Marie Kondo, I’ve got this. Ms. Kondo, you’ll surely know, is the queen of the organized lifestyle, urging us all to tidy up our lives and rid ourselves of things that don’t spark joy. I’ve got so much clutter in my life that I’ve inverted the solution. I’m concentrating on things that do spark joy and saving the junk for later.
One of these is an ultramarine blue skydiving suit with a cool World Team patch and a unit icon from the Royal Thai Air Force. It’s what we in skydiving call a slow suit; it has a toothy fabric to increase drag and the equivalent of brakes with “swoop cords” that wrap around the thumb and inflate fillets under the armpits for that extra bit of slow fall. They sort of work.
At least they worked well enough to keep me from sinking out of the massive world record skydiving formations built by the World Team over Udon Thani, Thailand 15 years ago this week. It culminated in the world’s largest skydive—400 people—on Feb. 8, 2006, a record that still stands today. I was invited to be on the support team for that record and we’re republishing a report I wrote on it shortly after the fact when I returned to the U.S. (Here’s the complete video.) I didn’t make it on the final record dive but just being part of it remains to this day the experience of a lifetime.
A decade and half later, it seems like a dream, not so much for the actual doing of it, but that it could have been done at all. And not so much for the skydiving skills, for everyone involved knew that part was, if not a given, a good bet. What stands out is the organizational achievement and the willingness of the entire country of Thailand to support it, not the least of which was devoting half of its transport air force to the task.
In retrospect, this impresses me more than anything else and the credit goes to skydive impresario BJ Worth and his wife Bobbie. You might not know his name, but you’ve seen his skydiving-related stunt work in many movies and sports events. In the years leading up to the record, the Worths organized big-way attempts in Russia and Thailand. The experience gained was instrumental in the 400-way record, the logistics and organization of which offered infinite probability of crushing chaos. Yet the reverse proved true. Despite minor glitches, the event marched smartly to the record goal and it came sooner than most of us expected.
The World Team—composed of the most skilled large-formation skydivers in the world—had jumped in Thailand in 2004 so those team members had an expectation of how warmly the country would receive us. For us newbies, it was startling. We assembled in Bangkok and many of us were flown to Udon Thani—300 miles north on the Lao border—on then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s official airplane. Yeah, the equivalent of Air Force One. We were feted with parades, parties and dinners and sometimes swarmed by enthusiastic kids on the streets and at the airport.
The available lift was simply astonishing. On my first C-130 jump, with 80 others, I trotted to the left trail ship through gusts of hot kerosene exhaust. For the workups, we started with jumps at 20,000 feet before eventually exiting as high as nearly 26,000 feet. I think that gave us 70 seconds of working time because with that many people, the breakoffs began at 7500 feet.
Prior to 2006, the RTAF’s protocol didn’t include formation flying in C-130s. They had to train up for that and allowed each crew only one sortie per day. We went through 25 crews on one day, when five jumps were completed.
Some vivid impressions: I was on the first exit row right on the ramp. When it opened, the slipstream screeching across the elevator was visceral. I remember thinking, “I’m gonna step backward into that?” I had been warned about “the leg thing.” On the extreme edge of the ramp, where I was, letting a leg drift into the wind would peel you off the airplane like a fly blasted with a blow dryer.
We were exiting at 190 knots true. At that speed, the air is cold and hard and if you don’t mind your business, going momentarily unstable can—and did—cause injury-inducing collisions, although far fewer than in previous events. For people diving off the ramp, clasping the hands together with arms tucked in helped avoid this.
Including the photography team, there were 80-ish skydivers aboard every C-130. Yet on at least two of the workup dives, I exited, got my bearings and saw hardly anyone around me. It was quite disorienting. The core of the formation and the point I was supposed to dock on was a tiny speck far below me. It looked like 2000 feet but was probably 300.
To give the formation a flower-like aesthetic, the sectors were composed of skydivers in red, white and blue suits. And it was pretty. But to find your spot on that long, screeching dive, you first had to find the right blue sector—there were four—then your slot in a field of like-colored suits. Unique tape markings on helmets helped, but for me, this was the most stressful part of a high-altitude skydive of this size. That I found the right slot every time surprises me to this day.
Flying with that many other people around is challenging because of the risk of collisions and, even if you avoided that, the air was so roiled with turbulence that just maintaining level could be difficult at times. A formation of that size is an aerodynamic beast and as it shifted and shimmied, pressure on the hands and arms was enough to loosen the seams on jumpsuit grips.
Following the 2006 completion, I asked BJ Worth if he thought the record could be bettered. He said never say never and when I asked him this week, he said, “I’m sure the record could be broken again, but it would likely require so many of the same things that made this one happen: A solid design, several years of prep events, an incredible team roster, a seasoned cadre of seasoned team captains who put team above self, a host nation that opens up many of its assets to support the effort over multiple events, super team of free fall photographers who never miss the shot, a venue at sea level with great weather, etc. … But, yes, it could be done again, and just may.”
I’m not so sure myself. It’s a different world now, especially in Thailand where civil unrest makes the kind of national unity that made this event possible less imaginable than it was then. The alluring cardinal number is 500, of course. It’s hard to imagine doing this without borrowing someone’s air force with six or seven C-130s.
Still, nothing is static; everything changes. Thailand is more than a little competitive about this and sometimes an optimist with a plan can make what seems impossible, possible, and what looks difficult more doable than anyone thought. If it does happen, it will be just like the 2006 record was; a hell of a thing.