Shannon Pilcher is a name known in our sport for many things; Founding member of the PD Factory Team, Co-Owner of Flight-1, 4-way world champion, prankster and one of the friendliest guys on the dropzone.
I spoke with Shannon about a year ago, but due to, um… life, haven’t had a chance to put it all down till recently. To make up for the lost time I caught up with him the other day to talk to him about his new project, website and podcast Choices…
How did you originally get involved in the sport?
Ian Bobo, another friend and myself started skydiving together. Ian started jumping in 1989 and a couple of years later he finally convinced me to start as well. They had an empty slot on their 4way team. I started jumping and at 26 jumps started training 4-way. My first 4-way jump, tevas, no booties, no helmet, big chest-mount altimeter and on a college team for Georgia Tech. We competed in collegiate for the next 3 years. We moved to DeLand in 1996 and I’ve been here since. This was truly the whole following the dream. We had a mission.
What was the mission?
It’s one thing to just follow your dreams and it’s another thing to have intention and purpose (this is all hindsight), but we had a mission which was to win the world championships. That group never did, but that was all we cared about for years. Eventually, Ian and I were able to win a World Championships with another team. My point is, there’s a grey area between having intent and having a purpose. As I’m trying to help other people get started or who want to pursue skydiving, I think of it as two paths. The path of, you’re pursuing it for accomplishment, competitively, in some sort of team or you’re pursuing it through staff, instructors, etc. For the second group I see the burnout more often. When you go that way, you’re jumping every day doing tandems, all day long and I think you lose some of the love. We were really lucky. We just pursued 4-way from the very beginning and that’s all we cared about.
When did that mission switch from 4-way to canopy?
It’s hard for me when people take so much credit for things that happen in their lives. We all work hard, but a lot of things fall into place. We had finished third in the world and we weren’t getting any further. The team was disbanding. Ian and I recognized that. We were the Performance Designs Factory Team as a 4-way team for three years. The writing was on the wall, it was time to be a canopy team for a canopy manufacturer. We found the other two and started doing that. Incidentally, a couple of years later; 2005, parallel to the factory team progression, Natasha Montgomery who was a young jumper, looking for people who could take the team to the top, hired Gary, myself and Ian. You can make things happen, but we weren’t out looking for a 4-way team, we were doing our thing with the factory team and then they came knocking and we loved 4-way still.
there’s a grey area between having intent and purpose
What’s something you wish you had known at 1000 jumps that would have helped your development in the sport?
Within the original PD Factory Team, we came to a collective feeling that between 600-1,000 jumps is the danger zone. I don’t know if that’s something that others subscribe to but as we’ve travelled around the world and become teachers in the sport, we’ve seen that. I don’t know if you know the 4 levels of mastery…
- 1. Unconscious incompetence
- 2. Conscious incompetence (so now you’re aware of what you don’t know)
- 3. Conscious Competence (that’s where you’re like ‘man I’m pretty good’ so that’s the danger zone)
- 4. Unconscious Competence – where you’re just intuitively good, you’ve made it your own.
I broke my femur when I had 600-700 jumps and I broke my back a year later with probably under a thousand jumps. I wish I had been aware of this phase (conscious competence) of being a bit of a danger zone when you start to become overconfident.
between 600-1,000 jumps is the danger zone
What was it like to work with Mike Truffer at Skydiving Magazine?
Awesome. He was a wiry, cynical, insightful and passionate man. After college, we came down to DeLand for Nationals in ’95. First round I break my femur. Three months later we move to DeLand. I hobbled down in crutches and interview with Mike Truffer and he gave me a job (I’m a graduating engineer, not a writer.) I worked there for four years. I would say that historically, that it’s probably one of the most reputable magazines in the sport and it was truly a news magazine. I want to say that it’s probably one of the most formative experiences that I’ve had as an adult. Mike taught me how to think objectively, how to realize that there are multiple ways to look at things and he helped me become a writer.
Best practical jokes of all time?
I just did one this morning! But the best ones that have been played on me, there have been too many! The house being painted pink… that was the Norwegians, I’d played a joke to deserve it. We were in Norway, swooping the golf course and on the drive back home I saw some nylon in the pasture. I hopped out, climbed a fence, ran out and got it and I found out it was a canopy. On the way back we learned that one of the Norwegians had had a cutaway. I conceived this plan to hide it and not tell them. That night at Extreme week in the big tent, they stopped the videos and said ‘this person has lost their canopy if you find it there’s a reward’ and about 100 feet from me I’m watching the Norwegians and I’m just kind of eyeballing them. He happens to glance over and I must have had guilt all over my face because he was pointing at me. Turns out they had stopped working and had been out looking for this canopy. It turned out to be a ruthless joke. That was part of what deserved the pink house… my girlfriend at the time and the team were co-conspirators, we all went wakeboarding. They made sure to keep me on the lake for 3 hours and 20 people painted the house. When we got home they were all hiding behind the trees. We pull into the driveway and I’m looking at a pink house. For a brief moment I was shocked, and then I just started laughing…
What have you gained from being part of the PD Factory Team?
The importance of authenticity, it’s about being real. It’s about the human element. For sure talent was important but we came to realize that the talent was only a small part of it. It’s the ability to give difficult feedback, I like to call it ruthless compassion.
What was it like to take a break from the team and go back to full-time school?
My accident was a life-changer in a million ways. It was a perfectly timed accident, as far as age, timing, everything. I really wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any younger. It happened at the end of 2010, the year before was my last year competing in 4-way. I was competing with the PD Factory Team. I was pushing hard. For me, things were full throttle with swooping. But in retrospect all of the achievements and experiences and things that maybe I had been shooting for since I was a young skydiver, those had all happened. Even if it hadn’t happened, at least I had been given the chance to try to push for it. I went back to school in 2013. I was working for Flight-1, doing 4-way coaching and a player-coach team. Going back to school was just perfect. My graduate degree was in organization development. People in the corporate world call it change management. The elevator pitch is helping organizations navigate change. The big beautiful thing about it is that as individuals we are resistant to change and as you add more people to that group, it becomes more difficult. Well, the same with groups. Groups have trouble with change. I think for a lot of full-time athletes of any kind at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, you start thinking,’I’d like to have some other arrows in my quiver’. In the last 20 years, I’ve learned that I want to learn to learn, not learn to earn and so I went back for something I wanted to do. Now I’m getting into speaking and a podcast. That graduate degree very indirectly informs me in those areas, and with 4-way coaching and Flight-1 with our clients. Because it’s people dynamics.
Can you talk us through your accident?
It was 2010 in Switzerland. We had brought on five new members to the PD Factory Team and wanted to expose them to mountain flying. There’s a steel cable that hauls materials up the mountain for farmers, we knew it was there. I was following Jay, we were on the same route we had flown five times before the week prior. The cable was more camouflaged now (the snow which has been on the ground, had really caused the cable to stand out in contrast to the backdrop beneath), that has been my internal excuse for the fact that we didn’t see the cable this time. What I’ve more recently really come to learn is that while the backdrop and the contrast are very true, the reality is that we deviated. We were so comfortable with that route that we deviated from the plan. At the end of the big mountain behind us Jay, and I come out of this final gorge and, instead of soaring out over the trees to make the landing area in the distance, we were so comfortable with the area that we hugged left and I flew right into the cable. Long story short, broke everything from the waist up. I learnt a lot of big lessons. I think the bigger life lesson for me is to not take things for granted. I mean the little things, like helping me to be present more all the time, to really appreciate things and maybe that’s age as well, but it coincides nicely with the accident and it just couldn’t happen at a better time. For sure it’s a miracle that I survived and to be here. But I think it’s also this tremendous gift to have had that experience. I would neither wish that on someone nor would I like that to happen to myself again. But I’m so grateful that I got to go through that because of the lens that gives me in life and I think that’s the big takeaway.
You’ve been on multiple teams and the PD Factory Team that’s been around since 2002, what’s your advice for teams on how to survive the distance?
There are lots of models, theories and tools that you can use to analyze a group and then help it work better. The irony is that group dynamics is almost the least important thing for a team to succeed. There’s a very simple model that I cling to with any group I work with, for the team to succeed, (not necessarily for it to sustain for a decade or to become some sort of dynasty) but for a team to achieve its goals. The model is called GRPI and I use it mostly because it’s simple. But it’s goals, roles, processes and interpersonal relations. For a team to succeed it needs most of the energy to be put towards goals and then roles, processes and then a small percent of effort and energy needs to be interpersonal relationships. I don’t subscribe to the fact you can just sweep those away and the team will succeed. They’re underpinning in a way. Without that, then I feel like the other stuff crumbles in my own mind. But I’ve seen that model work now. You have to have alignment on the big goals, but the nuances needed to be aligned as well. We all need to be working from the same sheet of music.
If you could look into your crystal ball, where do you see the development of our sport in five years?
There’s one recent surprise to me… for about 10 years there’s been constant conjecture over whether or not 4-way belly would survive. Angle flying has opened the gates to the full spectrum of experience levels. Young jumpers, very early jumpers by nature, would historically end up learning how to fly on their belly and might get hooked and stay there for a while. Now jumpers don’t need to go the belly route. But the recent US Nationals had to be one of the largest Nationals in history. 70 something 4-way teams. I think one big surprise for me is that 4-way is not going to die, and I love that.
What’s your favorite type of coaching at Flight-1?
I’ve really grown to appreciate clichés; ‘Variety is the spice of life’. It’s become an intentional thing now, to have a lot of things on my plate. Part of that is I love doing the sport/civilian courses, and those are usually weekend courses. It’s teaching, it’s working with groups and I love it. Then the military is usually Monday to Friday courses and it’s a whole different animal. It’s teaching the same stuff, but we’re flying with them. In fact, we do that in the sport as well. Except, most civilian jumpers don’t even realize what they’re missing. I like to quote Steve Jobs; “People don’t know what they want until you tell them”. The sport hasn’t seized 1:1 canopy coaching yet. Now we’ve grown to a place in the sport where canopy control, has become a very big thing. That’s why Flight-1 is successful. The message is out there, and people subscribe to the message about the safety of landing. However, I don’t think people have fully connected the value of learning to fly the parachute intuitively.
What’s one safety tip you find yourself sharing frequently with the community?
One that I find myself sharing a lot is to develop a greater awareness of the wind layers from exit to the ground. Because the wind’s magnitude and direction changes tremendously from altitude to ground. We now have more forms of skydiving covering more area in the sky. That means jumpers converging into the landing area from more directions. Greater awareness of the wind layers from top to bottom, not only helps us get back from varying opening positions, but it also helps us become more aware of other canopies.
Can you talk me through your new business?
My podcast, ‘CHOICES – Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives‘, launched November 1, 2018. Twenty-two years as a professional skydiving competitor and coach has taken me around the world dozens of times, exposing me to a wide range of people, cultures, beliefs and values. Time is arguably our most valuable commodity in life, yet many people all around us, everywhere, every day, are not being mindful with how they choose to spend their time. On top of that, the modern recipe for success – college, job, spouse, house, cars, kids, is happily ever after – is outdated. To survive in today’s world, and especially in the future, people will need to reinvent themselves again and again. My desire with CHOICES is to expose listeners to ordinary people who value time over money, experience over material acquisition and who are just trying to figure it out like you and me. My greatest hope is to inspire people to be more mindful with their choices so that they might find genuine fulfillment in their lives. My website, ShannonPilcher.com, is the hub of my personal brand. After finishing graduate studies in 2015, I began consulting with high-performing leadership teams at larger corporations. That has also led to more speaking opportunities. It simply made sense to create a place, not only to showcase my work and abilities but to elaborate on my Vision, Mission and Values.
You became a Dad recently and I was curious how this would affect your skydiving career or approach to the sport…
The fact is I’m going to be skydiving for a long time. I love it. It’s still a big part of my life. I’ve learned from my accident that I have new boundaries, new intentional boundaries with things I won’t do. Not because I’m scared to do them, but because in the moment when you’re doing something you cannot be thinking about whether or not you should be doing that. That’s a distraction that steals some of your focus. I’m curious to find out if being a dad is going to cause me to be more careful in those ways and therefore have to create even newer boundaries. However, I think given all that I’ve been through, and my experience level, I don’t see it having a big effect. I kind of know my boundaries right now and I’m really happy with them. In the past, looking back, I’m sure I was trying to fit an image and I’m not trying to do that anymore.
- Catching Up with Shannon Pilcher - 4th June 2019
- PD Factory Team Expands - 28th May 2019
- It’s a BULLSEYE! - 15th May 2019
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I love my job!