The World Record 400-way set in 2006 has stood unchallenged for 15 years!
We pay tribute to BJ Worth and his World Team with these articles written at the time, by Paul Bertorelli and Kate Cooper-Jensen…
Paul tells the first part…
What did it take to build this record? The resources of an entire air force, 300 tons of Jet-A, a trainload of oxygen bottles and the determined endurance of a marathon runner, to mention just a few things… When you’re trying to do that which hasn’t been done before — in this case, breaking the world record for the largest skydiving formation — expecting perfection on the third try borders on delusional. But as with any other sport, perfection that eludes the first attempt yields to practice, repetition and sheer gritty determination.
All of that was available in abundance in late January 2006, as 440 of the world’s best, large-formation skydivers — the fifth iteration of The World Team (WT) — converged in Udon Thani, Thailand, to better WT’s previous 357-way, set in Takhli, Thailand, in 2004. The Thai government and Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) had generously agreed to provide the aircraft and resources in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the rule of the country’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Why Do This?
Record jumps attract because they leaven the otherwise mundane with an exotic, competitive flavor. Not that there’s anything mundane about a 100-person formation, but skydives of that size happen four or five times a year and some skydivers find in them an unavoidable, plodding ordinariness. They are frequently hours of boredom in the hot sun, dirt-diving the same plan over and over, long climbs to altitude with a cannula stuck up your nose, punctuated by two or three adrenaline-filled minutes, followed by tedious video debriefs.
Skydivers are attracted to record dives for the very reason that the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the most or the first of everything is anything but ordinary. The ragged edge of the envelope, even in politics, is always more interesting than the safe middle. And in skydiving, anyone with skill, time and a reasonable amount of money has a shot. World Team 2006 is a slice of every walk of life, from mechanics, to doctors, to lawyers, to airline pilots to self-made entrepreneurs. In the esoteric world of skydiving, record dive opportunities happen often enough to loom momentarily large only to fade when the next attempt presents itself. There are state records, multiple-formation records, women’s records; the list is long. But World Team’s efforts, dating to 1994, have proven to be the records that matter because they attract only the very best in the sport and everyone realizes how difficult they are to achieve. It’s not so much that the skydiving is demanding, although it is, but that it requires the resources of a small air force to muster the lift and a staggering volume of behind-the-scenes organizational work requiring months of attention.
In the end, a large skydive attempt is just a team sport, like basketball, hockey or baseball. It just happens to be practiced at the extreme apogee of the possible by the largest sporting team ever assembled for a single purpose; and in order to succeed, every player must achieve near perfection. In the broad scheme of life on earth, 400 people falling through the same column of air for two minutes has little lasting significance outside the self-absorption of the sport itself. But what it takes to get them there, shape them into an effective team and coax 400 individual moving parts into one shining moment of perfect performance is a story as worthy as that of any Super Bowl team that ever took the field.
The Thai government — including the country’s royal family — are uniquely interested in skydiving. Even though the sport enjoys little commercial profile in Thailand, it’s woven into the country’s fabric. This is due in no small measure to the World Team’s visionary founder, longtime skydiver and organizer BJ Worth, his wife Bobbie, and Larry Henderson, whose contacts and knowledge of Thai culture through family missionary work in Asia have proven invaluable.
To the people of Thailand, this is very much a Thai record and they are distinctly honored to make it possible. While we were waiting for one of the first declared 400-way attempts to reach jump altitude, Air Marshal Bunchuay Supbornsug explained that for Thailand, the record represents a priceless opportunity to place Thailand’s culture and modern, forward-looking outlook squarely upon the world stage. He believes the payoff in prestige and future tourism will more than offset the investment. I found myself wondering why other countries with greater resources than Thailand don’t muster the same kind of philosophy to advance their own interests in creative ways, combining military assets with civilian activities.
The entire city of Udon Thani, which has about 95,000 inhabitants and is located 270 miles north of Bangkok near the Lao border, lent its enthusiastic support to World Team 2006. The RTAF Wing 23 Airbase was the perfect staging point for the five C-130s and large landing field we would need. If you flew during the Vietnam War or had a relative who did, you’ll remember Udon Thani as Udorn. As I walked the airbase’s long runways after my landings, I couldn’t help but think of the many US fighter pilots who flew their last missions out of this base. The ghosts of US presence are everywhere.
Who Does This?
This is by no means a young crowd. Some of these skydivers entered the sport in the 1960s and 1970s. The average age for this year’s World Team is 42; the oldest is 65, the youngest 20. These are among the most experienced skydivers in the world, with more than 30 countries represented and the average number of jumps at about 4,800, much of them in large formation attempts. One of the most remarkable aspects of this event is how determined some of its participants are. Nearly 150 of the World Team’s members are from the US, where it is relatively straightforward to stay current and trained in big-way skills. It’s not quite so easy for a skydiver from Japan or Finland or even Thailand, countries where the general aviation activity necessary to support skydiving is minimal or non-existent. Yet all of those countries are represented on World Team.
Although there are many professional skydivers on World Team, it’s composed primarily of talented weekend skydivers with a passion for the sport. All are here by invitation only, having passed review by a selection committee. I’m a last-minute addition to the team, occupying a bench slot along with 40 others, standing by in case of injury, illness or other calamities.
Even before we arrived in Thailand, the Royal Thai Air Force had been training in the delicate art of flying large transports in close formation at high altitude. For 400 skydivers, plus 15 camera flyers, the RTAF committed no fewer than five C-130s, a level of support few of us can conceive being possible anywhere but in Thailand. For contingencies, the RTAF positioned seven C-130s at Udorn, more than half of its available fleet. Moreover, because the RTAF allows its crews only one sortie per day when flying unpressurized above 18,000 feet, every Hercules crew in the air force had been assigned to the World Team effort. For their part, the RTAF pilots had bitten off a demanding task. Given the number of skydivers in this group and the size of the five-airplane formation, the sort of formation military pilots fly for tactical training drops wouldn’t work. It’s not so much that the formations had to be tight, although they did, but that they needed to be consistent.
As daunting as just holding a perfect five-ship aircraft formation is, consider this: as 80 or more fully equipped skydivers charge the ramp on exit, 17,000 pounds worth of payload shifts the C-of-G aft in about six or seven seconds. Think the pilots might notice that? Ever practical, the Thai’s clever solution to this was a couple of tons of bagged rice stacked against the forward cargo compartment bulkhead.
As the week progressed, RTAF pilots improved the aircraft formation incrementally, as the skydivers were refining their all-critical approaches. This is an especially remarkable achievement, given that they changed crews with each sortie and five-ship formations have no place in their routine mission profiles.
A big skydive like this needs 100 seconds, at least, of working time and the only way to get it is to climb to high altitude — very high altitude. We started workups from 20,000 feet and moved incrementally to 23,000, 24,000 and, eventually, 25,400 feet for the final two record dives. State and National Records skydives are from 17,000 – 20,000 feet and the aircraft flying them are fitted with oxygen systems best described as lash-ups. They work well enough at that altitude. Hypoxia-wise, there’s a yawning gap between 17,000 and 24,000 feet; it’s the difference between a little light-headedness and stone-cold stupid hypoxia.
In the RTAF C-130s, the oxygen system, devised by skydiver Dr Ben Massey, is both clever and effective. It has heavy-walled hose manifolds the length of the cargo bay attached with sliding, tie-wrap rings to the cables paratroopers use to anchor static lines.The hose has a series of pressure-reduction fittings into which each skydiver plugs a hose, either for a cannula or just to insert into a full-face skydiving helmet. As the skydivers shuffle to the ramp for exit, they slip the supply hose along the static line so they can remain on oxygen until the last second. The system is charged by three bottles of the size used for welding rigs, with a fourth in reserve. For every single, five-ship skydive, 15 industrial bottles of oxygen were consumed, along with about 5,000 gallons of Jet-A.
We are accustomed to exit speeds in the 80- to 90-knot indicated range, which — at 13,500 feet — works out to a TAS of perhaps 110 knots. At that speed, you clear the exit door, grab some air and start to skydive. At 24,000 feet, the air grabs you. The C-130s indicate between 125 and 130 knots, for a true of up to 190 knots or 218mph. Veteran Swedish skydiver Sven Mortberg, who has years of experience organizing skydiving events using the Swedish military’s C-130s, briefed us on the safest way to exit; hold the elbows tightly inboard with the hands crossed in front of the helmet visor, to protect the shoulders against the wrenching impact of another skydiver. Because of high-speed exits, dislocated shoulders are a common C-130 exit injury, but there were far fewer of them this year than in 2004.
There’s no question that C-130 exits are an attention-getter. At 190-knots, the air is cold and palpable — “brutal” is the world Mortberg used. To me, the get-outs felt more like cannon shots than exits, but in a second or less, you’re out of it and in clear air, surprisingly alone in a cold sky. Once in the air, the belly-to-earth fall rate is also much faster in the flight levels — probably approaching 200mph, versus 120mph in denser air. Long dives from the exit to the formation — 20 to 40 seconds in length, sometimes longer — probably yielded true airspeeds of over 250mph.
The skydiving formation designed for World Team 2006 is pretty, but pretty is only part of it. The entire formation is an enormous, biomimetic Frisbee whose aerodynamic characteristics can’t be modeled in the wind tunnel. The thing has to fly right, otherwise there’s no hope of building it.
The formation itself — a core 70 “blot” with arcing “whackers” attached — is specifically designed to fall and build fast but, more important, to self-stabilize. Whackers – named after the business-end of the weed-chopping machine – contribute to inherent stability because they damp variable fall-rate induced waves that stress large formations. Think of a large skydiving formation as a house of cards held together with a few critical grips; the aerodynamic forces involved are substantial.
We began the week with smaller formations, to give the whacker elements target practice in building those shapes. The formation sizes steadily increased through 112s, 220s, 360s and eventually the first 400-way attempt. The early work-up dives proved so chaotic at times that the casual observer might conclude that that this rabble would be lucky to nail 10 skydivers together, never mind 400. But it’s always that way with these things.
Practice yields results and by the fifth declared 400-way attempt, you could see the formation trying to break out of the noise, like a photograph in the developer tray. (Remember those?) On jump eight, all grips were taken in the formation! … but the last grip taken on the outside coincided with the first grip broken on the inside to signal the break-off at 7,500 feet… so, a kiss-your-sister second place 399-way.
Then something remarkable happened. In big-way skydiving, it’s common for jumps to regress in quality — one step forward and two steps back is something skydivers know all about. But not this team… two hours later, from 25,400 feet, it built the same, perfect 400-way and held it for 4.3 seconds; a new World Record.
Watching through binoculars from the ground, I realized I was looking at the best large-formation skydiving group ever assembled and perhaps one of the most remarkable, rapid, team-building efforts in any sport. Unlike in previous years, where the team struggled until the last possible opportunity to achieve the record, this team did it a day early and could have gone up and repeated the feat.
I wondered if organizer BJ Worth shared the view. ”I do, absolutely,” he told me after the event. “On the first jump of the day, dive seven, we proved to ourselves that we could do this. People got very focused, got in the zone and started to work together as a team in a way that’s very rare. I’ve never seen it before.” And to what did he attribute this? “I think a lot of this world record is psychological. At first a lot of people had a hard time believing we were really going to be able to do it, and then they saw that it was possible…”
Above article by Paul Bertorelli
We hand over to Kate Cooper-Jensen, who wrote the following summary of the atmosphere and excitement at the event…
The Adventures of Kate in Thailand
The last weeks have been arguably the most exciting, exhausting, joyous, confusing, terrifying and fulfilling of my life. I have had more experiences than one could dream to experience – or document – in a lifetime. From friendship to challenges to experiences to adventures to the greatest challenge I have ever met – and accepted. All in under two weeks. It takes my breath away.
I am now, with 399 other people and countless ground and support people – once again a World Record holder in large formation skydiving. In 2004 I watched the 357-way World Record being built – on the ground – standing beside my also-injured friend, Dieter Kirsch. It was an awe-inspiring moment. We opened beers and ironically toasted each other as the skies filled with multi-hued canopies. After the 400-way, our toast to each other was just as poignant, and just as heartfelt. No matter what they say – it’s better being on it than watching. Trust me. I’ve seen both sides.
My primary responsibility during this event was heading the Dive Review Team, fondly called DiRT. The team was comprised of Dan O’Brien (DOB), my long-time friend and co-conspirator in life, Solly Williams – South African Ex-pat and current 4 way World Champion, and Marco Arrigo – 4 and 8 way Italian competitor on the world level. I had known DOB and Solly for years, this was my first meeting with Marco. Marco fit in immediately to our tight group and his excellent eye helped us in evaluating the performance of the teams and sectors. Our job was not to evaluate individual performance, although at times that was impossible to avoid – but rather to see and define patterns of performance in and between sectors. On World Team 2006, unlike prior events, the Sector Captains did a great job policing the performance of individuals in their sectors and more often than not a changes had been made before we even returned from our lengthy reviews. That made our job a pleasure.
On 8 February, on the third jump of the day – the first time the team had made 3 jumps in a day – we set the new World Record. A 400-way held for 4.25 seconds, even legal by the ‘old’ rules of time hold [3 seconds]. This was our ninth true attempt at 400 and each dive had shown a remarkable improvement. This was due both to the knowledge gained by the participants and the effective leadership shown by each Sector Captain. An impressive and honorable showing indeed.
On the actual record dive I felt – KNEW – that we had a completion. Funny how that works. Even though the spot was a bit long I made the decision to work my canopy towards a landing in what we had started calling the “Demo” area – a long strip of grass near one of the entrances to the Air Force Base where literally hundreds of Udon Thani locals were allowed to watch. Upon landing you were surrounded by ten, twenty Thais pushing babies in your arms, asking you to pose for photos, and sign autographs. Not a bad day job. This dive was different because the energy of the people landing there – we KNEW we had done it – a scary feeling because how COULD we know? – 400 people – it’s impossible to know – right? But we did. And we kissed, and hugged, and held babies, and smiled, and cried. It was good.
The teams streamed to the edge of the runway and watched our fleet – Five C-130s – land and slowly – oh so slowly – and taxi past over 500 people screaming and waving. Khaki-clad arms waved back at us from the pilot’s windows far above and the flight crews smiled from the open ramps. They knew too. Everyone knew.
Beer appeared in everyone’s hands. The captains went up to our intolerably hot meeting room to wait for the judges’ final decisions – no matter how good the dive – no matter what the rumors – the judges needed to look at every grip to confirm it is complete and the total hold time before officially acknowledging the record.
The stories started coming out. What had seemed like a quiet dive was fraught with problems from the start. Our airplane – the lead Herc – had an oxygen hose breaking within one minute of exit. With poise and aplomb my Sector Captain – Rusty – reached over and replugged it in. Twice. No one else flinched… much. Breathe normally. At 25,000 feet we have about 10 seconds of functional consciousness without oxygen. The broken hose could have easily scrubbed the mission. But it didn’t.
In the base 20 a jumper took the wrong grip. Lise Nansen literally flew to him and whacked him until he realized he was in the wrong place and took his correct slot. Again – it could have been the end of the dive – but it wasn’t. In our sector a late diver had a horrible exit and was disoriented and dove to the wrong sector. In realizing his error and moving he went low on the formation. He didn’t give up. He got in. Another sector had fall rate issues which broke one of the outside lines apart. They rebuilt. The stories were shared, and we shook our heads in amazement. We had built the record in spite of this.
Finally Sherry [Schrimsher, Chief Judge] came in with the final announcement. It’s official; a complete 400-way, held for 4.25 seconds. Beer cans were shaken and sprayed out the window in a parody of the white smoke from the Vatican and the crowd literally went wild. They thought they were partying before. NOW the party started. Queen’s “We are the Champions” played as people danced, hugged and kissed friends and strangers alike. Carl had some bottle of booze that he had purchased locally. This one had two snakes in it – honest – TWO – one that appeared to be eating the other. Charming. I opted instead for the tequila – GOOD tequila – that had popped up. DOB comes up to me to give me a kiss – he transfers snake liquor into my mouth. What are friends for?! Foul stuff, I think it may have been formaldehyde. I spat it out and washed the taste away with more tequila. And beer.
I saw Kenneth and he asked me how many people I know who have had malfunctions and cutaways on 400-way world records. Yep. That would be one. Him. Pretty cool. Now THAT’s a story to take home. BJ gives a brief but eloquent speech to the overjoyed and over-alcoholed masses. It’s a good feeling.
I have been asked many times if the 400-way record will ever be broken, and I don’t have an answer for that. I do know, however, that the wonderful memories and meaningful relationships that have come out of that event will never be erased. It was really special–from the strong support of the Royal Thai Air Force, to the friendly reception from the people of Udon, it was a special, unique, magical time.Larry Henderson, 2021
Back to the hotel and we put an impromptu party in our room. I bring out the bottle of Dom Pérignon I had carefully carried from the States, and a bottle of MOST excellent tequila. Somehow two bottles of vodka with fruit juice also materialized, along with Tim Tams (a brilliant chocolate thingie from the UK), cashew nuts and my last treasured Odwalla bars. Well, this is looking like as fine of a dinner as any. so we pile in toast each other, tell stories, laugh and bask in our success.
After we had exhausted the food and liquor, we went out looking for more (note to readers we were VERY happy – excesses like this are allowed in these situations). We ended up in Mr Tongs, the local bar across the street with most of the rest of the 400. I guess the Russians had literally bought out Mr Tongs for the night and a Russian DJ was spinning Russian music inside. Russian arm candy was in fine form. Luckily Russian speedos were absent. We grabbed a table outside and ordered up beers. Everyone is happy. It’s a party. We’re champions. It’s good. By 2am even more people were there than earlier, the tables had spilled out from the bar past the sidewalk and onto the street. There must have been easily 250 people and the energy was amazing.
The rest of the event is a blur of massages, laughter, poignant farewells, and promises to meet again. My life is changing once again—for the better—and I have many more adventures in my future. I look forward to sharing them with you.
Story by Kate Cooper-Jensen
15 years later – a few words from WT’s leader
The difficulty of a large formation world record can be measured by how many moving parts are required to work in synch during a very limited period of time. The successful 400-way was the culmination of twelve years of assembling and aligning moving parts – plus a certain amount of luck on the day. World Team fully recognized its epic challenge, and collectively embraced it – which explains the visceral elation that overcame team members when the completed formation was held long enough to be appreciated in real time. And it’s probably why this particular world record still conjures up stimulating memories all these years laterBJ Worth, 2021
World Record Centuries
- 1986 – 100way
- 1992 – 200-way
- 2003 – 300-way
- 2006 – 400-way
WT06 World Record by Andrey Veselov
World Team Official Video 2006 – Short
World Team Official Video 2006 – Long
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