First published in ASM, 4 May 2005
The plan was simple – a one point skydive.
To set a world record, you need the place, the time and the people. Of all the people in the world who could do the jump, World Team 2006 assembled enough of them in one place at one time to have a go. 441 applicants were selected; the dates were set, and the place was Udorn Thani in Thailand.
Simply getting there was an exercise. With Americans forming the bulk of the 38 countries represented and having to travel literally halfway around the world, Bangkok was the meeting place. Registration, and collection of the uniform and accessories took two days. World Team likes to look like a team – and having distributed hundreds of Royal Blue helmets, warmup outfits, gloves, bags, we all started to look like it.
Getting from Bangkok to Udorn Thani took the better part of a day. Whilst jumpers took the King’s Airbus in shifts, our baggage traveled by road the night before; everything made it, we rolled into town on time, and settled in for the campaign. A day “in the classroom” at our destination outlined the detail – and if you thought you knew it all, this was a good day to shut up.
World Team does more than meet every so often and have a crack at a world record. The loose coalition of participants stay in touch, and have more than a passing interest in world events – and an outstanding relationship with the gentle people of Thailand. Indeed, World Team 2006 was dedicated to the benevolent King Bhumibol Adulyadej, sixty years after his ascension to the royal throne. It came to light that after the horrific Tsunami that afflicted Thailand and nearby countries, World Team members made a contribution that built eighteen houses and a fish farm for afflicted Thais.
That said, when World Team does meet to jump, they skydive – and skydive well. Organiser and Dive Director BJ Worth – former IPC chief, four way world champion, and Bond movie stuntman amongst other things – did not assemble this team to have some fun jumps and a few cold ones at the end of the day. Safety was the stated priority – and it was more than a casual reference. And two world records to add to World Team’s already impressive record were second on the list.
Hercules C-130 transports. 80 jumpers plus camera and support in each plane. Far more comfortable than 100 or 120 in each plane… 24,000’+ exit height. Spare rigs in each plane – who knows when a minor gear problem might scrub an attempt? Having AAD equipped spare rigs in each aircraft may have made the difference.
You couldn’t ask King Bhumibol or Air Marshall Bunchauy for much more.
A simple system: medical grade oxygen, medical hose, a constant pressure delivery of about twice what we needed, and a helmet fitting to ensure it stays connected for the ride to height. These fittings were promptly discarded after the first few jumps in the interest of simplifying proceedings – whip-style injuries from stray hoses occurred, hoses trailing upwards from people in formation were common, and a stray oxygen hose coiled around a deployment system on exit resulted in an instant canopy at 24000 for one participant. Better management of hoses by individuals proved the successful formula.
For the first time, exit control is in the hands of the skydivers. A super floater still leaves early in case of radio failure; otherwise, a full twenty-five radio-helmet equipped jumpers in the formation hear the exit count from Craig Gerard, and synchronise their exits accordingly. Gerard is also using his mic to call in waves of skydivers – ensuring the base is at the correct fall rate, it builds sequentially, and picks up speed before the next wave gets called.
“Every man for himself” is not a high-percentage strategy in this game. Some clever thinking and computer graphics revealed the plan: waves of skydivers, departing at regular intervals, commencing at 8500’ with the option to lower that to 7500 if required. The first waves tracked longest and lowest; the later waves tracking shorter and higher to give the completed break-off plan a “wedding cake” type effect.
The first wave left at the sign of pilot chute extraction from the centre, and did not track as we know it: rather, a “tracking team leader” assumed a flat and angled body position which all members of that team could follow in close company; not too steep, not too flat. The outer persons on the tracking team pulled – in this body position – halfway through their journey, providing a little extra space for that team to fan out and find their own space. The fifteen camera fliers had their part of the plan. Effective it was, without incident throughout the event, although camera flier Wendy Smith could argue that point.
If, during the course of the skydive, you wound up under the formation with no chance of recovering, you were to dive below the formation and track away. Many of us thus subsequently experienced the rare pleasure of tracking from 16,000’ without really wanting to.
The airport itself – a 10,000’ strip – formed the centerpiece of our landing area. Whilst congested at times, there were very few problems finding clean air for an approach. The handful of folks who executed high performance landings generally only got to do so once.
Wearing an AAD is compulsory on World Team, and every AAD manual will warn you of the dangers of using one in a pressurised aircraft. In spite of all the precautions, one of the Hercules did get pressurised for descent after a load was called down – the flight crew correctly assuming that their talking cargo required oxygen – but then rapidly depressurised as knowledgeable skydivers discussed this with the flight crew.
As a result, four Vigil units promptly fired in the plane, and over thirty early model Cypres 1 units shut themselves down, demanding a trip to the factory to be checked for impossible pressure sensor readings. Airtec promptly dispatched a suitcase full of Cypres2 units with an engineer, and everyone with an AAD problem received the loan of a Cypres2 until the issue was resolved. The next night, some forty reserve containers were opened and closed in the hotel lobby and the problem put to rest.
Roger Allen from Alti-2 brought along a truly special piece of kit: Titan. This evolution of the altimeter is modular, comprising a processing unit, pressure sensor, GPS – and as well as audible warnings, a heads-up display that can be commanded to relay height, location and fall rate amongst other things.
Its primary use through the attempts was to provide an instantaneous readout of fall rate to Craig Girard, who could then sequence the key docks within and on the base. Despite his confession that on at least one occasion he forgot to reference it, it proved invaluable in co-ordinating the attempts. Girard’s radio was also connected to the audio track of freefall photographer Henny Wiggins, and the resulting audio/video is compelling viewing.
A seventy way base, with rows and rows of “whackers” chained to them has formed the model for recent world record attempts – and now, we were just making a bigger one.
The plan was brilliantly summarised late in the presentation:
1. Get on
2. Get out
3. Get in
4. Get a record
5. Land safely
6. Party til dawn
7. Go home
World Team does not put its best foot forward. No-one expects to build the record at the first attempt – although a good proportion of believers on World Team think it can and should be done. Instead, the best of the best of the best sit on the bench, waiting for injury, tardiness or poor form to provide them with an opportunity – often getting a two-minute description of their job prior to a 45 minute plane ride. Finding their new slot amongst the 400 with appropriate timing and precision is demanded. Forty of the Alpha team had over ten thousand skydives: to be an Alpha is to be amongst the elite: and they did their job.
As Girard said: “If we give everyone a second chance, will we build a record?”
And then, we went skydiving…
Natural fall rate earned me a slot on the outer edge of the base for the warmup jumps, where we dirt dived the first test of the combined technology – a one hundred and thirty something way. No choice but to put disbelief aside and get out and get on. Three jumps after that “warmup”, our “drill” dive was 220. Less than a week later, we put four hundred skydivers out of the planes on two occasions – no plans to complete the formation, but drills to ensure we all understood the plan.
The PA system gets a continual workout, and deadlines are met with casual professionalism. One exception – a base member, five minutes late to dirt dive a 178 way – redeems himself by shouting 177 beers at the end of the day. But it is the sound of the first Hercules spooling engine number one that raises the heartbeat and puts relaxation aside. The 415 players move to the concrete apron; five lineups for five planes, twenty rows of twenty skydivers in exit slots. As the Hercules pull up, tailgates gaping wide, we plug our ears and scramble for our cold, hard steel seat for the ride to height.
Depending on the wind direction, it can take ten minutes to taxi. The Hercules take off sequentially, and become a precise echelon: the Thai Air Force has a job to do, flying tight formation for the next hour and keeping us close enough to do our job whilst their propellers whirl raggedly in the thin air. This has not been done before; not at this height, this formation, this many skydivers.
In the belly of the beasts, we wait; noise and helmets keeping communication non-verbal at best. Those with radio helmets – five per plane – enjoy the odd giggle as the system remains in test all the way to height. The solitude, amongst the usually gregarious crowd, helps us focus – and heartrates rest until the tailgates open once more, in formation, at height and twenty five kilometers from the spot.
The skydives themselves were fabulous. Two minute freefalls, outstanding performance pressure, an ocean of suits and the edginess that comes from being where no team has been before. Slowly, the dives got better and better as everyone got used to finding their place in the sky before they got to their grips; the video reviews changing from a swarm to a cohesive mass that shrank to the correct size.
There comes a point in every project when the job needs to be done. On February 8, it felt like everyone woke up and said to themselves “Crap! We’ve only got a couple of days left! We’re missing valuable party time!”. With that in everyone’s minds, and without deviating from the usual routine, World Team 2006 attended the airport that day and smashed the existing Guinness World Record three times. 370 skydivers in formation on load one, 399 on load 2 – with the 400th grip coming as the first pilot chute reached bridle stretch – and then, despite a slightly lower exit height, the magical FAI Record of 400: held officially for 4.25 seconds.
The party which followed the judge’s announcement lasted roughly three days, hangovers barely clearing before we joined every other skydiver in Thailand for a safe and fun 960 way mass drop over Bangkok’s new and unpronounceable international airport, Suvarnabhumi.
In the end, the plan was good. The formation remained structurally unchanged, there were no collisions under canopy, and whilst there were a disproportionate number of injuries – shoulders from exits, turned ankles, and one broken pelvis from a power line collision – everyone came home.
We turned one point, and claimed two world records. Cool.
Amongst the magical numbers, there’s substantial interest in a 420 way, but no-one really knows yet. The technology in the formation can be extended, but there are other issues. Without bailout oxygen – and the substantially increased risk of fire as a result – formation loads can’t go much higher. With square canopies, breakoff can’t be much lower. More, smaller aircraft would get everyone out of the plane quicker – but increase the risk of aircraft trouble preventing a full attempt. Statistically, it is hard to make it safer. And it would be difficult indeed to surpass the efforts of the organising team and their legion of assistants.
But there remains a lot of room for the skydivers to get better;
and this record will, in due course, fall like all those before it…
“To say that World Team is an experience, would be an understatement, but it’s not until some time after the event that you get to appreciate it for what it is. In the midst of extreme length of time spent waiting around aimlessly on the ground, you do get to hang out with some cool people and experience things that some folks only dream to….”
“A truly amazing and unique experience in many ways – A Dream come true!”
“What the !@#$ was I thinking”
Ian “Igor” Flack
The 400way World Record is without doubt a highlight in my skydiving carreer.World Team ’06 conglomerated in Thailand to build a 400way, however the World Team is by far & away much larger than those people flying in formation. World Team is the greatest gathering of incredible individuals (from staff, skydivers, airforce, camera crew, volunteers, supporting people, the list goes on…..) all with brilliant attitudes & a constantly wonderful smile, all together in the same place, at the same time. The team spirit & camaraderie was second to none! The 400way World Record was (but) one fantastic part of World Team ’06 & I thank everyone involved in the whole incredible adventure.
Grant and Julie Nichol
For Grant and I, this was our 5th World Team, and once again it was an unforgettable experience. Catching up with old friends, making new, and combining the talents of skydivers from 30 different countries. All considered, it was pretty amazing that we made the World Record in so few jumps. The opportunity to jump out of 5 x C130 Hercules in formation could well have been a “once in a lifetime experience”. It was made possible by the Royal Thai Airforce, who allowed us to take skydiving to another level.
Jon McWilliam, Dave Loncasty, Sas DiSciascio, Geoffro Abrahams and Terry Murphy also represented Australia at World Team 2006 but have seemingly lost the ability to write.
“Comfort Eagle” (Cake)
“She says, do you believe
In the one true edge
By fastening your safety belts
And stepping towards the ledge…
“We are building a religion
We are building it bigger
We are widening the corridors
And adding more lanes…
“We are building a religion
A limited edition…
Sidebar: the ’00 jumps
The first 100 way 1986
The 200 way 1992
300 took some getting; 2003
In 2006, 552 skydivers, officials and support staff combined to build a 400way
49 people have been on five World Teams; a small handful have been on the 100, 200, 300 and 400 way records.
Sidebar: Statistically speaking
441 skydiver registered
15 camera fliers
3 documentary team
21 support staff
71 accompanying persons
9,310 years in the sport
20 years in sport average (44 max, 3 least)
2,222,850 jumps between us
4,800 jump average