Catching up with Ian Bobo

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Ian is a World Champion in 4-way FS and Canopy Piloting, a 2021 Hall of Fame inductee, Skydiver of the Year in 2005, and one of the founders of the PD Factory Team and Flight-1. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, his unassuming appearance and humble nature conceal the badass within

Ian Bobo at the Skydive Pretoria World Cup 2019
Photo by Riaan Bergh

Ian, you’ve got a unique competition history, being world champion in Canopy Piloting and 4-way FS at the same time (2005-2006). What does it take to achieve that?

I think one discipline contributed to the others. There was a three-year period in which they overlapped, where I was pushing hard in both disciplines. There was a lot of channel-switching and it was just a very busy, focused period. Fortunately, the stars aligned, so to speak, for the teams I was a part of. It worked out for me to be in both a team event [4-way FS] and an individual event [CP] concurrently. Surprisingly, my teammates on the PD Factory Team side very much contributed to my gold in CP, much like the dynamics of a 4-way FS team. Even though it was an individual victory, it was just one of many competitions in a long road where we were constantly pushing ourselves forward and I happened to finish on top at the World Cup at the same time I was doing the 4-way team with Shannon. The mindset of the two disciplines and the focus level that was there meant one contributed to the other. So, one set of skills transfers over on the mental side, that ability to push everything to the side and be totally in that moment. 

Deland Fire, FS 4-way World Champions 2006

How do you extend the super-focused period from 35 seconds in FS to – say, 3 minutes under canopy?

Even though it seems like a bigger performance window in CP than in FS, the vital thing is the ability to focus during that period, despite all the ground time and the distractions at the event. For one round of 4-way at the world meet versus one round of CP, you have a similar window of heightened focus if you think about the time frame. Your entire jump lasts longer under canopy, but the performance period while you’re in the pattern, while you’re setting up for your turn, it’s a very kind of hyper-focused state, you must be on your game for about a minute, which is very similar to FS. So, one set of skills transfers over on the mental side, that ability to push everything to the side and be totally in that moment.

Ian Bobo at Skydive Dubai swoop pond
Image by Tariq Al Shaiba

What kind of tools do you use to get yourself in that zone, in that über-focused stage?

With Canopy Piloting, for me, there was less visualization and methodology than in FS. I always felt like I performed better when I was literally flying on impulse. I know many CP competitors do a lot of visualization, but for me, Canopy Piloting is a mental exercise in blocking out distractions. Flying by of the seat of your pants, so to speak. If I got too deep in my head, that’s usually when I didn’t have the best performances. So, it’s kind of a ‘letting go’ for me on the CP side whereas that doesn’t work in FS. 4-way needs much more focus in the memorization, visualization, and putting myself in the dive beforehand. In fact, the World Meet in 2006, we only did five rounds in a whole week, so that was a pretty intense mental competition because you’d be sitting on the next dive for like 48 hours, often overnight. 

Ian BASE jumping at Lauterbrunnen

Ian, you’ve got over 40 BASE jumps and 10,000 swoops I believe. Risky stuff, what’s kept you alive?

I’m certainly a newbie in BASE and I haven’t really jumped a lot lately. But I’d say what has kept me alive was being surrounded by very experienced teammates. In the base-jumping world, Jay and JC – my BASE mentors, I guess you could say – were extremely experienced. They approached their BASE jumping with a calculated mindset; risks were assessed, and we didn’t do things that I didn’t feel good about or that they didn’t feel good about. 

Ian and his BASE mentors/friends Jonathan Tagle, Shannon Har-Noy Pilcher and JC Colclasure, at Gudvangen, Norway

In the swooping world, why am I still alive? That’s a loaded question. I think, ‘cuz I haven’t really had any major injuries in swooping. Of course, random turned ankles and twisted knees, I’ve certainly had my share of soft water crashes but nothing major. I would attribute that to a pretty conservative nature as far as a swooper goes. I have a calculated approach to everything, like a scientific set of checklists. I always build the approach and the landing as a summation of the parts. So, if things get out of whack in the progression of things, I mean in terms of the approach towards the ground, the rotation picture, and things like that, then I always throw a ‘red flag’ of caution in my head and ease off a bit. It’s a systematic approach to the swoop, trying to put some science behind it.

I remember talking to my Dad a lot about it. He’s not a jumper, he’s an über-conservative pilot and aerospace engineer. In the early phase I talked through what I was doing, and why, and how it worked. Trying to get an understanding of the whole process. I feel if you understand the way things work, you’re less likely to make mistakes. So maybe that’s the reason why I haven’t killed myself or suffered major injury.

Ian Bobo at Copenhagen Swoop Competition

As a ‘very conservative’ pilot, what drives you to do extreme swooping?

My career started with mostly canopy stuff. I had about a hundred jumps, I was grabbed by a local crew dog and mentor, Chris Gay, and thrown into a highly competitive CReW team, so I got very familiar with canopies. Like a lot of CReW dogs, I realized that under canopy you can get away with a lot more than you think you can. So, I adopted a lot of confidence under canopy early in my career. My first 1500 jumps were almost all CReW – and highly competitive at an international level. I was already in love with canopy flight and, once I saw people swooping, it seemed like a natural extension. I really liked the idea that in this chaotic-looking thing, diving at the ground, my mentors were showing amazing control at such high speed and making it look easy. So that was the draw. And I was at the right place, at the right time, in the development of canopies and their progression, and they were just getting better and better with me.

Ian Bobo doing what he loves
Photo by D Squared

Did you get some of your Dad’s engineering brain, genes that help you translate canopy flight?

Yeah, I think so. He was a big influence – even though he was not into skydiving for many years, until I started excelling. Then he kind of reluctantly agreed that it was impressive. But even then, he was not super happy about it, even though he knew that I was good at it and I was passionate about it. My Mum was much more into the heart of it, the soul. She is a dreamer, a go-for-your-dreams personality and my father is more logical, conservative. So, I am this interesting mishmash between the two, I think. Calculated but dreaming big.

PD Factory Team, over the Alps, 2010
Photo by Bruno Brokken

What made you start the PD Factory Team?

In the beginning, it was an FS team and for us it was a means to an end – which was, we wanted to be world champions in FS. PD came up with this concept, the ‘PD Factory Team’. We were the young, local Deland team, and they were behind the team and supporting us. Ian Bellis set the design in motion that Bushman Anderson kind of conceived years prior. He kept pushing for it inside PD and finally, they found the right combination, the right team members, and the right timing. The 4-way team ran its course, and the team broke up for personal reasons – not in a bad way, just life changes.

Shannon and I were sort of left over. At that time canopy swooping and blade running and early CP competitions were just starting, so it made sense to shift into a canopy team, as that’s what we were doing anyway. That was 2002, so we recently had our 20-year anniversary. Other industry teams had also formed, like Team Extreme, and other parachute manufacturers put squads together, to showcase their products. It was like the “Formula 1” circuit of the time.

Early days of PDFT

And the PD Factory Team is still going. No CP team has run for so long, nor had such amazing results. How do you achieve sustained success over two decades?

It’s a long-running legacy, for sure, much like Airspeed as a project. I would say why it’s been so successful was because of the support from PD and our sponsors in the industry backing the team over the years – financially, with equipment, and also with the vision of the members. They put a lot of trust in the team members to drive the ship. In terms of the passion behind the original founders, there wasn’t anything else like that going on – the personalities, the players, the brotherhood of like-minded people that wanted to push to new ground. To be on that wave was a real blessing. To find those people was like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re on this wave together! This is awesome! Let’s keep going.” And then, to spin that energy into a continuance of new members.

It had a lot of moving parts for sure. It wasn’t easy. Loads of logistics to keep it moving but I think the people that we were surrounding ourselves with, is why it has continued. There was a lot of pride put into choosing new members; not just because they were bad-ass swoopers, but who they were as people, inspirational for their personal qualities as well as what they were doing in the sky. 

PDFT chasing waterfalls in Gudvangen

Flight-1 has very similar values, did it evolve from PDFT? 

Yeah, for sure, it was a direct evolution of the team into a company. It’s essentially based on the working collaborative energy of the original PD Factory Team. That recipe worked because everybody put egos aside and were interested in the success not only of themselves but also of the group. They were pushing themselves and pushing the group forward. Also the sharing of collaborative information and ideas is such a big lifeblood of Flight-1. It’s the culmination of information gathered, originally, by PDFT members, and then merging those with other educators… Scott Miller, Brian Vacher and their schools of thought…. and morphing those into a truly collaborative curriculum.

In this way we put something together that wasn’t just the ‘fireside chat’ method of learning or ‘ask the DZ hotshot’. It was a collective school of thought. Then, we combined that with people who were willing to work together well and proud of being a part of something bigger than themselves. Now, you’ve got a really awesome team. That’s what Flight-1 has been from the ‘get-go’. It still draws more like-minded people in, like a gravitational force where we keep attracting amazing individuals. I’m very proud of it and of all the people that have been my teammates, because it’s definitely the power of many. The ‘Flying Better Together’ concept, our Flight-1 mantra, is right on point in terms of the ‘why’ behind our institution, the ‘why’ behind our team.

PD Factory Team 2019 – Mario Fattoruso, Justin Price, Pablo Hernandez, Armando Fattoruso and Ian Bobo, photo by Mark Norman. PDFT 2023 is the above plus Travis Mills and Jesse Weyher. They are all Flight-1 coaches

You’ve got some new Flight-1 technologies, can you tell us about them?

Our brand and reputation in the industry has gotten strong enough that some inventors have approached us. People with ideas and tools that are being implemented into the skydiving world are, I believe, going to create a paradigm shift in our learning opportunities 

It’s super-exciting. On the military side we’ve been working with a parachute landing device, believe it or not. We’re calling it the PLA, Parachute Landing Assistant. It’s basically a laser box, LIDAR specifically, that you wear on your hip that measures the altitude at a very high rate of accuracy and provides an audible alarm for jumpers to trigger the first and second stages of their flare. Effectively ‘training wheels’ for learning to flare your canopy. It has great applications on the student side, and for the military, you can imagine night jumps coming in with night-vision goggles for example. We have been testing it in the military realm for about four years and have over 14,000 jumps on the system. It’s just remarkable the safety results we’re seeing in terms of reduction in injury and how quickly people are learning. The PLA helps jumpers develop the correct sight pictures safely and then we take away the device for subsequent jumps. Our training methodology is NOT to create a dependency on the system. 

Flocking with Flight-1

Why do you think the PLA is so important?

Despite major improvements in canopy education, there hasn’t really been any advancement in the way people are taught to how to land their parachutes, flaring-wise. It’s basically the school of hard knocks. You put the guy on the radio, tell him when to start the flare, then hope for the best. Eventually, they get a couple of good flares, develop their own pictures, and then you take the radio away and think, ‘Good luck for the rest of your career’. Some people figure it out and hopefully, don’t get injured during that ‘working-it-out’ period. But a fair amount of jumpers do get hurt early on. So, we’re excited about the roll-out of this product on the sport side. It’s been integrated into our Flight-1 educational process and hopefully, will also be a big teaching aid for schools around the world. Helping to make people better, safer canopy pilots – but with less effort and less risk. 

Ian Bobo in 2022, photo by Michael McGowan

What else could we do to make the sport safer?

Our process with Flight-1 is to try to get people early in their jumping career, ideally student status, where they’re just learning basic principles. If we can increase canopy knowledge at that level, it has a huge effect. We are seeing a learning curve that is just so much steeper with regard to all aspects of the sport. Much greater awareness, and confidence. That’s mirrored on the military side. We are able to influence skydivers at a very low jump number, from the beginning. 

On the sport side, there is still this kind of ‘fire-hose’ learning. Jumpers get their A license and then they can be left to their own devices, at least in some countries. There is still a lag in the idea of continuing education as a ‘must’ in this sport and that’s what our whole curriculum is based on. It’s like, get them early, produce a culture of learning, and then you have safety built into their jumping careers. So that’s what I would say we could do better, is enforce continuing education in the sport. And I know a lot of countries do a great job at that.

Ian by Victor Fernandez

Anything you would like to add, Ian?

That I’m excited about the future. What always drove me into sports is new horizons. If I get bored, then I switch to something else, change gears. I like to progress, move forward and not stay static. It’s one of the things about skydiving that’s so amazing. There are so many different avenues that you can put your attention towards, be a student again, and figure it out. Try to create a better way with each other, moving forward. That’s kind of my jam.

Technology in Canopy Training

Ian Bobo’s presentation at PIA Symposium 2023, talking about the evolution of technology in canopy education


Find out more about Ian on the Flight-1 website here

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