another breakthrough happened. There’s a relatively new training tool in skydiving: the wind tunnel. You step into chamber where a turbine charged motor blows a strong upward flow of air that you can ride or float upon, simulating freefall. I hired a well-known coach in Florida and had my first experience of training in the wind tunnel.
In an airplane you’re limited by a minute or so of freefall before saving yourself with your parachute. But in the wind tunnel you work with an instructor in two minute increments, and you can go in and out of the tunnel for as long as an hour. The learning curve increases dramatically. The following year I hired another well-known coach in California and did another hour of wind tunnel training. Back in the air I gradually worked my way up from flying in groups of four, then eight, then twenty, and then thirty.
That winter I read a posting in our international skydiving publication about an upcoming event: the organization “Parachutists over Phorty” or “POPS” was scheduling an attempt to build a formation that would be a new Florida State Record for this particular group.
A friend of mine was planning on doing some skydiving in Florida at the very same time so we arranged to go down together. She went down to practice wing suit flying, where you put on a specially designed jumpsuit that enables you to glide long distances in freefall. I went down to try out for the POPS team that would attempt the new state record of 2006.
I was the only Canadian in the POPS group and introduced myself to the various organizers, finding out only later that the chief organizer, Carey, is the son of the famous late actor, Gregory Peck. I also found out that I was the “baby” of the group with my 560 jumps, whereas everybody else had literally thousands of jumps under their belt. After two days of tryouts with groups of twenty, I was still on the team and the record jumps began. We started out with 72 skydivers exiting four airplanes simultaneously.
People often ask me how you can possibly get that many people joined together in the air. Since your typical DZ jump plane is a Twin Otter, which only holds 23 jumpers, you need several airplanes, depending on the size of the formation. These airplanes take off and fly in a “V” formation. But first there is the ground preparation. The chief organizer designs the jumper formation, typically a six sided figure that often resembles a snowflake.
Each airplane is assigned a “plane captain”: not a pilot, but an experienced skydiver who manages the jumpers on his plane.
The chief organizer and plane captains determine who is on the team, who is allowed to jump on a trial basis, and who gets “benched” if not performing well. Once the team is chosen, each person has a preassigned slot in the formation. The centre of the formation is typically a group of six jumpers who exit the lead airplane and immediately join hands to form a flying circle, which is known as the “base.” On the ground, each airplane group rehearses every detail of the skydive from the exit order in the airplane, to the order in which every individual jumper will fly into his or her slot. The first set of jumpers will fly and attach themselves to the base; the next layer will follow, all in a predetermined sequence. Each skydiver flies into his slot and takes an arm or a leg grip on his neighbor in the formation.
All of these details are called “dirt diving” and may take several attempts on the ground. The various groups will do a “runout” in the order that they exit the aircraft, and will hook up in order of base, inner ring, middle ring, and outer ring. The plane captains will yell and bark at those who can’t keep their positions in these dirt dives. People have even been “benched” for not paying attention on these dirt dives. It is all run with military precision.
Depending on the size of the formation, altitude varies from about 14,000 to 18,000 feet. On many of these jumps, the Twin Otters are outfitted with oxygen tanks and piping that allows each jumper to attach a hose to the system and breathe oxygen, which is turned on at 12,000 ft.
Once the airplanes are at full altitude, the pilots are in radio communication. At the appropriate spot (determined by wind drift and the aid of a GPS) the pilots signal each other to switch on a red light located by the exit door of each aircraft. At this point the airplane doors are opened by sliding and curving up into the ceiling unlike in regular aircraft. When the pilots instruct the light to go green, a camera flyer and anywhere from three to five jumpers step out and hang onto a special bar on the outside of the plane while their feet are crowded side by side on the edge of the exit door.
Jumpers who await their exit on the outside of their respective aircrafts can see other jumpers hanging out of their airplanes. When the base (the inner core of six) exits the lead plane, all other jumpers drop off the aircraft and the remainder of the jumpers inside the airplanes run out and dive out the door. In the same order as was practiced on the ground, jumpers approach the base, layer by layer, until with some luck, and usually after several attempts, the formation is completed.
(To be continued.)
Why I jump out of airplanes (3)