A Male Pilot in Unknown Territory — The Story of the Women's World Formation Freefall Record by a Hopeless Male Pilot
Click the photos in this story for larger versions.
Each large image will open in a new window/tab.
I have always been told if you want to do things with a lot of women you should choose equestrian events instead of aviation. Now, I have found an alternative: women's "big dive" parachute record attempts!
Jump For The Cause (JFTC) just set a record on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, for the largest female-only formation parachute jump of 181 women. The previous record was 150 women about three years ago for the same breast cancer research cause. This year's event raised just under a million dollars, almost twice the previous JFTC record-breaking formation total.
I was invited by one of the men who support the women for the jump. My official designation was "BIT" which means "b ... in training" where men who had supported the women in previous record attempts had earned their full "B" status. (If you need to know what the "B" stands for, please stop reading this article). There were actually more than 100 support males including freefall cameramen, jump plane pilots, and me. I am still not sure how I fit in but the story follows.
For fellow pilots like me who have never jumped out of an airplane nor know the pilot chute from the reserve, let me describe the scene — controlled chaos! There are about 200 women of all ages and nationalities (over 30 countries were represented), about 150 men, kids, disabled veterans, and a lot of people with piercing and tattoos, and of course, "Lamb Chop" (more on Lamb Chop later). All of these creatures are in the middle of a California desert at an airport called Perris Valley, which has more twin turbine Otters than I have ever seen in one place (eight) plus a Shorts and a couple of other smaller turbine aircraft (a Porter and a PAC) used for various people who just decide they wanted to do their first tandem that day.
The schedule is actually unmerciful. Although official training does not start till Monday, many of the women come in early for individual practice jumps. The women participants are chosen after having qualified in regional jumps or in previous world records. Preparations by the administrative staff have literally been going on for years.
To accomplish a world record, the formation is determined in advance both in color and geometry and must be met in the air exactly. The women are assigned to specific groups in weird names ranging from Wackers to Stadium. These names also have specific plane designations. I was the BIT for a woman in Wacker B. When the record week starts, the women jump from nine aircraft essentially simultaneously and form up on the central group (the Stadium). This is accomplished by color and geometry but the first three days of four or five jumps a day, they are not allowed to touch. "Touching" is granted as the formation becomes more precise. This formation occurs in less than 60 seconds of free fall from altitudes ranging from 16,500 AGL to about 18,000 AGL. (And I always thought Bertorelli meant something else when he said he was a "60 second man.")
Watching the women take off in the nine aircraft, I immediate turned my head skyward looking for the jump. That just proved my "dork" status since it takes about 45 minutes for the planes to climb and get in to a tight chevron formation. By the time they are overhead for the jump, the women are on oxygen and I had a stiff neck. I later learned you wait for someone who knows what they are doing to start looking up. In spite of the stiff neck, I missed the free fall completely.
Seeing nine aircraft, eight Otters lead by a Shorts, in a near perfect chevron is a sight in itself. These pilots really know how to fly heavy aircraft in the thermal-occupied desert. A command is given to the jumpers to get in position, which means that three or four jumpers hang on the outside of the aircraft door, including a cameraman, and the rest crowd the opening for a near-simultaneous evacuation of the aircraft on a second command.
You really have to know when the jump will occur and then look for the flashing of sunlight off the face masks of the jumper's helmets. It also helps to be lying on the ground looking up with a telephone lens. I got the knack of it after the second or third jump.
During my novice observation, the first thing I saw was the canopies opening and hearing the "fireworks" — the sound of all the canopies opening, which reaches the ear well after the visual image of 181-plus colorful canopies. Once everyone has landed, and they land all over the place, there is a check in to make sure everyone has shown up. Then drinking lots of water followed by parachute repacking by the women or a horde of professional packers, and a few minutes of rest. While this is going on, the team leaders are looking at the six or so videos taken by some amazing guys who free fall around the formations with an amazing array of both still and video cameras on their heads. Their positioning for the shots is absolutely amazing but the shock of the chute opening with that kind of weight on your head must be a chiropractor's gold mine.
Once the team leaders break up, each plane group views the videos in cramped rooms to judge individual and group performance. Not only is this for improvement, but if the videos show that someone is just not making the grade, they are replaced in the formation by a member of the K plane — the backup women. This happens not only for folks who could be dangerous but those who just are not doing their job. There are no apologies when replacements occur — you're in and you're out. Ouch!
Then the women gather under a shelter for a pep talk and then on to an open area under the hot (did I mention over 100 degrees hot) sun for formation practice. This is where I learned that not only do the women have to gather in a formation, but they have to leave the formation in a defined pattern to prevent collisions. Canopy opening is also at different altitudes for group safety. Landing zones are designated for each section as well.
When the record was set, it was approximately the twentieth jump of the week in the hot desert and the celebration began. Since many of the participants were breast cancer survivors or daughters of breast cancers victims, the record had dual meaning. All women carried the name of a breast cancer victim on their parachute rig.
One of the main organizers of the event is Mallory Lewis, the daughter of Shari Lewis of Lamb Chop fame. Shari died of complications of uterine cancer and Mallory has taken on performance with Lamb Chop. Lamb Chop made several jumps during the weeklong event but seemed unfazed.
Donations can still be made to the cause in memory of cancer victims, in honor of cancer survivors, and to honor participants in the event at JumpForTheCause.com.