Unidentified Flying Air Force

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The Red Bull Air Force reinterpret the world renowned, mysterious Marfa Lights phenomenon...

The Red Bull Air Force Team performs a nighttime wingsuit flight in front of a Milky Way backdrop, in Marfa, Texas
Photo by Dustin Snipes, Red Bull Content Pool

What is that?

Certainly, that was the question posed by the very first humans to witness the ghostly, unexplainable visual phenomenon known as the Marfa Lights – orbs of light seemingly floating just above the horizon. And the answer continues to be debated to this day.

Whether natural gases emitted from the earth’s core, spirits of fallen warriors, UFOs, or distant headlights, much of the reason why one can even witness this enigma in and around the remote city of Marfa, Texas is precisely because of the lack of light pollution. In west Texas, the night sky, much like the grassy, uninhibited terrain is vast, naked, and oceanic.

Thus, during a New Moon (moonless) pitch black night illuminated by the glowing Milky Way galaxy, the Red Bull Air Force and photographer, Dustin Snipes, reinterpreted their own astounding version of the Marfa Mystery Lights, high above earth over Marfa, Texas.

Diving in unison like falling comets through the night, the sight certainly appears to be paranormal – and definitely was a first of its kind, even for the Red Bull Air Force.

To get a deeper look into what it took to accomplish this unreal feat, we spoke to Dustin Snipes and the Captain of the Red Bull Air Force, Jon Devore, for a behind-the-scenes look at the mission.

Jon Devore,  aerial coordinator and manager of the Red Bull Air Force for over 17 years

Red Bull: The project looks insane and came out stunning. What were the major challenges for you two on a mission like this?

Dustin Snipes: There were a lot of options. We could have created these lighting conditions a bunch of different ways. So at the end of it, we had to decide what was the most important element for us to capture. I think having a very clear, beautiful night sky was on the top of the list. Looking at it from the perspective of, ‘do we want this to look like people, or do we want them to look like look like something else’ – it really questions what you’re looking at. Trying to reverse engineer how we were going to get that look was definitely the most difficult because it’s something I’ve never shot before. Knowing who the Red Bull Air Force were, and what they could do under these conditions also played a part in it. There were a lot of unknowns, but every time the Red Bull Air Force and Jon and I had talked to each other, I felt more and more comfortable.

Jon Devore: Typically, when we do night jumps, we can spot the ground pretty well because we’re either doing a show over a city where there’s at least some identifiable locations on the ground. This location literally was blackout dark on the ground. We drove two pickup trucks to our landing area and put headlights on, which yes, when you’re standing on the ground, that that looks like enough light. But when you’re 10,000 feet in the air looking down, they look like tiny little dots of light. At least during our first jump, that was a little difficult to distinguish. That was the first challenge for sure.

Secondly, it’s really challenging to communicate with a guy once you exit the aircraft. Sure, we have some lights on us and we’ve learned throughout the years how to spot each other pretty well, but to get together under canopy or in freefall, it just takes a lot more of a coordinated effort to be able to get together because there are less visuals. Thirdly, would be trying to understand Dustin’s vision from an artist’s point of view and how we could choreograph our dives to best suit his dream or what he was trying to capture, combined with what we were trying to do performance-wise. So, it definitely wasn’t an easy one, but it all came together.

I assume you’ve done thousands of jumps throughout your career, is it all pretty muscle-memory at this point? What’s happening mid-jump, or what’s that feel like while you’re doing maneuvers like this?

Jon: In this type of a project, you’re looking outside, it’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s windy, and in this instance, it was also cold. Then you look out and your adrenaline starts to get going because especially on this one, you’re looking down, and you see two little dots of light you’re believing are your trucks. Now, you can’t mess this spot up. There’s no other visual reference on the ground before you exit, you can’t see anything else other than those two dots. Initially, that beginning is the most important part. When you exit, there’s a lot that comes through muscle memory because all of us on the team have around 21,000 jumps. We’ve been doing it a long time and have a lot of air time. Then you’re actioning out, jumping out of the plane. You look back up as everybody else is actioning out, you see everybody’s pyro firing. At least my point of view, I get excited or happy at that point. I realize the dive is working where everyone’s pyro fired, there’s no malfunctions.

Everyone is in the formation that we had discussed and spreading apart like a starburst in the sky. That initial freefall and choreography is definitely muscle memory. But once you start to track away from everyone and you’re on your own while you’re deploying your parachute, that’s when everything gets surreal. You pull your parachute, everything slows down, the parachute stops you to pretty much a halting speed. Then, everything’s quiet. You can start to really calm down and look around and realize what it feels like up there in outer space. And then you have to start looking around and scanning where you’re picking up your teammates.

That’s an intense moment because you can run each other over, and that’d be horrible. Then obviously, things go well, you get together, and then it’s back into muscle memory mode where we’re all human pilots flying our parachutes – our bodies – and we get together. When you see it all working like clockwork, the nerves calm down and excitement picks up and you’re just excited that you’re pulling it off. And then the real deal comes where you’re landing. Especially in this environment, just having little headlights from a truck lighting the ground. That’s a depth perception mental trip because the ground’s coming up real fast. Obviously on parachutes we have no motors, so we’re landing with engines out basically. Coming in on approach and landing and making sure you’re setting a good path for your teammates to follow is super important. It’s intense from top to bottom.

A project full of intense and dangerous moments, expertly managed by the Red Bull Air Force team
Photo by Dustin Snipes, Red Bull Content Pool

That is intense! And Dustin, on the ground, I’m sure you had your hands full, too. What did that look like?

Dustin: Yeah, I’d been checking all my cameras, making sure everything was in focus, making sure nothing had moved. We had two cameras set up to a computer that were showing live views so we could see a better outcome of what it would look like right away. Then we had six more down below shooting a really wide angle, something that we could show more stars and resolution. Those were also wired together so they’d trigger at the same time from one button. While I was doing that, I was looking through another camera and triggering every 25 seconds for the actual array shot. Then, while I was shooting, we set up a script to shoot two cameras off to the left with a slightly different angle and focus.

Basically, I was triggering nine cameras at once, just to get slight variations of the shots or to get variations with a specific astro camera. We had two that were just for astrophotography and they read more of the reds and other colors that we can’t necessarily see or that cameras can’t necessarily. There was a lot going on. A lot of this was about preparation and to get that final shot. We prepared to have different outcomes, and again, you have to make sure that you’re exposing for that night sky Milky Way, and also trying to get the light in at the same time without making one more dominant than the other.

That is hectic. Did you have to do a lot of research or have some knowledge of the stars beforehand?

Dustin: Yeah, we reached out to a lot of experts, including The Dark-Sky Association and spoke to a wonderfully knowledgeable person, Bettymaya Foott, who helped out immensely in terms of explaining how the stars move and how the Milky Way will appear in the sky, what are the best times to shoot, and filled in some gaps that you wouldn’t necessarily know just being a non-astrological photographer. I’m happy to take the knowledge of an expert any day to help me out with something that’s as cool as this collaborative effort.

Jon: From my point of view, we didn’t necessarily have to do too much research as an athlete group. It was pretty straight forward that we were looking for the darkest pitch-black sky we could find. The thing that we really had to try to comprehend and understand was what was going to translate better when it came to how we lit ourselves up. But, it didn’t really have too much to do with understanding the night sky.

Right, speaking of which, your team had some kind of pyrotechnics shooting out of your suits, Jon… how dangerous was that? Has that ever gone wrong for you guys in the past?

Jon: Yeah. We’ve used pyro for quite a long time on the demo team. It’s been something that has proven itself successful. Most people don’t know what it’s going to look like, but in the end, it really shows the speed and energy that we’re traveling up there. It truly is like we’re human comets. Once people see that and see the energy coming off of it, it’s usually the showstopper. But it comes with its dangers as well. It is a pyrotechnic and it can be explosive at times if dealt with wrong. We’ve had a few things happen, but no serious injuries. I had one that was a dud years ago at EDC in Vegas. One of my pyros didn’t go off. So, when I landed, I took my bracket off my foot and I was trying to hit the igniter button and it went off. I thought I blew my fingers off my hand for a second, but it was just some burns. That’s probably the worst story we have from them. In general, they’re pretty safe and really cool to use. It puts on an amazing show.

The picture as much of a mystery as the Marfa Lights
Photo by Dustin Snipes, Red Bull Content Pool

Unreal. And you mentioned earlier, it being pretty disorienting with that little light. Was this jump a particularly hard one for you guys?

Jon: Yeah, it was the darkest. It was definitely a challenging one, and hands down the most challenging part was that trying to work with anything on the ground, from spotting our jump to staying on track while we’re in freefall and under canopy flight, making sure that we don’t fly away from those two little dots of light because everything else was surrounded by hills… then pure darkness. It would have ended quite bad if we didn’t make our landing area.

From the photos, you looked like comets falling from the sky… Was that part of the concept, Dustin?

Dustin: It definitely was. The whole thing about the Marfa Lights is that it’s mysterious. Some people have ideas about what it is, but not a lot of people know what it is. It’s kind of an urban legend, or myth, and a lot of people think it’s UFOs or, gas phenomenon coming from the earth. But I wanted it to look like meteors or a comet or something raining down from the sky. Maybe like a UFO. I just wanted somebody’s mind to wander a little bit and wonder what that was. At the end of the day, even if the picture is still a mystery, it’s a really cool story once you dive in. Again, it’s more of an interpretation of the Marfa Lights through The Red Bull Air Force and the city of Marfa, on one of the clearest night skies you can find in the country, maybe the world. So, it’s just a great opportunity to create such a different thing and such an abstract idea. To recreate like, an urban legend or unsolved mystery type thing.

What about you, Jon, what’s your theory on the Marfa Lights? What are they?

Jon: UFOs, for sure. Everybody knows that 🤣🤣🤣

Dustin: Everyone loves a good UFO story. I think that’s why I thought this was so fun, because there’s so many people who want to believe in this type of stuff. Who are we to deny them of that? Why not help out in their joy by creating our own unidentified flying objects? But we went out and we did look at the Lights a little bit. We went out to one of the main observation areas where you would normally see them. I will say, I have watched a few theories of videos online, but I think they’re still a mystery.

We asked Amy Chmelecki how she felt about the project…

Amy Chmelecki, member of Red Bull Air Force, who flew in this awe-inspiring project
Photo by Zach Lewis

What did it look like, jumping under the Milky Way? 

There was hardly anything in our view on the way up to altitude. We were in the middle of nowhere!!! All we could see on exit was one set of car headlights on the ground. That was our reference for the landing area, jump run and exit point. On exit and in freefall all we could see was each other. Our bright lights and pyro was all our eyes could focus on. We could not see the Milky Way in freefall. We were jumping into pure darkness.

Was it kind of scary, being far from the city lights? 

On the way up to altitude I was scared! Once in freefall and under canopy I felt at home, but the anticipation was intense. Our LZ was at 5,000 feet MSL and it was surrounded by mountains. That added to the stress. There was not much room for error. We had to trust Jon Devore as the lead and trust each other to get the job done. That much darkness was a new sensory feeling to me, it was for sure a first. The feeling was strange, but I liked it! 

What was the plan if you had missed the landing area? 

Each of us had a slightly different plan for is we had to land out. The first line of defense was to pick a LZ that gave us the most reasonable outs. Then we picked a jump run and exit point that would allow us to get the shot we want, but also give us reasonable outs should one of us have a cut away and have to land out. I had very powerful military grade flashlights on each foot. I would turn them on if I was going to land out. 

What will stay in your memory about these jumps?

Executing projects with the Red Bull Air Force is so much fun! It has been a long project-less year for most people. It was such a treat to be with my teammates in a really neat little American town doing some sick night pyro jumps. The beautiful photos that came out of this mission will always make me reflect on how lucky I am.

What’s your theory on the Marfa Lights, what are they? Ghosts of past wingsuiters?!

They truly are a mystery!!! The first reports of seeing them was in 1883, that was before the first car was made. I think some people are seeing cars, but that does not explain everything. The most popular theory is that they are a mirage caused by sharp temperature gradients between cold and warm layers of air, but I am gunna go with your ghosts of past wing suiters theory! I love a good ghost story!

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