Who wants to be a millionaire?

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I do. I’ve always believed that freefallers and canopy pilots should be afforded the same treatment as rock stars and Formula One drivers. 100 extremely fortunate people had the opportunity to live like one, for one precious week, in Bali, August 2004 – as with a frenzy of last-minute activity, jumpers from 17 countries converged on Bali for “100 Ways over Bali” (locally, “Seratus Citra Bangsa”).

It’s been thirteen years since the last Bali Boogie – which one Edy Christiono regarded as far too long. Edy – with nearly 3,000 jumps, thirty years in the sport, and a member of the current Indonesian FS record – set to the task. With Bali’s tourism industry in the doldrums, it was his dream to make a spectacle no-one would ever forget – a one hundred person skydiving formation, unheard of in the Asia/South Pacific region, and set in Bali itself – revitalising the Boogie along the way.

His work breaking ground with the government, airlines and local business was continuing when a tragic plane crash claimed the lives of all six people on board – pilot Johann, and five jumpers – including Edy. A man of boundless energy and enthusiasm, Edy left behind his students, competitors and club members in addition to Nina and two children. To his compatriots in Bali, the Hundred Way suddenly became the impossible dream.

Businesses rallied, Jibut and the rest of the organising committee stepped into the breach, BJ Worth paid a flying visit to garner commitment, details were thrashed out and incentives provided. It is to their credit that the evening before the official start, the front bar of the Bali Hilton was stacked with Skydivers. The numbers, and the talent, was there to make the 100 way a success – but by no means a certainty. The success of the event now depended on us.

Culture shock

This was not ordinary skydiving. Ordinary skydiving is not out of a military Hercules C-130 transport. It does not include oxygen for exits over 20,000 feet. It does not include a hundred and sixty officials lining the airport boundary. And it certainly does not include shutting down an international airport so skydivers can land safely on it. And my version of skydiving does not include a 5:30am wakeup call. Despite these departures from standard practice, we had a go.

After safety briefings and dropzone inspection, we split into 30ish way groups to familiarise ourselves with the aircraft, drill our exits, and practice our docks. Gearing up, we took to the “Herc” for the first time…

The battery cart to start the Hercules is the size of a 4WD. The Auxiliary Power Unit has more power than most dropzone aircraft. And with all four engines running as we emplane, the heat and noise is overwhelming – the event would not have made it to the end of the taxiway without the onboard airconditioning. Over 100 skydivers emplane, take their seats on the uncomfortable steel floor, lower tailgate raises into position – and the upper portion of the tailgate slowly cranks into place, closing with a Thunderbirds-like “clang”.

It’s not hard to liken the Hercules to a Submarine. A small handful of portholes offer very limited vision to a select few able to rise and inspect. In terms of driving the Herc, it can’t be hard – with only three settings (“OFF”, “TAXI” and “FLY”) it seems that actual flight is engaged with the aid of the trim lever alone. Only movement on the altimeter provides actual evidence of flight. There’s certainly no accounting for seven crew on the upstairs flight deck, seemingly all doing something. Flying well within its limitations, a steady 1500fpm climb tops out at height, and the tailgate reopens, like the dawn of the new day.
Designation Shorts CS-7 “Skyvan” General C-130E “Hercules”
Crew 2 5 to 9
Passengers 22 92+
Engine: 2 x Garrett TPE331-2-201A 4 x Allison T56-A-T5
Engine Type: Turboprop Turboprop
Engine Thrust: 535 3,200 kw
Thrust, total 1,070 12,800 kw
Weight, empty 3,355 36,363 kg
Weight, Max 6,577 70,500 kg
Cruise Speed (Max) 324 600 kmh
Length 12 30 m
Height 5 12 m
Wing Span 20 40 m
Climb rate, initial 1,530 1,900 fpm
Range, max 1,075 8,320 km

The views from the plane were stupendous. A massive dormant volcano provided a flight hazard at seemingly any height – and an active volcano provided a spectacular backdrop to jumprun. The cloud formations, an international airport directly below us, and up to twenty five rows of skydivers sprinting four abreast from the belly of the beast… Skydiving doesn’t get much better than this.

A couple of big thirty-odd ways later, it was time for our first presentation to the public. Before takeoff, we were advised we’d be landing at a massive park in the city – impossible to miss, a large, grassed area with a huge spire in the middle. Sounded like fun! After sneaking a look at around 9000’, I changed my mind. Distinguishing between parks, rice paddies and proposed landing areas suddenly took on a higher difficulty factor. Not much we could do now, however – and although the Herc was visually spotted, no-one could complain about the spot all week. Odds on that the park would be large, obvious, and downwind once open.

What I hadn’t counted on was a large black bird, directly in my flight path away from the formation. And at 1800’! And massive! As I got closer, I could see it was nearly 3m across, and hovering there. A little bit closer, and Paul Osborne and myself could see it more clearly. And the string, tethering it to the ground. They love their kites, the Balinese. The bigger and higher the better.

It would be nice to say the demo was without incident, but these were not ordinary skydives. Several people clipped the trees at the edge of the arena having set up too deep for what was, in fact, a massive arena. A Russian Lady was hung a tree briefly before falling nearly 3m onto a collection of motor scooters, a fall drawing massive “ahhs” from the crowd and requiring hospitalisation. And the Indonesian Flag Jumper had a bad day, his flag on display but upside down.

Time for our first official engagement: presented at the Governor’s mansion to a range of officials. One of the most lavish dinner spreads I’ve seen was on offer, as well as a taste of exotic Balinese dancing. In one of the most bizarre cultural clashes I’ve ever seen, some hundred-plus skydivers were treated to a spectacular meal – and not a beer in sight. This would clearly have helped as the head of the Indonesian Air Force took to the stage and belted a few tunes in a manner which brought a tear to Dave McEvoy’s eye.

Standing in the food selection arena, I was approached by a gentleman whom I did not recognise – but his dress indicated that he sat at the head table, and was possibly one of the public speakers. Friendly, he offered excellent English descriptions of the meals on offer, and then:

Him: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Byron Bay, in Australia”
Him: “Oh. I’m Sorry.”

For a moment, I was taken aback. What sort of humour is this? Then I realised. He WAS sorry. For the infamous bombing, and the Australian fatalities that occurred there. And he was secure enough to freely apologise, on behalf of his country, in a simple fashion, for the sins of a crime he did not commit.

Aussie ingenuity solved the “dry” evening back at the Hilton – and shaking off a massive hangover, we fired up the next morning. Another day of sector jumps, refining our skydiving, and trialling Dr Ben Massey’s Oxygen system. The hard floor of the plane was the equivalent of an epidural block on every load, and if you bump into Randy please buy him a beer – noting my discomfort, he hook-knifed his stealthily acquired cushion in half and donated it to my tender backside, thus earning a permanent space in my list of all-time skydiving greats. A good day, but conditions required that we brought the last load down. I don’t like landing in aircraft at the best of times – but when your altimeter has read 19,000’ at one stage and the dirt dive is a 102 way, it’s a little harder to take.

One of my Sydney friends books a wakeup call – and, as insurance, sets the alarm on his phone and gets an early night. Body clock akimbo, he rises to his phone alarm, showers, grabs his gear and heads to the lobby. It’s still dark when arrives – although probably not in Sydney, where his phone is set! He headed back to his room with two hours to kill – and started by cancelling his wakeup call…

By now, the locals had integrated their revenue opportunities into our security area. A food stall appeared, a range of skydiving t-shirts and accessories, and Bintang – precious Bintang – was suddenly on ice ready for the last load. Most of the locals knew little English – but by now, they had learned to wish us “Blue skies” and “safe landings”. It was also time to assemble a serious attempt at a big way.

A good dirt dive, and good exit rehearsal. The vibe was good – and at just over 20,000’ we pumped out another 130knot exit. Making good time to my sector, I had astounding visuals of the base dipping and turning – and so many others turning with it, in a whirlpool of red and blue. BJ later described this as “the biggest big way zoo” he’d ever seen – although, thankfully, he withheld that description until later in the week, and instead asked us to expunge the dive from our minds. It was not without some trepidation we took to the air again – this time, a 99 way, the symbolism of Edy’s dream coming true without him

It was about this time we realised just how important the 100 Way was to the Indonesian people. Not 99, not 101 – they were all hoping for a 100 way to fulfil the dream. And the beginnings of performance pressure were there – there was time up our sleeve, but so many skydiving dreams have been foiled by weather, aircraft or beer. And we knew it was difficult – no-one could recall a 100 way being built from a single aircraft.

Another attempt then. This form of skydiving is not about heroics: it’s about 100 people being 100% for one minute. On this occasion, we were not; and I had the rare experience of flying unattached in my slot, matching fall rate and hover control for over 10,000’ of freefall. I’m ready for the wind tunnel; and the team are building to 76… 78… closer.

With weather frustrating our efforts, we were fortunate enough to have the last load “off” and split into large groups for a “conventional” 14000’ exit. The dropzone once again: Kuta Beach. High tide, complex rotors aided by an offshore breeze, and thousands of spectators complicated the landing, but we all made it home – except for the flag jumper, who landed in the water despite chopping his flag. The poor folks retailing at the airport were left with warming Bintang – and the retailers at the beach cleaned up. We did not; a blue light escort led our busses through traffic to our next formal dinner.

Dinner tonight was at the Hilton itself – the ballroom was thrown open for us, the marriage of cocktail dresses and Tevas was complete, and another spectacular dancing display. Breaking into country groups for an impromptu stage presentation, Jason Cooke (XLR8, Force) led a rousing rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” which did Australia proud. Deciding to get an early night, I completely missed the “sleep in” call.

There were four people at breakfast at the regular hour next morning, including BJ Worth, who graciously and freely spoke at length. With a couple of hours up his sleeve, BJ then disappeared to pursue his new passion: armed with 3CCD camera and long lens, he stalked the confines of the Hilton pursuing the wildlife. BJ Worth: Extreme Bird Watcher!

Refreshed and confident, we dirt dived a 99 way in good spirits. And built it, if only momentarily. Now, for a hundred way attempt. Diving the plan, we exiting the Herc, built it, and held it for fourteen seconds. A testament to everyone’s work was that no-one could confirm it was complete until the video review; usually, someone will break visuals and scan to sense completion – but no-one seemed to know for sure. The video told the story; the photos suddenly match the raft of promotional t-shirts and clothing, the windblades showing the formation plan are now accurate. Three TV networks and countless reporters grabbed their scooters and raced back to their offices, with the tidbit that only four countries had previously hosted a 100 way or better.

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Accomplishment, relief, satisfaction; I’ll add cockiness to that. We could have done anything. Talk of three points, three figures began to circulate. The military began preparations for their presentations; A full Bird Colonel was evidenced making preparations for the arrival of the Generals. Rumours of champagne. Certainly no time for a beach demo tonight – but time for one victory jump back onto the airport. I don’t need to phone a friend – Herc jumps don’t come along every day!

Twenty odd white sector and red sector players dirt dive a giant zipper, offering Hazel Black (Hong Kong) the opportunity to unzip it (not my idea, I assure you). Setting up in a two way base next to me, Theo Mendagi – a mustachioed Indonesian skydiver since the seventies with a tragic family history. In 1986, three of his brothers – skydivers Robby, Alfred and Chris – were amongst eleven killed when a jump plane crashed. Theo continued jumping, against the advice of his two remaining brothers, and with his skydiving wife sired two more jumpers in daughter Pingkan and son Petre, Petre performing freefall video during the week.

Ready, set, go, and we’re back into that 130 knot rush. I dock on Theo’s leg, we build the zipper easily, and Hazel unzips it in style. The next segment of the zipper flies through the line, and the next, and the next… and before we know it, it’s breakoff time. I release the grip, have a good track towards the beach in a gorgeous sunset, I deploy safely, and ten seconds later, the sweet scent of champagne turned to ashes in our mouths.

I recall scanning for canopies, and spotting a malfunction further upfield – my roommate Sas, as it turned out, being repaid for the praise he heaped upon his main the previous night without touching wood. I saw the blue flashing lights underneath me as I headed back over the runway, thinking that if that’s the response to a malfunction I should chop this and get a lift back. But they weren’t investigating a simple malfunction. The headcount showed our missing man, confirmed our fears, and no amount of waving away would deter the TV cameras.

Despite the Indonesian’s best efforts, dinner was flat. And there would be no jumping the next day.

Things moved quickly. Next morning, Theo’s memorial service was a well-attended affair – not least by the media – and the grief of his family and friends was evident. Pallbearers slowly walked his coffin to the emplaning area where the Air Force provided a guard of honour; and then, to the interior of a waiting Hercules, where Theo and his family were flown to his home island for the burial.

The newly formed Cookie’s Surfing Tours opened for business around 10, which gave us just enough time to convince the Hard Rock Hotel to open the bar briefly. A fabulous afternoon of swimming, massage and surfing followed – it was great to catch up with so many old friends and make some new ones.

A sensational dinner – now, we are being served complimentary Bintang with dinner! But too much Bintang is barely enough, so we cajole the bus driver into stopping at convenience stores for more. A 50/50 choice: I head for the right hand store, and do well; the Russian crew, never keen to heed advice, take their rupiah to the store on the left. A Muslim store. No alcohol. Well, “Bintang Zero”, which I’ve never tried and am unlikely to. They work it out eventually.

At the request of the Indonesian Aerosport Federation (FASI), we recommenced jumping. The challenge was accepted and won, and the Indonesian community were indeed proud and thankful. Theo’s family provided a wish that we would remember him always, but move onwards and upwards, taking solace in Theo’s own prophetic words – “jumping is something I love, and dying jumping is not a tragedy”. There was clearly no point leaving the Hercules idle.

The Indonesian jumpers withdrew from the big ways, joining the local boogie jumpers and seeking to set a new Indonesian formation record in Theo’s memory. Ears, shoulders, and Bali Belly robbed us of some of our participants, leaving us with numbers in the 80s – sequential big ways, anyone?

These dives were a lot of fun. A little less pressure, a high degree of confidence, and the promise of some special pictures engaged us all. It led to some humour, too – building 17 way lines from the base, we were intrigued by our Russian base anchor’s angry assertions that his next in line was placing too much tension on him. How he could tell that the other 16 of us were doing a perfect job we couldn’t work out!

Sixteen of us shed jumpsuits and donned our favourite shorts and shirts for a beach jump. I would have gone with a lot less, but considerations for local customs and values took precedence; I treated the jump as a “Dressed rehearsal”.

You would travel to Bali for this jump alone. The pilots once again found some extra height, a tailgate exit – and I joined a not-so-exclusive crew of people who screwed the exit count during the week Despite the lack of jumpsuits we styled; third point a magnificent round right over the beach, high and handsome, followed by an extreme swoop onto the sand and Bintang.

The First Lady of Lombok had also put in a request, and we ferried the Herc to that beautiful island. With the plan slightly confused, we wound up

(1) Landing at Lombok
(2) Immediately taking off from Lombok
(3) Dirt dive in the plane
(4) Exit, achieve dirt dived goals
(5) Pack
(6) Presentation to dignitaries, gifts, lunch
(7) Return to Bali
(8) Land in plane
(9) Take off
(10) Next jump…

It was weird; but it didn’t matter.

Dinner at the Hard Rock Hotel – Bintang, night clubbing and a fabulous series of parties back at the hotel.

The camp finished with a three-point 82 way, and one last jump onto the beach. Last out, last pass, high fives from the flight crew on the way out, and diving to the formation. Didn’t get there; we broke off high. Mick Hardy is taking pictures, Ebone is leading a three way gaggle out to sea, and I’m trying to put some pants on before we land.

The last night was at the Kartika plaza. A spectacular Balinese dance and pantomime, all you could eat, and the last formal outing as a group. The Chief of Police spoke warmly and bluntly – Bali is peaceful, multicultural and a great tourist destination – and they kicked the butts of all the bombers inside twelve months.

To close out the night, the windblades were auctioned – many of which are headed for Australian dropzones – and raised enough cash to fund the purchase of two AADs for the Mendagi siblings.

It would be understating the cause to call the event professional. The Indonesian Olympic Committee, the local Harley Davidson Owners Association, The Hard Rock Hotel, The Hilton Hotel, The Police (FKKPI)… the effort that went into the event was incredible.

We came looking for a slice of paradise; the people of Bali fed us the whole cake.

Thank you: BJ and Bobbie Worth, Grant and Julie Nichol, Daniel Lee, Craig Trimble, Cheryl Robertson

The author, with one million rupiah:
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