On the Sunday we split into two groups of about 42. Both groups tried two different skydives, one of them around an in-out base, the other around a reverse hope diamond. All involved a lot of outfacing.
The problems we had with these formation were exactly the same as the issues we were to encounter the next day - that with a large number of people outfacing, the tendency is to back into the center of the formation. It’s a hard thing to stop once it happens, so the focus was on making sure the outfacers were far enough away from the center so that the catchers had to reach out for the grips. It’s a skill that only comes naturally after a thousand jumps as Point – The tendency is to be too close.
Monday brought the formation from hell. Okay we didn’t come to the Arizona Doddle but when I looked at the formation I felt all John McEnroe – “You cannot be serious!” The 16-way base was extremely hard even to build, never mind to fly when people started outfacing on it. It wasn’t so much that 12 people were facing out, it was that it didn’t have any structure, so would not withstand the slightest suggestion of momentum. Around this impracticality were four massive outfacing diamonds, joined with in-out loops. Altogether there were only 16 people facing in out of 84.
The previous day we had worked all day to (almost) build two similar 42-ways, which were actually easier formations, since two of the four diamonds were infacing, and both bases had more structure. I believe that we could have built an 84-way version of these skydives, or at least given it a good go - but the chosen puzzle sadly proved way too ambitious for even this chosen group of skydivers.
This is roughly how my day went. Dive 1, feeling good, got out of the plane, into the stadium, watching the formation building while waiting for my slot to open up. A slightly over-enthusiastic outfacing maneuver and - BOOM! - ten people are flushed down the Gary Glitter, a waterfall of black jumpsuits atop lime green Bill Legard! Funnel-tastic! Ooorr, err! I look in horror at Kate, who smiles, rolls her eyes and – just one of the many reasons I love her so much – points both hands to the horizon … yes, time to get the hell outta Dodge. At times like this I’m happy to be a good tracker, bye bye carnage, hello empty sky!
A quicker approach this time as I’m dialled in… another jump, another funnel, another gaggle of black suits attacking lime green Bill… I look at Kate and we have the same idea, ‘let’s make a 2-way and touch something’ - big smiles and we still have fun, before making a sharp exit with our 2-way tracking team. Yes we’re supposed to be in the second wave of trackers but when there is 500 feet of vertical difference between the bodies, it can be safest to Foxtrot Oscar.
A few changes were made to slots and the outfacers were urged, once docked, to apply a very slight outward pressure to prevent the formation collapsing inwards – Thiago coached ‘Not so much legs-out as toes-out.
This time I’m almost expecting the funnel or at least it came as no surprise to see the black and green washing machine – have these guys been watching Kill Bill or what?! I feel immensely grateful that my body size means, in all probability, the funnel will happen before I have a chance to get involved. If I was Bill I would probably be a bit unchuffed ['peeved' for the non-Brits]. As it is I’m almost enjoying the spectacular show, it’s like the old boogie days in Zephyrhills when skydiving skills were way lower. This is the jump Kate and I share a Kiss Pass – before getting the hell outta Dodge - again!
The base is beefed up by adding more of Airspeed past, present and even future, in the form of Ari Perelman, who was in a strange situation, as the news he was the next recruit had not been officially released yet but he was still taking an active role with Airspeed in the Challenge. (By now most of us had cottoned on.)
Someone has ratted on us. Not that Kate and I are sneaking 2-ways in but that ’some people in the second tracking wave are leaving with the first wave’. So, like naughty kids we’re instructed to wait for the second wave. Another jump, another funnel, once again on top of Bill – who is doing a great job, it’s just he’s in the firing line. People started tracking away while Kate and I played rock, paper and scissors till 5,500 feet.
Only one jump to go … Improvements had been made but we still are a LONG way from completion. Airspeed announced a change in the formation, we keep the same open base but everyone else in the big diamonds is turned round to face in. This gets a round of applause. Funnels are ok but not every jump. This last skydive was a massive improvement, with most of the formation building. If we only had one more skydive!
This year the guys definitely bit off more than we could chew with the planned formation, and the skill level of those present. I know Airspeed wanted to build something different, as the last two years have been repeats of early challenges, with the 100-way jewel and 98-way cat diamond. Thomas said it was better to not complete a new formation than re-run an old one. I asked Airspeed member Niklas Hemlin,
“The gap was there because so many things have been done already. There are only so many formations to do before you start repeating ideas. Everything we’ve done since 2011 we had a format. We wanted to do something different, and we wanted to step it up to a new level. The skydive was a bit of a tall order. We created this formation, which was challenging for two different reasons – it had a very open center and also lots of people facing out. We took the difficulty up a level and we didn’t really know what to expect. We didn’t want it to be the ‘same-old, same-old’ I wanted to be bold and set the bar high. It was two challenges in one - there were so many unknowns that we decided just to try it. It’s always a balance - we want to challenge people but want a completion. This year we took a gamble.
“I was very happy with the first, second and third day. My groups did super well. Thomas and I gelled really well on the Sunday [with the 42-way group], we completed both the formations we wanted to do. I knew the last day was a tall order. It was a big learning experience. Short term of course it was a failure but in the long term was a success because we learned a lot from trying it. We learned about formations and the quality of people we need for this kind of jump. In hindsight we could maybe have looked at the roster and modified the formation accordingly, or changed it earlier in the day rather than waiting till the last jump to try a Plan B. We didn’t want to dumb it down as changing the plan can be a crowd killer.”
“Maybe in future we will have Formation A and Formation B, where A is an easier version of a similar skydive. If we build it, we move to Formation B.
“Also, the format of selection will change according to who we invite. There was a disconnection, as far as the quality of skydiver and the degree of difficulty. In future we need to be better at matching those up. Firstly, we need to make sure the people coming are good enough to do what is expected. Then, consider who is coming and based on that, adjust the difficulty level if needed. For example, I did a very complicated 18-way on Saturday, it had to be built in 3 stages, it needed good people not only with skills but with discipline, patience and who can make good decisions.
“We may also look at changing up the format of the jumps. To build harder formations we may change the Sunday to rehearse what we are doing on the Monday, so we have the base of the planned formation dialed in.”
So, Airspeed learned a lot of valuable lessons… For me I learned if you’re next to your bestie everything is okay! Thanks Kate! :)
Interview with Niklas Hemlin here and Ari Perelman here