Think of what might go through the mind of a racehorse in the starting gate: “I’m here to race. I was born to race. I live to race.” Compare that to the thoughts that fill the minds of a talented team of experienced skydivers at a world record event ... when they are stuck on the ground due to weather. Perhaps thoughts like: “I’m here to jump. Let me jump. I’m dying to jump.”
That was the scene on Monday, July 24, on the first day of a four-day big-way sequential formation skydiving world record event at Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois. Day one came and went as the team sat on the ground impatiently waiting for the clouds to clear. As with most world records, this one had been elusive. In September 2013, a mostly European team of 106 skydivers at Skydive Empuriabrava in Spain set the first world record for largest three-point formation skydive. Jumpers mounted multiple eff orts to break that record in the four years afterward. None was successful.
Many of the people on the team at Skydive Chicago this year were on the team that came exceedingly close to breaking the record in 2015 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during the EAA AirVenture Air Show, the largest airshow in North America. That team of 108 built three formations on the same jump above the show, but it did not qualify as a world record due to a slightly mistimed grip change. In addition to seeking a world record, this team had an additional goal in mind: They were determined to honor Hal Spence, a dear friend and fellow jumper who had recently passed away. Spence was planning to be one of the captains of this event. He had even recruited some of the members of the team. But fate was not on his side, and his life ended shortly before the event. Representing him in Chicago was his sweetheart, Tara Richards.
THE STARTING GATE
Day two dawned and the skies were clear. Like racehorses waiting for the starting gate to open, the team members sensed they were finally going to be able to start their race toward the record they sought. With one fewer day to pursue a record, it was time to get serious. Each jump would be a record attempt. Jump one consisted of 111 skydivers. Orga-nizers had designed the dive plan for 112 but set aside the last slot as part of the tribute to Spence. It was a missing-man formation. From a six-plane formation flight 18,800 feet above the ground, 111 jumpers launched into freefall excited to finally have the opportunity to do what they do so well. The formation started to come together nicely, then it didn’t. In all, the first attempt was disappointing. The phrase “first-jump jitters” passed around the hangar as the team packed their parachutes. Optimism prevailed as the team boarded the aircraft for its second attempt. Surely a team this experienced and talented could do considerably better. The optimism was not justified. The second attempt was similarly unsuccessful. Actually, it was not even close. Uncertainty surfaced. The team was strug-gling to get the first point when it needed three to set a record.
But if this team was like the thoroughbreds on a racetrack, you could say that they were just hitting full stride. In a nearly miraculous performance, the team of 111 went up for its third attempt and almost effortlessly built the first point then elegantly transitioned to the second and then the third point.“ Did we get it?” “Could it be?” “No way on just the third attempt.” Team members exchanged these and similar expressions of amazement as they walked in from the landing area. No record is official until three credentialed judges review every frame of the videos of the jump. That tedious process started. Once the two onsite judges were satisfied, the videos were uploaded and sent to the third judge, who was offsite. Anxiety built. Was there a subtle bust somewhere that would cost the record? Given time, imaginations can become demons.The second-guessing turned out to be unjustified. The judges rendered their verdict: It was a record! Not only was it a record, but Hal Spence’s partner, Tara Richards, had been in the right seat of the lead aircraft on the record jump. Her representation of Spence was fulfilled. If that was not joyous enough, many on the ground reported that there was a cloud rainbow visible above the formations on the record jump. Plane captains Jim McCormick, Tom McLaughlin, Mikey Raible, Fortson Rumble and Lou Tommaso joined event organizers T.J. Hine and Roger Ponce de Leon as the team gathered in the massive auditorium at Skydive Chicago. The team was perceptibly tense as Chief Judge Marylou Laughlin took the stage. With Judge Jim Rees looking on, the team heard the words they wanted to hear: It was a record! Shrieks, hugs and high fives went on for many minutes. Sweet victory.
After its significant success, the team went back up in search of a fourth point. While it did not achieve the fourth point, it was able to again achieve three. Seemingly the team members wanted to make it clear to all that they had the ability to not only set a record but to immediately match it on the next jump.On day three, the weather allowed for three more attempts before the clouds moved in. None resulted in an additional record. And the team made no jumps on day four due to clouds. In all, the team made only seven jumps in four days, but the members certainly proved themselves by setting a world record on only their third attempt.Ponce de Leon, who designed the jumps, commented on the dive plan saying, “It needed to be bullet proof. We had to have all the right people moving at the right time. We’d come so close before, and I was determined that this time we were going to be successful.”Once the starting gate opened, the race was a sprint to the finish line and a victory.