Note: If you haven’t read “Taken out” yet, you should; this tale relies upon it.
Alarm-Shower-CNN-Breakfast-Bus. By now, it’s a well established routine.
I walk through the lobby and check the whiteboard, which is the source of all updates and world team news. On the left hand side, in large letters, someone has written
“Dream. Believe. Create. Deploy.”
I’m clearly not the only person that has resonated with.
There are two days of jumping left on the schedule, three lifts each. Although this group has yet to achieve more than two attempts in a day, there’s a “now’ feeling amongst the crowd. Much solidarity, clasping of hands, and pats on the back as we board the bus for Wing 23. I think I spot Igor in the lobby – missing from yesterday’s activities with illness, he would certainly be welcomed back to Sector 4.
The bus barely pulls up before it leaves; after running nearly an hour late on one day, I get the feeling that will never happen again. Our Police Escort adds a siren to its flashing lights, and in a tight formation of five buses we ignore every traffic rule en route to the DZ.
I don’t know the history of the airport, but the miltary flavour is apparent. So is the slightly dilapidated look; a hangar large enough to house a galaxy transport now provides shelter for a fleet of buses and trucks. The airport is some 10,000 feet long, and even the gigantic C130s barely use a third of it. Is it big enough to be a Space Shuttle alternate? The entrance is graced by two fighter craft, a relatively modern jet and something that just screams “WW2” to my untrained eyes. Evidence of small business surrounds the entrance, litter strewn along the public observation area where – I realise – crowds have come to the airport to watch skydiving.
We snake our way to the old control tower, well short of the commercial facilities. The DZ encamps adjacent a fighter jet training operation, where we have been specifically asked not to use cameras; but with casual disregard, I notice many walking to the edge of the dirt dive area and snapping wildly whenever a fighter is taxiing. I muse and hope they have a better regard for the plan at breakoff.
I locate my rig in the lockup, Cypres on. Another alleged Vigil incident the other day, I muse, thinking about the logistics of getting 400 skydivers and their equipment to perform flawlessly just once. Each Hercules carries a spare rig: who knows what can happen on the way to height? If it were me with an equipment problem, I’d be embarrassed but grateful.
The English camp – the horrid but very funny Brits – are there early, seemingly molesting the giant bear mascot in the next sector once again. My precious Aussie flag went missing early in the piece, appearing in their camp folded into quarters with just the Union Jack showing. It’s funny now. But today they reward the camp for their patience – the bear is festooned with souvenirs, an official WT identity badge, and dozens of smaller bears – one per sector member. They stand back, waiting for the reaction, and fall about giggling shortly after.
All is forgiven.
By 0700, I can make a fifteen minute call. A commercial jet greases in a landing, putting the nosewheel down 500′ after the rear sends up its obligatory puff of tyre smoke. I ingest 120mg of PseudoEphedrine to dry my sinuses – by the sound of things, there are over 400 people here with some sort of similar problem.
There are photos to be taken this morning. Armed with our world team paraphenalia – a brace of t-shirts, helmets and accessories – we troop to the lineup of five Hercs, where camera people take an interminable time snapping photos of us in different regalia. And then, it’s time to go to work.
Full gear, suits, rigs, helmets. We take up grips in the formation – every dive has small changes now, replacements through illness, injury or poor form. It’s essential that we show the new players where they fit and how it works. Going back to our marks – strips of numbered tape adhered to the concrete to simulate our position after exit, the “Exit frame”. I hear that we’re emptying the planes in 11 seconds, and I start to calculate the horizontal distance between me and the last diver at 140 knots. But then we’re keyed, and we begin to walk to our slots.
A hat is thrown in the air to simulate the first pilot chute, and the outer whackers leave.
Another hat, another wave departs.
The third hat is my cue, and I turn and follow my tracking team leader for the requisite period before our tracking teams diverges. we were close yesterday, and a short discussion ensues.
“Back to your marks!”
Back we go, and I wait, and hear something incredible.
400 skydivers in a dirt dive. Camera staff. Organisers. Documentary team. Well wishers.
Then BJ calls us in, and we dirt dive once more. We are seriously in the zone now.
The dirt dive finished, we retreat back to camp briefly. Along with about 80 other blokes, I pause at the designated-by-common-law urinal behind the sound barrier. We’re not so removed from dogs.
We take load one to 24500. I note yesterday’s big bank of clouds far on the horizon has grown somewhat. We shuffle back, our cascade of grips now supporting the camera flier on the ramp, and launch.
A review of the skydive shows 327 people in grips, and 70 waiting in line (or something like that, excuse the detail). The missing three are quickly tracked down, and something unpleasant happens. An Aussie, friend of mine and WT veteran, has been struggling for form all week. Confidence is a tricky thing, and his is down, in the grip of the vortex. He was the first World Team member I ever met, and a flawless skydiver to my upward gaze. Today, I still wear his old blue 300 way jumpsuit, mine still having not showed at lost property. And I wear it with substantial pride.
But at this point in proceedings, there can be no tolerance, and the hand on his shoulder appears. With outstanding grace and dignity, he encourages our sector to go one better. We welcome his replacement, and endeavour to do so.
Emplane. Off to 25000’ this time, the Hercules continuing to lumber relentlessly in the in the vapour. We launch, a massive red suited Russian crunching into my defensive forearms. We build, and I remember what that instructor behind me in the lineup said: the best formations become “quiet”. I now know what he means; flat and stable, we ride the journey down for an impossibly long time – my Neptune later reporting 130 seconds to deployment.
In review, I thought I caught a glimpse of white under the formation off to my right. Uh-oh, I think, although hopeful of a miracle. But I am right: after landing in a soccer field and being retrieved by the locals, we debrief the dive.
My worst nightmare is, in fact, someone elses, the last touch coming as the first bridle is stretching. And in the chain of events, it creates two more: lovely Rhonda from Canada now has an ankle that requires medical attention, and a shoulder dislocation means another poor bastard won’t get to go again. So close, and yet…
Let’s call the Guinness Book of World Records anyway. Not now, but later. We’ve got another jump to do.
We gear up and prepare for a short dirt dive, with time promised to head back to the tents for “chill” before emplaning. Not trusting the expectation, I get ready to go – as, it turns out, almost all the formation did.
BJ grabs his megaphone to remind us again of what we’re here for. Two aircraft – one commercial, one military, make it impossible, and perhaps half the formation were able to process his speech.
But I don’t mind; I believe we all know what is required.
The giant planes arrive, taxiing in a line. We emplane in columns for the third time today, the ramp closes, and it takes twelve minutes to taxi to the other end of the runway.
About forty five minutes to go.
10,000…Twenty minutes…20,000…24,500…The ramp opens. Six minutes, and brilliant blue sky appears.
I change nothing in my routine to height; to line up, to deal with the oxy hoses on the tailgate, or following the exit cadence. But I take my one step back into the void, and a sudden realisation penetrated everything else I was doing. Something unique happened as I left the Hercules, and I did not get to process it until much later that night.
My visor didn’t fog on the ramp. I could see, and clearly.
Catholic but not religious, I remain a pragmatic person with a laissez-faire attitude. But here, I’m going to pause and wax metaphysical for a moment. Stick with me.
Nearly ten years ago, I was the front half of a tandem pair for my very first skydive. Coming out of what I know now to be sensory overload, my heart was filled with a new thing that filled the hole I didn’t even know it had. I’ve made my way in the sport since then, but not without the odd difficulty.
One such difficulty was apparent at about fifteen jumps. Having worn heavy glasses since the age of 7, I was having trouble seeing what was going on in freefall: instructor signals were being missed, and my peripheral vision was next to worthless. In the end, I jumped on the ‘net, and located rec.skydiving (or wreck.skydiving, bless you dropzone.com). I made a post to see how other, experienced people managed poor eyesight, and was peppered with responses: some useful, some not so. One stood out – a lady from the USA had a complete recipe for success, starting with a strap to hold things tighter; smaller goggles, the advantages of a full-face helmet, contact lenses and even laser surgery.
All solid advice: progressively it was followed, and at 70 jumps I found myself the owner of a precious black Factory Diver she arranged through a dealer friend. Several years later, and despite the reservations of my optician of fifteen years, a surgeon peeled back my corneas one at a time and applied his laser, leaving me with eyesight crisper and clearer than any corrective lenses – and suddenly peripheral vision as well. Even my optician begrudgingly nodded his head.
Outstanding advice. But that wasn’t all. We stayed in touch, regular email buddies.
I sought her counsel with the frustrations of obtaining a Star Crest. She had all the answers once again, and more – as a load organiser, she had seen it all before, and volunteered much of her knowledge to help me organise – not engineer, but organise it. Later, she would send me the occasional videotape of skydives she had worked on or in, making me late for work more than once. It was the genesis of the load organising I do today.
But she didn’t just talk the talk. Seemingly accomplished at everything, she had her own goals, and set off a couple of years later to a world record attempt – a three hundred way. I’d never seen more than eleven jumpers in a plane, and was agog: how? Where? When? with what? Duly she answered my questions once again, the day grew closer, and I watched the anticipation grow, online, from a distance.
I logged in one morning at work, full of excitement at getting the news from overnight in the US, to find news of a fatality at that record attempt. With growing discomfort, I clicked and clicked looking for a name. Then, reeling, I found it, and my world was rocked.
Sandy Wambach, my mentor and guide, was gone.
In one of the last contacts we had, I expressed a desire to one day watch a world record attempt, or even be in one. “If you put in the hard yards, /anything/ is possible!” she replied.
And now, I am here.
And for the only time in this slot in this campaign, I can see.
There is no cameraman on my back, no red or blue suits crashing into me. My part of the sky is mine, and I can see all five C130s disgorging their contents into the perfect blue. The puzzle is simpler this time: One of my wingmen has some work to do, and the Belgian giant – barely making the load because of stomach problems – is staying out of trouble. No sign of the anchor, but there are the others. Any time now that guy from the base will make his drive – there he goes – so I edge closer to the Belgian and we make our move.
The base seems a little further away than usual, but it may just be that I’ve picked it up more easily. Familiar rigs start to fill my vision in familiar places. With skydivers scattered over this vast expanse of sky, it’s as simple as shrinking that expanse to the perfect size.
Slowly – “better slow than low” – our line shrinks a little, and draws a little closer to the line in front, descending a little as we do so. A four way line in an adjacent sector is pre-built, and collectively the design of the skydive and our tolerance gives them a little “racing room”.
Like a childs construction toy, the base – the magnificent, 125mph seventy-way on-heading base completes, and the next line commences docking.
My visor is a sea of red, white and blue jumpsuits now. So many people in the red zone, so many, flying no contact, no collisions or incursions made obvious.
It’s our turn.
The Belgian stops, unflinching, and although I cannot see his grip, he stopped here and it will be good. I come to a complete stop as well, my forearm placed over his. I exhale, making sure I’ve stopped too, then close the grip.
Shortly thereafter, I feel a steely grip on my left wrist, and our whacker is complete. We push our chests out, point our booties behind us, and hold our ground.
The base hasn’t moved. At this speed, in this environment, large formations have the structural integrity of a butterfly wing; it takes so little to tear it asunder, and make it look like a dinner plate dropped from a second floor balcony. But this formation is designed to give people room, to counter minor disturbances without passing them relentlessly to everyone else in grips. It can still carry a wave – but not if everyone is doing their job.
Boosters now occupy most of my field of vision, and the sea of red white and blue is thinning. More people are docking, on level, and becoming invisible to me.
Now I can’t see anyone except the line directly in front of me. I want to check my alti, body clock is screaming, but I don’t need to, it’s not my job, and I don’t dare change a perfectly good body position anyway.
I keep the pressure on my toes, flying the best I can. So does everyone else. The formation is “quiet”, and now I understand exactly what he meant.
First pilot chute. I count down to breakoff.
Second pilot chute.
…three thousand, four thousand, and the third pilot chute comes.
I turn left, trace the line with my tracking team leader, close enough to sneak a look at our height from the Neptune mounted in his helmet. We diverge, I finish my track with eyeballs swivelling, assume a good body position wave and throw.
Eyes straight ahead as I get stood up. Hand reach for the risers, locating the left and right, and then carefully selecting the rears in the snivel. The wing rolls left, towards trouble, and I correct with the harness; but this isn’t my little VX, and it takes some right riser to straighten.
My plan is fly a straight line away from the formation, then turn once onto base and once more onto final. Once again, my plans are hampered by an individual whose canopy swings sashays into my path as the owner fiddles with his boosters, both hands around his ankles. I take evasive action, and wonder once again about how hard it can really be to convince everyone to not just make a careful Star Crest dock but to stick to the rest of the plan.
I’ve survived the plane ride, the exit, the freefall, the opening. Let’s not !@#$ it up now.
I wind up relatively close to the radar tower, a small paranoia about high-power radio and the electronics in my Automatic Activation Device keeping me nervous all the way to the deck. Gently, the Safire puts me down once more, and I collapse my canopy quickly to make life easier for anyone in my blind spot.
The mood is different now.
“Great jump!” we congratulate any and everyone, but the record is not ours to claim yet.
Responsibility lies with the judges.
It seemed like an interminable wait. We pack, discuss, and grab some beers, whilst the judges engage in a really tough operation. 400 sets of grips to be judged; multiple cameras, tapes, photoshop, and a documentary team looking over their shoulder.
The ever unflappable BJ looks, for once, flappable.
The Sector Captains are finally called upstairs; closed doors, for who knows what. A wag on the microphone suggests that “white smoke from the control tower” will signify a record, but our judges are surely far quicker than a papal conclave.
We gather around the control tower, waiting for the word, blacked out windows revealing nothing.
A window opens. It’s not white smoke, but white foam – as Sector Captains shake their beer cans over the multitude.
It’s over – we’ve done it – and the party begins.
If you’d been in the right place at the right time – Udon Thani Province, in the wee hours of 8 Feb 2006, after the dinners and backslapping and barhopping – you might have caught a glimpse of one quarter of one percent of the recently completed World Record Formation Skydive taking stock, armed with a flask of Mekong Whisky and his thoughts. Thoughts leaning towards metaphysical, examing a miraculously clean visor, 20/20 vision and a mentor who helped steer his ship. Reflection on the simple rules we were asked to follow for World Team, and an understanding that her situation may have had a different outcome under these rules. We have learned; but we all need to keep listening. A moment for Sandy: and Simon, and Pete, and Calvin, and Gags, and Pauline, and Rob and Lee, and Timbo, and Josh: and what we have learned from them. Thoughts of a marriage, and a career, sacrificed on the altar of this thing that consumes him. Many a demon is laid to rest under a clear sky and half moon this World Record night.
Finally, a thought that sends him to wherever his home is. Four hundred individuals, national prejudices and petty differences put aside, combine to forge a united team – the same team, with no competition save unrelenting mother Earth herself.
And today, together, we won.