Pilot in Command – Take Control!
Flying a parachute confidently is far safer than being timid...
About 5 years ago I saw Amy Chmelecki in a video clip talking about women in the sport and it gave me a clear goal to aspire to. I wanted to be like her. I realised that to achieve this level of success in the sport I would have to increase my skills to a much higher level and it seemed that the tunnel would help me towards this. A year later I got a job working for Airkix wind tunnel and started along this path at the beginning of 2010. Some friends were going to the Women’s World Record in November 2010 and they encouraged me to also attend. However, it was clear when I arrived that I still had a lot of work to do. Additionally, I was also vulnerable emotionally due to a recent bereavement. I put it down to experience ,with the understanding that this goal would be harder to achieve than I originally thought, and also realising that perhaps it wasn't the most important thing at that time.
For the next 2+ years I worked a full time job plus a part time job at Airkix whilst also organising tunnel events and attending skydiving events too, for the experience of big-way. It has been extremely hard work meaning many sacrifices but I was determined to never give up. This year everything finally started to fall into place and I have been coming to terms with my grief. But still whilst my skill level has been rising sometimes beyond my own belief, there has still been a demon in my head telling me I'm not good enough and never will be.
So, I arrived in Arizona, finally feeling ready to take on what might come, hopeful for a chance to prove myself but still with some doubts over whether I was good enough. On day one of the warm up camp we were doing 30-40+ ways which was no surprise considering the aim of a 60+way record. Already there were over 70 women on the drop zone ready to train. We were split into 2 groups. The organisation of these jumps was exceptional. We were asked to gather outside as already we had been allocated to specific slots. I was shocked to hear my name called out so quickly and find I had been allocated to a right hand first stinger slot on the base. The difference here is that I had never got chance to fly a slot like this before on a big formation as the top slots were generally given to men. The only time I'd done a first stinger slot docking on base before this event was on an 8-10 way! The jumps went well and I was excited about what the next days would bring.
There were yoga sessions being run every morning before the record attempts at 6.30am. I went every day. The first one was quite emotional for me as I felt unsure what would happen that day following on from making some mistakes the day before. What I did know is that I would do my best with whatever hand I was dealt and the yoga helped me prepare. When we went for the briefing there were 96 women from 18 nations! I felt unbelievable relief when my name was called out. We went outside to dirtdive and then I found I was in a left hand first stinger slot. Um. We were asked to rate our slot preferences on a scale of 1 (strongest) to 5 (weakest) before coming. Left hand first stinger was my number 5! I had explained on the form that I had put left hand stinger as number 5 on the basis that I had never done it. On the third jump of day 1, I got my first chance to dock (I was in the outside section so there were 2 pods to build before I could dock) and indeed I did not hesitate, I took it. On the next jump our whole sector built fully with plenty of time until break off. We were the only sector to complete on day one.
Day 2 of the attempt was by far the most enjoyable day of the whole trip for me. On arrival, it was announced that we were going bigger and doing 69 ways. It was amazing how the organisers went to great effort to try get as many girls as they could on the record attempts. They also took special care to ask if anyone felt uncomfortable in their slots/ wanted to change for any reason. At this point I had the opportunity to change my left hand 1 st stinger slot but I said no to the change not wanting to jinx the sector. We did 5 jumps that day and on 3 of the jumps again our sector was fully built. This gave me the chance to really soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the experience. But it seemed that we were going to need another day to get the record.
It felt like the pressure was definitely on and there was no room for error. I was confident that I could fly the slot but starting to get mentally tired with the repetition. A few niggles started to set in and on the first jump that day I did in my view my weakest performance by rushing my dock. This meant that I pushed a little into the pod and possibly caused the wave through the pod. We still built but it felt 'exciting' in there. On landing our section was called to conference room for a motivational chat. We talked about how the jump went watching the video and, despite the video view looking quite turbulent, we were praised for our strength on keeping it together and advised to simply relax a bit and that we can do it. So then it was attempt 11 and it was heartbreakingly close. For the past 5 jumps I had thought we might have got a record so was starting to get frustrated. It was landing after jump 11 when I think most people had hit a low. People were getting tired of flying to 18,500 feet. It was cold and we had started earlier that day to ensure getting a record. But still on the twelfth attempt, I was amazed at the support from the spectators and the girls on the bench. It lifted us up and kept us going. Whilst briefing the last jump, Amy gave such an inspirational talk reminding us all why we were here. She said we are here because we are strong women who don't give up easily.
So off we went again. There was definitely something different on this jump that I did not feel on the others. I could actually feel that the formation was built. For the first time out of all the attempts it felt like our sector was actually flying; despite building so frequently on previous jumps there was always some tension in the grips. Looking across into the centre, it looked like everyone was there and I could see faces smiling. The formation was like a silhouette against the sky. I have never seen anything so beautiful. On landing, one of the girls said 'did you feel that?' It seemed all the girls I spoke to had felt the same experience of us flying as one unit. Of course we could not be sure until we had the judge's verdict but even the cheering from the spectators on the walk back to DZ increased the feeling that we had it. The atmosphere was very different on the ground on this jump compared to the previous one. We waited awhile with anticipation and eventually Anna Moxnes came out with an update. She told us that they were just waiting on the third judge to confirm record, which was taking longer due to the judge being remote. With this news we were pretty sure that the news would be good.
Reflecting back on actually watching the video from the record jump and hearing the official announcement from one of the judges that it was a World Record, followed by the cheers, hugs and tears gives me goosebumps. During the event it was hard to keep track of the changes on other parts of the formation as they were done so carefully and sensitively. It was only on looking at the final photo of the 63-way record that we realised that we were the only sector to keep the same flyers throughout and not lose anyone under the pressure. I feel as a sector we bonded and supported each other positively through the jumps, which made us a strong team of flyers.
The 63-Way Women's Vertical World Record was set on 11/30/2013 at Skydive Arizona in Eloy, AZ.
Video and Photo: NiklasDaniel.com
Music: Celldweller - Senorita Bonita
It's hard to describe how much this means to me. To achieve this with so many inspirational women from all over the world really is a dream come true. But the truth is, we made this happen. I am firm in my belief that women are sometimes held back in this sport. My observation (right or wrong - I'm sure some will disagree but this is just what I have observed) of previous records is that they are male-dominated, and a high percentage of the flyers on the bench tend to be women. For me, this women-only event was about having the opportunity to shine on a level playing field and become what I am fully capable of. Because of my experience of attending a previous record where I was not given a chance, I almost did not come to the Women’s World Record attempts. It was only with the kind words of Amy promising it would be different that encouraged me. I was never guaranteed a slot on the women's record; like everyone else I had to earn my place. I am very grateful for being given that chance. I’d like to say big thanks to Anna Moxnes [Howerski] and Domi Kiger for encouraging and representing the European girls. And thank you so much to Amy Chmelecki, Sara Curtis and Melissa Nelson for providing the leadership and inspiration to women across the globe to really kick ass!
“One of the things I love most about shooting our sport is that I get to experience various disciplines; Wingsuit, Canopy formation, Belly Flying, Freeflying, etc. As I move from one to the other, I notice each one is made of a specific breed of skydiver. Vertical formations is a unique type, especially when it comes to the all-ladies jumps. It’s an odd combination of cute, sensitive and adorable beings combined with a bad-ass 180mph hair-on-fire kind of attitude. I find this extremely cool and attractive, especially when they break a record as planned and it all turns out well :)
“It was a privilege to share the sky with such talented ladies who got the job done, though perseverance and a positive attitude. Who would not want to share the sky with that? One of the most exciting things about this sort of event is the awesomeness they all have to be as a unit and how contagious this is, especially when you become part of the unit! This is when great photography is made as it all starts with a positive unique energy as a subject, which I must capture somehow in my images, because to me it is more than geometric shapes that make a great picture. I hope I did a good job at this as this is what I live for, the capturing of this awesomeness we all are when we fly all as one unit. Thank you ladies for including me in this special opportunity.“
Norman Kent, Photographer
More beautiful images at: Norman Kent Gallery
Women's world head down record 63-way, 2013. Edit by Emma Merritt
“It was only 3 years ago I attended the last women's record as a beginner at bigway flying, I got a slot on the outside and managed to keep under the radar not to get noticed and cut! It was a huge experience for me that opened so may doors, not least it was the first time I really believed in myself as a capable flyer who could perform under pressure. Having all this so fresh in my memory really helped me relate to others during this year's event!
“3 years on and we are back at Skydive Arizona and this time I'm part of the organising team! My teammate Amy Chmelecki is the main organiser, has been running this event for the last 10 years plus she has 11 world records under her belt! I learnt so much from working with Amy, Domi, Sara Curtis and Melissa Lowe (formally Nelson) these women are powerhouses of our sport and I felt very lucky to be under their wings! The women's record really is like no other I have been part of, it's incredibly well organised and it's a great opportunity for those girls who usually stand at the back to get the chance to do bigways and build confidence.
“Ultimately, it was the girls who did not make the main record that left me speechless; despite their own personal battles the support that came from our bench was tremendous!! Always there to wave us off and cheer us on! We all know what 1 woman with determination can achieve; now take 96 and you are bound to experience some electric moments!
“Our goal was fulfilled with the help of an incredible team from the ground staff, bar staff, judges, manifest, pilots, packers, bench team, safety crew. I was astounded by the machine that is Skydive Arizona, we were doing back-to-back formation loads, running side-by-side with a 200-way! With all this support, we flew together, set a world record and forged bonds with amazing women from across the globe. At the last record I met my current teammates and made friends who later became some of the most important people in my life. Let's see where the magic dust from this record will fall! Congrats girls, you made us SO SO proud!“