Tag: Ubuntu

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. (A person is only a person through other people). -Zulu proverb

Remembering Pam: A Friend in Kliptown

Last week I returned from South Africa, where we raised a record R11,000 for charity at the annual Johannesburg Skydiving Club and Raise the Sky tonto Boogie. The boogie is a rocking skydiving party, and for me also a time to celebrate my late partner, Eric “tonto” Stephenson. For the last seven years, I have driven into Soweto after the boogie to deliver skydivers’ donations of food and clothing to the Pastoral Centre Pre-school and Creche in Kliptown, a haven for vulnerable children. This special place was founded by Pam Mfaxa, who protected and nurtured the next generation of her community with the force of a warrior and the conviction of a saint. Pam passed away in January, suddenly and too early, but her legacy, like Eric’s, lives on. This year I made the familiar drive just the same. Alone in my car, I realized how strange it felt to be carrying on this work, these rituals, when the people who anchored them for so long are both gone. The sadness made me ask, what is more powerful than loss? What actually soothes loneliness? Turns out for me, it’s gratitude. For love. For deep and real friendship. For the way both of these extraordinary people changed my life and continue to inspire good. In gratitude and memory, here is the story of how I met Pam, and the very first time I went to Kliptown.


1393150_10151831565454613_1743989356_nKliptown, Soweto. February 2002.

Less than two months after I had packed up everything I owned and moved from San Francisco to South Africa, I was waiting to eat lunch at a community building in the middle of a slum. I was determined to build a meaningful life, one shaped outside the predictable forces of my Harvard cohort. I had recently started skydiving, which gave me the courage to make other jumps: as far away as possible from the vortex of startups, parties, after-work martinis, and hung-over brunches.

A group of us had just toured Kliptown’s Freedom Charter Square informal settlement, learning about how families subsisted in shacks with no electricity or running water, marking out territory by placing locks on the port-o-loos and fighting for access at the outdoor taps. Unemployment was high; HIV rates were high; the post-apartheid dream was deferred; privacy was non-existent.

As the name implied, this is where the Freedom Charter was officially adopted in 1955, the document that first enshrined the core ideals of a non-racial South Africa. “The People Shall Govern!” it declared, and “There Shall Be Houses, Security, and Comfort!” In this utopian vision that supposedly kicked off with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election to the presidency in 1994, “Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres.”

So there we were, taking in the stench of untreated sewage and bearing witness to the piles of garbage that constituted the playing fields, a walking cliché of foreign white do-gooders engaging in ghetto voyeurism with young black men as guides.1395942_10151831565259613_25412023_n

At lunch, the men talked a lot about the importance of women, but none were actually present at the table. I got up on the pretense of finding a bathroom and didn’t have to go far before I heard laughter bursting from a tiny, cramped kitchen. There they were, the women. Chopping vegetables. Preparing food for us.

Pam and I found each other the moment I stuck my head into that overcrowded kitchen. With authority, she denied my offer to help with the meal, but something about my privileged indignation at the gender imbalance at lunch made her laugh. “African men don’t do much, but they do talk,” she chuckled. “If you really want to see this community in action, come back and stay the night. You are welcome at my place.”

I made my way back to the lunch table, looking around at our group: mostly white North American women in their 20’s; a guy with very white socks from Minnesota who had studied anthropology and, five months after arrival in South Africa, was throwing around township slang in a way that made him look even more ridiculous than the socks, if that was possible; and our cool “feminist” shepherds seemingly ignorant of their own ironies. I counted myself among the hypocrites, though I couldn’t pinpoint (or didn’t think through) exactly why.

Months later, once I had settled in to some kind of routine, I boarded a shared taxi from downtown Johannesburg to take Pam up on her offer.

Kliptown, June 2002.

I spent my first Youth Day in South Africa in and around the shacks of Kliptown.

Hector_pietersonJune 16th, 2002 was Youth Day for the politically conscious and Father’s Day for everyone else. Youth Day commemorates the beginning of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings against “Bantu Education”, a segregated system with Afrikaans (the language of the ruling National Party) as the required medium of instruction in the township. Riot police fired tear gas followed by live rounds, and a lethal bullet struck thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson. Fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up his limp body and carried him from the scene, running alongside his wailing sister. More than 400 people were reported dead during the uprisings, but photographer Sam Nzima captured this moment on film. The image, widely distributed in the international news, marked a turning point in the world’s understanding of the regime’s brutality.

I was seeking refuge with people who wouldn’t ignore history in favor of a trip to the mall. I was excited to spend time with Pam. My new friend had chosen a life dedicated to the youth of a country she had adopted – a country I was trying to call home.

Pam came from rural Swaziland to South Africa in the 80’s and lived through apartheid, transition, Mandela’s presidency, and more intimate trials than I could ever know. She stayed in one of the only concrete structures in town, where she graciously allowed me to sleep on the floor in the common area with her children, Zoleka and Nomaswazi (nicknamed Gogo). On Saturday we visited people in shacks of varying size and quality, talking about everything from child abuse to hand-crank telephones.

154824_459525554612_7947341_n One tiny shack had the ten residents’ laundry hanging out to dry in front. A large woman came charging out, ranting at the top of her lungs. She was drunk, her huge breasts sagging under a loose shirt. The stale smell of home-brewed beer lingered as she yelled about her troubles—no money, no food, too many children.

“God may come to others, but He doesn’t have time for me! He doesn’t have time!” she moaned.

Shaking her head, Pam said, “Eish, wena. It is your responsibility to make the first move, especially when it comes to God.”

Like a jilted lover, the woman scowled and would have none of it.

“You see? This is what we still struggle with,” said a woman standing nearby. “We finally have our freedom and she spends it on beer. Her children will be hungry tonight.”

The kids ran around me, giggling and taking turns jumping up to be held.

Saturday night was black, with a sliver of moon blurring through the haze of township smoke. With a group from the youth center, I set out into the damp darkness of a different Kliptown. We walked carefully on the dirt paths, narrow and flanked by barbed wire in places, stopping to talk with huddles of people gathered around tin buckets filled with glowing coals.

The groups warming their hands and smoking pungent-smelling joints were mostly men – men who as young boys choked under apartheid and the tyranny of Bantu Education designed to keep them servile and who spent their adolescence without access to basic rights, education, or meaningful work.

It was the textures and smells of that night combined with the joyful children of the day that woke me up inside. My inner revolutionary had been dozing a bit in the suburban comfort of Melville where I had found a place to live, and Pretoria, where I had found a mentor and an internship at a think tank.

Few whites see Kliptown in the dark; they would say it’s far too dangerous, and they may be right. Spend the day and take sunny images of smiling kids to impress your family and friends with your “African experience”. Spend a winter night and share your humanity in the bitter cold. It becomes impossible not to challenge the status quo.

Sunday dawned clear and freezing, heralded loudly by an overzealous rooster right outside Pam’s house. The kids from the youth center were running excitedly to the old Battery Center. The bare cement room was now a makeshift theatre with “United We Stand” and a picture of Hector Pieterson painted on the wall. Performers of all ages hammed it up for the audience, all people from the community. The kids did gumboot dancing, recited poetry, and sang about the new struggle: HIV/AIDS.

HIV was a mental sledgehammer: freedom was won by the previous generation, but life itself was hanging in the balance for this one.

I felt that my life was hanging in the balance, too.


Love and High-Risk Human Investments

photo 3Silindile is 13 years old now. Every year of her life feels like a gift, proof that despite some inevitable loss and darkness, life and goodness and hope can (must) triumph.

This morning I went to the annual meeting to discuss Silindi’s progress as her sponsor, along with two other trustees, at the St. Vincent School for the Deaf. For the first time in years (perhaps ever), there was no crisis looming. I did not find myself rushing to the hospital, visiting a social worker, or sleuthing out the location of a shack in a new part of Soweto. Today things were calm, and I reflected.

“Crisis” is the mode that has defined much of my relationship to this little girl: keep her alive. Pray that she hasn’t been abused. Contain the panic that she isn’t learning to read fast enough. Try to get her mother to engage more, or differently. Wrestle with the guilt that for selfish reasons, I’m not here to check in every week like I used to.photo 1

I first met Silindile when she was attending the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche in Kliptown, Soweto. I was on the board and trying to find sponsorship for the most needy children. Those who live in the Freedom Charter Square informal settlement sleep in crowded shacks without heat, electricity, or running water. Children have lost parents to AIDS, alcoholism, and the kind of poverty that breaks spirits and families. Imagine, then, what it means for a kid to make the list of those who are the worst off.

The late Pam Mfaxa, the principal of the crèche and one of my closest friends, first brought her to my attention. The staff thought she might be developmentally disabled because she was often unresponsive and had behavioral issues. The way she looked then, you could see right away that whoever was taking care of her was also struggling.

Because she didn’t react when called, the first question was whether she might have problems with her hearing. I tried to build trust, visiting often, and soon she would run out to greet me when she saw my car pull up. I went to meet her mother, a young woman from rural KwaZulu Natal who spoke almost no English and whose second child had been treated for malnutrition. I had a few meetings and arranged to take the family to a specialized Wits University clinic so that Silindile could have her hearing tested. The test results showed that she is profoundly deaf in both ears.

Sometime around this part of the journey, I abandoned my principle that I wasn’t going to get involved with individuals when it came to charity. Living in a place full of need, I had adopted this basic framework to stay sane: because I couldn’t help everyone, I would direct my resources to organizations that helped many.

Silindile was barely four years old, but she reached through my defenses. She latched on and wouldn’t let go. I later learned about attachment disorders possibly caused by her mother’s post-traumatic stress, and I don’t want to be naïve or overly simplistic in describing what happened. Regardless, it changed my life. Smiling, holding my hand, hugging me, and giving me a sign name before she had any formal use of language, I couldn’t turn away from the feeling of being called by this innocent soul, and I no longer cared about frameworks.

So I took up the challenge and went to battle. I walked into the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank and insisted that they take her in. The alternatives were not places I would send my own daughter. At the time St. Vincent had a boarding facility (now closed), and the school had classes through 12th grade. I saw a future for her there, a sense of security, and a place where her mother would be supported as the hearing parent of a deaf child. There was no room for the coming year, I was told – and no funding for a disadvantaged child. No matter.

The following year she was enrolled. I bought Silindi’s mom her first alarm clock to help her get her daughter ready for the school bus every day. I pleaded with the driver to wait when she still wasn’t there on time. It was a delicate dance. I didn’t want to play the white savior or to alienate Silindile’s mother, yet sometimes both seemed inevitable. I questioned my own motivations frequently.

There were critics, including a minister I deeply respected, who called me out on perpetuating a broken system by sending one kid to a good school while failing to lobby for systematic change that could help many others. I never denied the validity of this argument, but I also couldn’t deny the feeling that I was compelled to do something. Instead of making it an intellectual debate, I just… did.

On the evening of her first day of school, I got a call from St. Vincent’s. Silindi had missed the bus home and was left behind. A staff member had put her to sleep but they couldn’t keep her overnight and were worried for her to wake up among strangers. In a panic, I drove to the school and a somewhat hilarious scene ensued. It was dark, the doors were locked, and it’s a school for the deaf.

See the crazy white lady throw rocks at the window! See the crazy white lady jump up and down waving frantically! See someone finally come to the door, and watch as the crazy white lady dissolves into tears, feeling like a failure, scared for a little girl who isn’t hers, scared she can never make this work. See the crazy white lady enfold the little girl in her arms and carry her to the car with a rubber sheet in case the little girl wets the bed. See the conversation as she explains to her white South African partner that she has brought home a small black child from the township who is now sleeping in the guest bedroom, and that he has to hide in the morning in case she gets scared of him when she wakes up.

Eric peeked into the room that night and stood there for a while, watching a vulnerable fellow human being sleep. When he turned around, something had come over his face – a fierce softness. He was not, generally speaking, a soft man, at least on the outside. He had been to war, exchanged gunfire while working as a bodyguard, and once legendarily gnawed through a man’s collarbone to win a fight. He had only stopped carrying his Beretta everywhere when we started to date.

It is only now that I fully understand how important what happened that night 208081_7039769612_1861_nwas, and how it helped define what love feels like to me. We had argued about the way I went over the top sometimes with my work and volunteering. When it came right down to it, though, in that moment, he didn’t just tolerate my compulsion to act. He cared just as much as I did, in his own way. He was in.

When I got a full scholarship to attend graduate school at Princeton, we established a trust for Silindile because I wanted to more formally fundraise and make sure there was a structure for her continuing education. Eric stayed in South Africa to be present for his own daughters (he was older than me and had been married before). The distance strained our relationship.

We wrote long letters wrestling with how we could make it all work, and how to support his kids while also having at least one of our own. Maybe supporting Silindile seemed like a less complicated form of nurturing that we could do together. We fought, with each other and for each other. His voice on the telephone was my alarm clock almost every morning and he told me I was beautiful even when I hadn’t slept more than four hours in two days.

And then, he died.

He made a small human error on a high-performance parachute landing, and he was gone.

See the crazy white lady get the call on a Sunday morning. See her crumble to the floor and pound it until her fist swells. See her pull it together for the family, for her dead life partner. Life, interrupted. Life, gone from the dead lover behind mortuary glass. Love, suspended, a formless, directionless emotion with nowhere to go.

About a month later, I waited for a phone call from a Johannesburg radio station, Highveld Stereo. I thought I was doing an interview about Silindile in the context of charitable giving during the holidays. I was a wreck but I was trying hard to put one foot in front of the other. Once I was on the line, I got blindsided. One of our friends had written a letter to the station. Granting a Christmas Wish as part of an annual tradition, a representative from the multinational Aon told me that the company would pay for Silindile’s schooling until she graduated, in Eric’s memory. I found myself sobbing openly, my vulnerability pouring out through the radios of people driving to work that morning.

photo 2The supportive network I tried to build for Silindile and her mom and brother became part of my life and healing in ways I could never have anticipated. Some of the St. Vincent’s teachers and staff are like part of my family. Skydivers and friends all over the world donated to the trust. Everyone who touched Silindile’s life holds a piece of my personal history that sometimes feels slippery and often distant, especially in the life I’ve built in the US. I never realized as I was working for her future that I was also constructing a virtual village of my own.

Becoming a professional skydiver hasn’t distanced me from death. On the contrary, I have continued to bear witness to small human errors that take my friends away. The trade off is that skydiving pulled me out of my darkest grief through the physical act of opening my parachute in freefall, over and over and over again, saving my own life. Sometimes, when I fly, I feel that Eric is alongside. For the most part, these “visits” are short now. I had to stop holding on in some ways in order to survive, and to make space for change. But the love that we shared for Silindile remains and grows.

Supporting her brings me back. Back to Joburg. Back to the power of transformative love and high-risk investments in other human beings. A little girl whose growth was stunted from poverty is now, finally, within the height and weight range for her age group. I believe that she will someday leave school with a fighting chance to lead a life of peace and independence. There are still issues of housing and safety as she enters her teenage years, and I am still afraid of something terrible happening because I couldn’t prevent it. But that’s life, and I choose it every day.

How to Change the World, One Fun Weekend at a Time

This article was published as a feature in Parachutist Magazine, December 2011 issue.

Skydiving changes our lives, and in turn we can use skydiving to change the world. As beginners, we look at the open airplane door and the blue sky outside, perhaps wondering for an instant why this seemed like a good idea. One or two exits later, some of us begin to fall in love with the relative wind, the feeling of being on the outside of a plane at altitude, the challenge, the community. For those who keep coming back, the time and financial investment to get licensed can seem selfish at first. But many of us are also inspired to share our risk-taking journeys in meaningful ways—we want to make a difference while doing what we love.

Planning a skydiving event to raise money and awareness for a good cause can be both manageable and rewarding. Events that include a world record or multiple specialty aircraft may require you to recruit a team with professional organizational experience (e.g., Jump for the Cause, which set multiple women’s world records and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research). However, smaller events often have the most local impact on both the public’s perception of our sport and a deserving project (e.g., community-based group Team Dirty Sanchez has given away hundreds and even thousands of dollars through grassroots fundraising).To help with your next charity shindig, here are some basic guidelines to create an epic weekend.

Choose a beneficiary. The charity you donate to should be a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization. This means that donations are tax-deductible, which is often an incentive for both individuals and businesses to be more generous. It also signifies that the organization complies with local and national regulations on spending your contribution. If possible, meet with a local representative of the organization and let him know of your plans. Consider the impact of a small donation. There are cases in which a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars could make a bigger difference to a smaller, local group than a large national or international one. Check your potential beneficiary’s financials and history with a website like Charity Navigator.

Plan ahead and set dates. Leave plenty of time to contact sponsors, advertise, print T-shirts and posters and attract any vendors you would like to invite. Be aware of and sensitive to other major skydiving events to avoid creating scheduling conflicts.

Shape your event. Choose a theme or a goal that will define the event. State records can be both fun and a draw for local media and jumpers. A themed boogie geared toward fun jumpers can involve costumes, games and contests. A friendly competition can also draw skydivers to participate. If you want to involve first-time jumpers, ask the drop zone to contribute a portion of the proceeds from every tandem skydive and tandem video to your chosen charity.

Advertise. Calendar listings in most publications are free, including Parachutist (a handy form can be found here), Blue Skies Magazine, dropzone.com and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Print publications usually need notification far in advance of the event (at least 45 days) to accommodate publication deadlines. Where appropriate, include a link with directions, costs, registration and other important information. Think ahead about frequently asked questions, and when appropriate, provide as much information as possible about local airports, hotels, car rental, shared rides from the airport, aircraft, load organizers, cost of attendance and schedule.

Recruit and communicate with your team. Skydivers are an amazing resource—you’ll find music makers, fire spinners, ice carvers, belly dancers, artists and designers, among many other talents. Ask for volunteers, and be ready to delegate responsibility and offer opportunities to participate. Secure skydiving organizers ahead of time to let them market your event at other drop zones they may visit and through social networks. Build trust with manifest ahead of time, and make sure to keep drop zone staff and all relevant people informed of and involved in scheduling and plans. If you need to gather information such as how many people will attend, consider an online registration form.

Parking and signage. Create space for anticipated parking needs, and make signs and graphics directing new jumpers and visitors to important landmarks on the drop zone: registration, restrooms, etc.

Handouts are useful to disseminate DZ rules, landing area maps and a schedule of events. Do you have a separate event waiver? A media release? Make enough copies for the weekend.

Goodie bags are a nice way to give out T-shirts, free vendor goodies and safety and convenience items such as rubber bands, closing loops and the above-mentioned handouts.

Communication may require speakers, a megaphone or a sound system. These should be installed before the event if possible.

Media. If you have invited media to attend the event, give them a place to plug in and work, file stories and conduct interviews. A team room or even a tent with electrical outlets available will do. When handling media, create talking points, offer press releases and cover the basics: who, what, where, when and why. If there is an incident, do not speculate about it, and keep on point. Overall, remember that nothing is off the record.

On the ground. Appoint ground managers in shifts to handle miscellaneous issues such as coordinating volunteers, dealing with media and directing the flow of people and traffic. This person can also be a liaison to get feedback throughout the event. Don’t just wait until the end; try to make adjustments in real time.

Safety. The bigger and more hectic

the event, the greater the need for a system for tracking jumpers that may have landed off; the greater the need for wristbands to keep track of registered jumpers and to ensure that party-goers are of drinking age; and the greater the need for a rig checking and tagging system at registration.

Educate jumpers about landing patterns, especially if you have more or bigger aircraft than on a usual weekend. You may want to have printed signs on view in the hangar or boarding area and handouts to give people as they register and appoint someone to watch the landing area to deal with problems as they arise.

It’s the little things. Make sure portable toilets are clean; offer hand sanitizer; sweep the outdoor packing mat; have snacks available for staff and organizers. On a hot day, free water can prevent dehydration. For early-morning calls, coffee will help fill loads.

Clean up. Simple: Leave everything in better condition than you found it. Make sure you have a crew of volunteers willing to help even after the fun is over. The importance of clean up cannot be overstated; it makes a huge difference to how the event is perceived after the fact. If the drop zone is trashed, there won’t be a lot of enthusiasm the next time you want to plan an event.

Post-event media. Spend the same amount of time writing a few articles or blog entries as you did advertising.

Kick Back, Do Good, Enjoy!
There really is something about this sport. We forge bonds across social and economic lines. We risk our lives for the view from altitude, for the way we feel when we walk back into work on Monday morning after grinning at our friends in mid-air as the weekend sun goes down.

So give a little slice of your adrenaline-fueled joy to change someone’s life. Educate a child. Build a school. Cure cancer. Make your next event a fundraiser for a worthy cause. Spend a day volunteering with jump buddies near your drop zone. Organize a tandem jump for someone who dreams of flying but could never afford it otherwise. Then, kick back and discover that all those good things you just did also contribute to positive media coverage and the growth of skydiving, which means more friends, more play time and more open sky to explore.

About the Authors
Taya Weiss, D-27874, and Eli Bolotin, D-27345, are co-founders of skydiving non-profit Raise the Sky. With their team, they have planned and organized charity fundraising events including the U.S. Record for Largest Wingsuit Formation, Project XRW and the tonto Boogie.

Flying to Inspire: Raise the Sky’s 2009 68-way Wingsuit Formation Record

For the pdf with full photo layout of this article, click: Flying to Inspire 01-10

By Taya Weiss, Parachutist, January 2010

There are two lingering images from the U.S. national wingsuit record set on November 11 at Skydive Elsinore in California. The first one is a classroom full of exuberant third graders from a rough neighborhood in South Los Angeles. They are mesmerized by a wingsuit and are running little hands over the seams, asking, “Does it feel like flying?” The second image is 68 wingsuit flyers from 16 different countries pouring out of four Twin Otters 13,000 feet over Lake Elsinore. The jumpers turn 45 degrees off the line of flight like a school of fish and quickly pull together in a diamond-shaped formation that coalesces into the tightest, most consistent formation of its size to ever glide through the sky. Both images define the accomplishment of a dedicated team.

This year’s wingsuit big-way record event was organized by Raise the Sky, a non-profit organization that connects jumpers with charitable fundraising and “fearless outreach” opportunities. Raise the Sky provided the online and on-the-ground infrastructure that brought the wingsuiters together to set a record in partnership with City Year, a national organization dedicated to keeping at-risk kids in school and fighting the dropout crisis. The Raise the Sky team donated $5,000, which was brought in by the record participants, to fund mentoring and tutoring programs.

An Early Start

Several days before the record event began, a small team of organizers and participants visited an elementary school located just over an hour from Skydive Elsinore. City Year places 17- to 24-year-old volunteers in challenged public schools for a year to help children who are most likely to drop out before getting a high-school diploma. The afternoon started with skydivers introducing themselves to the City Year volunteer team (known as “corps members”), showing them video of wingsuit flying and explaining that Raise the Sky’s goal was to inspire a young generation to not just dream big but to work hard to achieve what seems impossible. While at the school, the jumpers learned about the challenges facing many of the students and their families: poverty, gang pressure and low expectations.

Many kids, as early in their education as third grade, come into the after-school program believing that high-school graduation is as much a dream as, say, flying through the sky without an airplane. The jumpers’ message was, “If we can fly, you can graduate!” Later, Raise the Sky members were the featured entertainment at an assembly where they talked about wingsuit flight, demonstrated how a parachute opens and answered a lot of questions from wide-eyed future skydivers. The kids wanted to know if the jumpers were afraid and how they overcame that fear. The City Year tutors drew parallels with the kids’ lives, pointing out that someday, they too could fly. First, though, they had to study hard, graduate and get good jobs to pay for lessons!

Record Time

On Saturday, November 7, participants arrived early at Skydive Elsinore to register and find which sector team they were on and which initial slot was theirs. Plane Captains Scott Callantine, Ed Pawlowski, Justin Shorb and Duncan Wright worked out the flyers’ positions the night before. A huge metal board in the drop zone’s courtyard held wingsuit-shaped magnets, arranged and tagged with the participants’ names. Lead Organizer Taya Weiss; Eli Bolotin, ground crew manager; Mark Harris, organizer and videographer; Jeff Nebelkopf, organizer; and Phil Peggs, media manager, rounded out the event team.

Every morning, Bolotin, Nebelkopf and Weiss were on the drop zone by 6 a.m. serving breakfast as well as coffee from sponsor Starbucks. Peggs ran the media room, compiling footage from all four videographers and distributing it for both debrief and broadcast. Harris, who flew on his back underneath the formation on every jump, took shots that eliminated ground clutter for easier judging. Because the rules dictate that a fixed-aspect-ratio scalable grid overlaid on a still photo is used to judge the wingsuit records, on each attempt Harris placed a preliminary grid over a photo of the jump. Bolotin, the only organizer not jumping on the team, kept things running smoothly on the ground and was the team’s “glue,” performing tasks from escorting newscasters who were filming dirt dives to ensuring a steady supply of hand sanitizer to participants.

Anticipation grew during the weekend’s preliminary jumps as some flyers moved to the alternate bench, slots shuffled and the sectors started to look sharp. After a safety briefing and pizza dinner Sunday night, Monday dawned bright for several two-plane formations, leading up to the first four-plane practice jump. On Tuesday, the official attempts began.
Flying for an average of two-and-a-half horizontal miles, the record-attempt formations drew spectators from all over Southern California and were a topic of a household conversation due to extensive print and broadcast media coverage coordinated by Raise the Sky and City Year. Some local residents who missed the evening news even reported alien sightings.

Making it Official

The largest formation attempted was a 73-way, but the organizers stayed focused on technical excellence rather than size. The eventual formation that participants repeated on multiple attempts was a 68-way—a 64-way diamond with stingers on either side. Inspired by the immense outpouring of public support and the connection to a greater cause, the record team turned in a stellar performance. The photo-perfect moment arrived on Wednesday afternoon on the seventh four-plane attempt. Organizers called in judges Chris Farina and Laurent Lobjoit to evaluate the photograph and video. Their reaction at first glance was, “That’s a record,” and a detailed examination of the USPA grid overlaid on the 68-way formation photo confirmed that every flyer was in his or her slot.

The team was called to the debrief room, where participants were shown the jump and organizers stood up to announce the judges’ decision. A moment of stunned silence was broken by Brian Caldwell, a participant from Massachusetts, who let forth his signature howl of joy, instigating applause from all corners of the room.

The History

After USPA began recognizing a wingsuit formation judging system in July 2009, multiple state records led to this larger attempt, which was originally conceived as a 100-way but was redesigned to accommodate the number of those who were both qualified and able to participate. Only one year before this attempt, wingsuit flyers came together for an unofficial 71-way record. However, this 68-way is now the largest officially judged formation in the world, and is a tighter, more consistent formation—one which showcases the improvement in both jumper skill and judging standards during the past year. Although USPA rules require that the formation be at least 51-percent USPA members in order to be submitted as a national record, the many countries represented on the record team included those as far-flung as Japan, Russia and South Africa. The organizers hope to gain recognition of wingsuit records from the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale), which will pave the way for a world record including as many countries’ participants as possible.

When Kids Fly …

A group of City Year corps members arrived at the drop zone on Thursday night for the end-of-event dinner and celebration. They suited up in Team Ill Vision wingsuits and shared their work experiences with the skydivers, which elicited hundreds more dollars in donations and forged new friendships. As one City Year staff member put it, “This is so much better than a charity golf tournament!” As a reward for their hard work and participation, all members of the record team were entered into a drawing for items including a
custom Tony Suit wingsuit, two 50-percent-off coupons for an automatic activation device from Argus; and a free weekend of unlimited wingsuit jumping with WestCoast Wingsuits.

Because the elementary school students visited by Raise the Sky were unable to come out and watch the record formation, the organization is planning a kid’s tunnel camp at iFly Hollywood to help them experience flight even closer to their neighborhood. What better way to boost a child’s confidence than giving them a taste of what skydivers do? Once they are old enough for wingsuit coaching, there will be plenty of room on the next-generation record team. In the meantime, a higher graduation rate will be even more newsworthy.

About the Author
Taya Weiss, D-27874, was the lead organizer of the 2009 national wingsuit record and is a co-founder of the skydiving non-profit organization Raise the Sky. She can be reached at [email protected]

Participants Remember Stephen Harrington

Stephen Harrington, a talented and well-loved member of the record team, passed away from injuries sustained in an accident after the record event. He was one of the best in the sky. He flew third back from the base on the left wing of the 68-way, the exact slot he wanted and earned through committed jumping. He was also on the Massachusetts
state wingsuit formation record in July, a 25-way. During one of the record debriefs, he got a round of applause from the entire team due to his family’s generous contribution of support, a moment that brought him so much joy he called home about it. On the last record attempt, he spent the ride to altitude talking to his neighbors
on the Otter bench about the importance of education for underserved kids. The record participants are proud to call Harrington a teammate and national wingsuit record holder.

Record holders:

Ralph Armstrong
Avery Badenhop
Brian Barnhart
Riaan Bergh
Rolf Brombach
Elana Cain
Paul Cain
Brian Caldwell
Scott Callantine
Troy Church
Damien Dykman
Jhonathan Florez
Alex Frey
Kenneth Gajda
David Gershfeld
Giovanni Silvestri
Robert Gray
Steve Harrington
Cate Heneghan
Jimmy Hopper
Sean Horton
Richard Hough
Shinichi Ito
John Kallend
Mark Krasinski
Mette Christensen
Martin Libelt
Benjamin Lowe
Ryan Maher
Sergey Makeev
Marko Makela
Dan Mayer
Randy McCoy
Francis Mobley
Michal Motykiewicz
Jeff Nebelkopf
Sergey Nikulin
Andreea Olea
Alexander Osipov
Justin Pabis
Tero Paukku
Ed Pawlowski
Philip Peggs
Craig Poxon
Raider Ramstad
Simon Repton
Joe Rodriguez
David Royer
Valery Rozov
Cliff Ryder
Dennis Sattler
Patrick Schraufnagel
Alexey Shatilov
Justin Shorb
Irina Sinitsina
Benny Skovhede
Brian Snarr
Kristin Sosso
Jochen Stier
Stephen Such
Michael Swanson
Michael Swearingen
Jonathan Tagle
Andrey Volkov
Alexander von Scheidt
Taya Weiss
Bo Wienberg
Duncan Wright

Scotty Burns
Mark Harris
Matt Hoover
Craig O’Brien