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 taya@raisethesky.org.

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

Videographers Scotty Burns Mark Harris Matt Hoover Craig O’Brien