A Short Look at a Long History—The USPA National Championships
A USPA Staff Report
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
In the beginning, there was accuracy or, as it was called at the time, “spot jumping.” In a thank you letter to donors who supported the first U.S. Parachute Team, which attended the Third World Parachuting Championships in Moscow in July 1956, Team Director Joe Crane and Captain Jacques Istel described the tryout process:
“On 14 April 1956, seven parachutists gathered at the Trenton-Robbinsville Airport in New Jersey. These men had been chosen on the basis of past performance in national spot-jumping competition—that is the art of sailing a parachute as close as possible to a target on the ground.
“The World Championship was to be based only in part upon this type of performance. Over one half the points were allocated to performance in Sky Diving, a new technique hitherto unknown in this county. Sky Diving involves the complete control of one’s body position in relation to earth while in free fall—that is, before the parachute is open.
“The team was therefore faced with the problems of learning quickly this rather skilled technique.”
The team that attended the championship a few months later—Floyd Hobby, Lyle Hoffman, Jacques Istel, Lew Sanborn, George Stone and alternate Walter Fair—placed sixth out of 10 teams. With such little time to practice the new art of freefall, it was not a bad showing for the U.S. at all. Previously, only one person had represented the U.S. at a world championship, Fred Mason, a sergeant in the U.S. Army who just happened to be stationed near the location of the 1952 event in St. Yan, France, and decided to attend. He placed last. Sadly, Mason died during a glider flight in 1955. After the 1956 event, the U.S. Team traveled to St. Yan and dedicated a plaque in his name.
1962: Accuracy, Style and the First Nationals
In the early years, the Parachute Club of America (and its predecessor, National Parachute Jumpers-Riggers) held invitational tryouts to select the teams that would represent the U.S. at international competitions. It was the 1962 National Parachute Championships, hosted by Ka-Mo Sport Jumpers in Olathe, Kansas, that marked the first time the U.S. Parachute Team was selected via an open competition.
By this time, U.S. jumpers had dramatically improved their accuracy, as well as built freefall skills, and the U.S. team had become a major player on the international stage. The 1962 Nationals featured three events: two accuracy landing events (one with an exit from 3,400 feet with a 0- to 10-second delay and the other from 5,100 feet with a 15- to 20-second delay) and a freefall event that had been named “style.” In the style event, the jumper performed a set of freefall maneuvers, and a judge using a telescopic viewer on the ground would determine how quickly and precisely the jumper performed them.
Ten male and nine female competitors selected by this meet competed at the Sixth World Parachuting Championships in Orange, Massachusetts—the first world meet held in the United States. At the Olathe meet, Dick Fortenberry, D-38, became the men’s national overall champion and Carolyn Olson, C-603, became the women’s national overall champion. And if you’ve wondered to yourself whether the Nationals ever included a beauty contest, the answer is, “Yes, in one year. 1962.”
The classic accuracy event is still going strong today, both nationally and internationally. However, style last appeared at the National Championships in 2016, not entirely due to lack of participation (although the number of entrants was dwindling), but in large part because the style viewer, a very specialized piece of equipment, was no longer in production and difficult or impossible to fix.
1970: Enter Relative Work
It’s hard to believe now, but in the early days, formation skydiving (then known as “relative work”) had an air of the radical about it. Some in the style and accuracy crowd, many of whom hailed from the military and tended to be older, thought of the relative workers as wild, crazy young hippies. (In some cases, they were right.) Nevertheless, RW gained acceptance for the 1970 U.S. National Parachuting Championships in Plattsburgh, New York, and although weather and government-bureaucracy issues plagued the event, relative work made its debut.
The event, called “Team Relative Work” at the ‘70 Nationals, was not used as a selection event for the U.S. Parachute Team, as the International Parachuting Commision (now the International Skydiving Commission) of the FAI did not adopt it for international events until 1975. Although teams consisted of four members, the first national RW meet did not bear much of a resemblance to the 4-way event as we know it today. The 1970 event was timed, with each round consisting of two formations (such as star to caterpillar) that teams had to complete to stop the clock. The team with lowest total score after all rounds completed won. Out of 12 teams, Omaha Skydivers (brothers Duane Behnke, Jim Saunders and brothers Tony and Larry Fugit) won the claim to fame of being the first Nationals gold medalists in RW.
The 10-man RW event (the gender-neutral term “10-way” did not come around until 1978) debuted at the 1972 Nationals in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Six teams competed in the timed event, with the now-legendary Jerry Bird’s All Stars (Sam Alexander, Jerry Bird, Mike Centracco, Jim Fogelman, Ron Haun, Tom Phillips, Rich Piccirilli, Bill Stage, Bob Westover and Chuck Wickliffe) taking the gold. Although the FAI removed the 10-way speed event from international competition in 1983, USPA retained it at the Nationals, and it remains a popular event today. It even has two extra awards: Judges Choice, for the team that amuses the judges most with shenanigans after completing its formations, and the charmingly rag-tag C.G. Godfrog Good Vibes Award, which the previous year’s winner bestows upon the team who displayed the best sportsmanship during the current year’s competition.
10-Way Award Namesake | Godfrogs
When the FAI adopted 10-man and 4-man RW as international events, USPA sent teams selected from the 1975 USPA National Parachuting Championships of Relative Work (held separately from the style and accuracy championships) in Tahlequah. Captain Hook’s Sky Pirates (Hank Asciutto, Alan Babich, Jim Handbury, Ron Haun, Allen Kreuger, Bruce Krueger, Bud Kreuger, Sam Marshall, Leo Orlowski, Mitch Poteet, Jim Wallace and Dave Wilds) scored an upset victory over Jerry Bird’s team, Wings of Orange, to represent the U.S. internationally. Four-man RW (won by the Rainbow Fliers—Sam Brown, Don Carpenter, Ken Coleman, Rocky Evans and Craig Fronk) was still a two-formation timed event, but in a harbinger of things to come, Mike Truffer wrote in his recap for Parachutist: “The 1975 U.S. Freefall Exhibition Team was going to be there to present demo jumps and movies to show what could be done in freefall besides ‘O maneuvers.’ Many parachutists view sequential RW as the next important plateau of our sport, and would be eager to learn from the USFET.”
Truffer’s words from the ‘75 meet proved prophetic. In 1976, 4-man RW moved to the sequential format that we know today. In addition, B.J Worth, a member of the USFET, chose some of his old teammates to form Mirror Image, the 8-man sequential RW team that took gold at the event’s debut at the ‘77 Nationals. That team (Jim Captain, Garry Carter, Curt Curtis, Mike Eakins, Mike Gennis, Roger Hull, Hod Sanders, Dave Sheldon and Worth) went on to win the first 8-man RW gold at the 1977 FAI World Championships in Australia. By 1984, both 4-way and 8-way sequential RW had become so popular and attracted so many teams that USPA split the competitions into open and intermediate classes.
For the first 17 years of RW, the competitions were scored via video shot from the ground. In 1987, air-to-air video debuted, with the event host providing a videographer pool. It wasn’t until 2000 that teams were required to provide their own videographers.
Eventually, relative workers got better, so formations got bigger. In 1990, 20-way debuted at the Nationals. When the IPC added a 16-way sequential to its World Cup events, USPA changed its event to align. In any case, 16-way made it convenient to combine teams. The winner of 16-way event at the 1998 Nationals—The Knights of Victor—consisted of two 8-way RW teams, the U.S. Army Golden Knights and Space Center FX.
1981: And Now For Something Completely Different
Para-ski, an event that combined parachute landing accuracy and downhill skiing, had become popular in Europe in the late 1970s, and in the early ‘80s, U.S. competitors decided that they also wanted to play. In 1981, USPA hosted first National Para-ski Championships, based on meets in Park West, Utah, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Tom Heineke of Kalispell, Montana, won the National Overall Champion’s gold medal. The event retained a following throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, but by the early 2000s it had become difficult for USPA to find venues to host the meet, and the event was discontinued.
1982: The Dawn of CRW
A quick scan of covers of Parachutist from the ‘80s will show you how popular canopy relative work (now called canopy formation) was in that decade. Four-way rotations, 4-way sequential and 8-way speed CRW made their debut in 1982 at the USPA Nationals in Muskogee, Oklahoma. A modest number of teams (eight in rotations, four in sequential and three in speed) registered for the event. Considerable Difficulties (Tim Davis, Mark King, Steve King, Peter Mootz and Doug Scofield) took home the rotations gold; Po Folks (Alfred Boger, Frank Cater, Cliff Dobson, Mike Lewis and Doug Summer) were at the top of the podium in sequential; and Eclipse (Debbie Ambrose, Tim Davis, Mark King, Steve King, Peter Mootz, Ron Morcom, Steve Morcom, Ron Murrock and Doug Scofield) prevailed in 8-way speed.
As interest in CRW waned a bit in the 1990s and early 2000s and it became harder to put together an 8-way team, 2-way CRW was introduced to competition. Ten teams registered for the 2005 2-way sequential CF test event (a great showing for a new event), and at the 2006 Nationals at Skydive Arizona in Eloy, it became an official event. Team Impaired (Chuck Backus, Allen Gutshall and Lyn Hannah) took home the gold.
In 2011, the 8-way speed skydivers flew their last formations at a USPA Nationals. The FAI had discontinued the 8-Way Speed CF World Championships a few years earlier due to lack of participation, and although the event hung on for a few more years in the U.S., the lack of an international event to work toward dwindled the already low number of entrants even further.
In the same year, hoping to spur interest in CF and introduce new competitors into the sport, USPA introduced a 2-way pro-am test event, which became an official event in 2012. Eventually, USPA decided to simply have a 2-way open and a 2-way advanced event in CF, to align it more closely to other disciplines.
1996: Artistic Events Take the Stage
By the time the ‘90s rolled around, skydivers had begun experimenting with all types of 3D flight, and a new creative and expressive discipline—freestyle, the first of the artistic events—emerged. The hallmark of artistic events is the inclusion of free rounds (where teams perform routines they have developed) along with compulsory rounds. The 3D community put together its own freestyle championships outside of the auspices of the FAI for a number of years, but in 1996, the IPC developed rules for the discipline and added it to the list of sanctioned events. USPA adopted these rules in 1996 and was able to hurriedly arrange the first USPA National Championships of Freestyle, so it could send national teams to the 1997 IPC Freestyle World Championships in Turkey.
When the event—which includes one performer and a cameraflyer—debuted, it had a men’s and women’s division, as well as open and intermediate classes. Scott Smith and cameraflyer Brent Finley of team We Stay at the Eloy Sheraton (champions at the independent event the previous year) won the men’s open division unopposed, and Dale Stewart and cameraflyer Greg Gasson of Arizona Wind Dancers took the women’s open division over one other team. Two intermediate men’s teams and three intermediate women’s teams rounded out the field of registrants. The freestyle event never gathered a huge number of participants (in part due to the addition of other 3D events in following years), so it eventually pared down to a single non-gender-specific open class. To this day, a relatively small but devoted group of freestylists keep the world interested in their beautiful event, and it now seems to be making a resurgence.
Skysurfing | Team Fire Starter. Photo by Mike McGowan.
Skysurfing was embraced by the non-skydiving media in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and it surged in popularity when it was included in the ESPN Extreme Games (now the X-Games) in 1995. Three years later, USPA added it as an event at Nationals. It also had a men’s and women’s division, as well as open and intermediate classes. Cross Keys Heat (Dave Briegs and camera flyer Andy Broschi) took the gold in the men’s open division over two teams, and Team Fire Starter (Tanya Garcia and Craig O’Brien) took gold in the women’s division over one other team. Perhaps because of the difficulty of the discipline, skysurfing was never able to attract many teams, even when the separate divisions were removed. The IPC removed it as a championship event in 2007. Despite heartfelt efforts by a small group of diehards to increase participation and save skysurfing in the U.S., it attracted only three teams and a guest team to the 2007 Nationals and only one guest team to the 2008 Nationals, so USPA decided to remove it from future competitions.
Freefly—a 3-way event that includes two performers and a camera flyer—debuted as an event at Nationals in 2000 with 11 open teams and six intermediate teams registering. The talent that attended the event was enormous, and Freefly Circus (John Matthews, Mike Swanson and camera flyer Olav Zipser) narrowly took the gold over the Flyboyz (Mike Ortiz, Eli Thompson and Fritz Pfnur). The Parachutist article discussed the moment the teams took the podium: “Some of freefly’s most influential pioneers stood with the first official U.S. nationals medals around their necks. The crowd gathered in appreciation as these jumpers received the hard-earned recognition of their accomplishments, not just at this meet, but over the years in the growth of this exciting discipline.”
2004: Accuracy but Not That Accuracy
In the early 2000s, the world’s first competitive skydiving event, accuracy, still drew a dedicated following to Nationals. But canopies were getting faster, swooping was becoming popular and jumpers clamored for an event that reflected the newer flying style. Enter sport accuracy, an event similar to classic accuracy, but one that could be performed using a standard canopy and didn’t require a tuffet. The event debuted at Nationals as an official medal event in 2004 after four years of test events.
However, in the same year, canopy piloting—which included speed, distance and accuracy, all performed over a pond—debuted as a test event. Even in that first test event, it attracted 20 entrants, more than the medal event of sport accuracy, which had only 14. It was immediately clear that the more exciting, spectator-friendly event of canopy piloting would prevail, and by the time of canopy piloting’s debut as a medal event in 2007, sport accuracy had already disappeared from Nationals. (Although it is still a popular event at the National Collegiate Parachuting Championships.) The first USPA National Overall Canopy Piloting Champion was Shannon Pilcher, a member of the PD Factory Team and a former competitive formation skydiver.
In 2019, USPA added Canopy Piloting Freestyle—in which canopy pilots perform pre-declared tricks over water—as a test event at the 2019 USPA Nationals at Skydive Paraclete XP in Raeford, North Carolina. Multi-time CP World Champion Curt Bartholomew of Team Alter Ego took first. The crowd-pleasing event has already been accepted as an official international competition by the FAI, and USPA will host it as a medal event at the 2021 USPA Nationals at Skydive Arizona in Eloy in October.
Acrobat Wingsuit Flying | Wicked Wingsuits. Photo by Daniel Angulo.
2007: Formation Skydiving Gets Vertical
What goes around comes around, and it was the formation skydivers of the 1990s and 2000s who tended to look at the 3D flyers as the young, artistic, creative crazies. But eventually, the head-up and head-down jumpers felt the lure of turning points, too, and 4-way vertical formation skydiving was born. With much similarity to the 4-way FS event except for body position, vertical formation skydiving debuted as a test event in 2006 and a medal event in 2007. The enormously talented flyers of Mandrin (Dave Brown, Brian Buckland, Rook Nelson, John Pinyon, Kyle Starck and Mike Wittenburg) took the gold.
Belly formation skydiving owes a lot of its popularity to the fact that even relatively novice skydivers can participate, although it can take a lifetime to get really good. VFS has a much higher barrier to entry, and that is likely why only two open teams attended the inaugural medal event, along with three teams in the VFS intermediate test event. Although interest in VFS slowly picked up after 2007, overall entries remained fairly low. The challenge of finding four skydivers and a videographer skilled enough to participate in VFS, especially at smaller drop zones, was unsurmountable for some.
Enter 2-way mixed formation skydiving (“mixed” because it includes belly and vertical points). MFS debuted as a test event at the 2013 Nationals and a medal event at the 2014 Nationals. The event allowed those interested in VFS to form a team of only two people and a videographer, which was a much easier proposition. But don’t think of MFS merely as a farm league for VFS … the barrier to entry may be lower, but it is a legitimately challenging discipline that stands on its own and attracts amazing flyers.
2015: Wingsuiting Comes of Age
In January 2015, the IPC adopted wingsuit flying as an official competitive discipline, and USPA followed suit. The first National Championships of Wingsuit Flying took place at Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Rochelle, Illinois, featuring an acrobatic team event and a performance individual event (which includes distance traveled, time spent in the performance window and speed). The event was well attended with four teams and a guest team in acrobatic and 20 open competitors and two intermediate competitors, as well as a large number of guests, in performance. Wicked Wingsuits (Travis Mickle, Simon Repton and Chase Wheeler) took the gold in acrobatic, and Mickle took a second gold for himself in performance.
Although the acrobatic event has struggled to attract registrants recently, only time will tell if there’s enough interest in it to sustain it. Certainly, outside of competition, wingsuit flyers are performing all sorts of amazing acrobatic maneuvers. Perhaps the competitive event will adapt the way VFS and freestyle did, or perhaps it will go the way of skysurfing, which many still enjoy outside the competitive arena. Performance flying, however, seems to have maintained popularity and is likely here to stay.
2018: The Need for Speed
The concept of speed skydiving, the newest Nationals discipline, is simple—how fast can you fall?—but its execution is difficult. Starting slowly with only four entrants, the event saw Kyle Lobpries take the first USPA Nationals gold in speed. However, the next year, participation ticked up considerably with 15 entrants, and Lobpries prevailed once again, but over a larger field, to take the gold.
As the number of USPA members has expanded from just over 800 at the beginning of 1960 to almost 40,000 today, more and more have decided to compete. Growing from just two events in 1962 to more than a dozen events today, the Nationals offers something for everyone. Undoubtedly, as the sport grows, technology improves and jumpers innovate, more exciting and as-yet-inconceivable events will join the roster. One thing we know the future holds is the first beginner 4-way FS test event, which will occur at the USPA Nationals at Skydive Arizona in October, bringing even more members into the Nationals family.