Wow. Look at all those skyflyers!
Jeff Nebelkopf addresses the group, Justin Shorb in foreground
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Like every story, event, or moment, this World Wingsuit Record has an end. Before we can reach the end, the beginning probably needs to be told as best as I can recount. Some of this is third/fourth hand information, so forgive me if I got something wrong.
More than a year ago, Jeff Nebelkopf, Justin Shorb, Scotty Burns, and a few others were drinking around a campfire, table, or attractive girl when the idea came up to do this event. Through a series of twists and turns, the concept began to take form and develop into a real idea. Skydive Elsinore had spoken with Jeff about doing a wingsuit event at the dropzone, and the pieces began to fall into place.
The event was announced, along with a series of skills camps and qualifying weekend camps where flockers from around the world proved their mettle in order to be a part of this heretofore never attempted formation.
Regardless of geographic location, skyflyers from around the world were invited to participate, to ‘audition,’ and to secure their slot in this magnificent wedge (that was not yet determined as a wedge or other formation).
I attended several of these qualifying events. At the first event, I was unequivocally informed that I didn’t have the skills to fly in this sort of a flock.”No” isn’t a word I’m accustomed to accepting. I was driven to become a part of this flock. Jeff Nebelkopf was leading this event, but I didn’t know him at all, outside of various web fora. I did get the opportunity to hang with guys like Sean Horton and Scott Callantine, who took me “under their wings” so to speak, and helped me figure out what I wasn’t doing right. I should mention that Scott and Sean had previously spent some time with me in Eloy over the holiday boogie. My fourth wingsuit jump was a 20-way jump organized by Scott Campos. (It’s also the weekend I met Brian Drake, who figures into this story later) These two individuals, coupled with some help from Jeff, turned a really disappointing weekend into a very positive learning experience for me. They invited me to other camps and events that I attended. Soon after, I was introduced to Justin Shorb and Scotty Burns at another one of the camps. These two both spent a lot of time teaching me to fly better. Not as coaches, but as friends interested in seeing me improve, and knowing my goal was to be a part of this record event. In my mind, people like Sean, Justin, Scotty, Scott C (both of them) are what makes wingsuit skydiving attractive. They’re willing to impart information without all the ego sky-god BS that seems to be found in many skydivers. They’ll take the time out to help without demanding coaching slots or telling you how good they are, nor did I ever experience condescension, just respect and a desire to share knowledge.
Scotty invited me to be a part of the now-famous jump with the Space Shuttle Discovery and I got to know Harry Parker and Mike Mascheff. They too, helped me grow and improve.
I brought a wingsuit event to Utah, where Scotty, Justin, Scotty Callantine, Sean McLaughlin, Jason Carter, John Bast, and other friends came to jump the mountains of Utah with me. This three-day event changed my wingsuiting direction entirely.
Soon, I was flying with many large flocks, and decided to go to Pepperell, MA for my birthday in August. Justin and Jeff organized a 52 way jump that was a highlight of my flocking experience.
So…enough of my story. Lemme tell you about another guy in the flock.
This guy had wanted to wingsuit for quite a while. He met Sean Horton/Monkeyboy at Skydive Utah and did his first real wingsuit jump with Sean. He was hooked. Soon after, I was able to fly with him a bit in a TonySuit Raptor he’d borrowed from Justin. It didn’t take long until he’d ordered a Raptor for himself. He did really well at the Wingsuits over Utah event in July, and was invited to try out for the wingsuit world record. He ended up as an alternate on the record, and spent the first two days of the record event flying as a proxy flocker until the more experienced jumper showed up. It didn’t take Plane Captain Mark Harris very long to realize that he very much wanted this proxy to be a dedicated member of his team, but there was no room. As the axe began to fall in the first weekend, my friend was chosen as a replacement flyer in the “foreigners” flock. Jason Carter is a Cinderella story. He joined the flock with only 40 wingsuit jumps under his belt. The guy is a natural with wings. He has a tremendous attitude, never once was late to his slot, never late to a brief, debrief, dirt dive, or team meeting, and his enthusiasm was infectious. I stand in awe of his dedication and desire to be part of this record.
Next on my list of heroes is Brian Drake. Brian broke his leg in a BASE accident a couple of months back. Brian was someone I’d flown with in Eloy over the holiday boogie, and we kept in touch as he’d traveled to Israel and met some mutual friends there. We emailed a fair amount, and ran into each other at Lake Elsinore’s qualifier camp earlier in the year. I really admire Brian. Well…broken leg and all, Brian jumped. Over and over again, up to seven jumps in a day. He’d slide every landing in, and wait until someone could bring his peg-leg to him, and then would figure out a way to get into the bed of the retrieval trucks that drove out to pick us up from the very far-out landing area designated for our team. He never once complained.
On Tuesday, he cut his finger quite badly on a shaving razor (he later found a huge chunk of skin in his shaving kit bag). He needed to go to the hospital, but refused, knowing he’d be letting his teammates down by not being in his assigned slot. He did two jumps with a finger dripping so much blood that it was coming through his leather gloves and bandages.
Brian asked if I’d stitch his finger. The riggers loft was closed, and the DZ didn’t have a suture kit. Using a sailmaker’s needle and E thread, I stitched Brian’s finger closed. He was obviously in a great deal of pain, but he said not a word, didn’t utter a sound, didn’t flinch a muscle. I know it hurt like hell, because I shoved the needle through his finger. The bleeding slowed, but later picked up again, most likely due to the non-elevated finger and the crutches he was using to get around.
Inspirational, impressive, amazing are all adjectives that I’d use to describe this young man. Brian, I was honored to fly next to you all week long.
Scott Gray….nailed in the arm so hard on the first jump of the first day that his arm was the color of a finely crafted bit of ceramic pottery covered in purples, blues, green,and yellow hues. Swollen to the point of looking like he had a billiard ball stuck in his arm, he only sat out for a couple of jumps until he could get back from a doctor’s exam. He flew like a madman throughout the rest of the days. Another impressive story.
Scott Gray’s arm is every color of the rainbow by the fourth day.
Flock University trained up a lot of skydivers for this event, and organized several skills camps that coincided with the record qualifying events. It was sweet to see the Flock University logo painted into every slot on the 71-way load. It was equally sweet to see nearly every helmet on the formation had a Flock University sticker on it. Flock University recently published a booklet for dropzone owner/operators on how to safely and successfully manage wingsuits on the dropzone.
Some of the folks that came from overseas had suits that simply weren’t cut out for large, slow formation flocking. Yet somehow, they struggled and managed to fly with the group, only dropping out a few times. It was heartening to see these guys fight with their suits and stick with the formation. Yes…they went low a few times, but they managed to stay with the group during most of each flight.
There are other stories as well, but I’ll leave those to be told by those others. Everyone involved sacrificed a lot to be part of this great event. Money, time, loved ones, jobs, special personal events all took a backseat to this opportunity. You could see the pain in everyone’s eyes after the first or second jumps this morning; we still hadn’t achieved the record, still hadn’t built the correct-slot formation. We only had three more jumps to go and the sense of disappointment was pervasive and endemic.
The formation is rapidly building
We’d been up since 5 a.m., and boarded the first plane prior to 7 a.m. We were tired, feeling defeated, and knew this was it. The last day, the last chance. “Make it count,” some said. “More cowbell” said others. “We’ll never get there…” from yet others.
One thing that must be mentioned; someone asked me “What if a skyflyer doesn’t make it to his slot, can he just drop out, someone else taking his place, and make it a 70 way?” No…every person MUST be in his slot. We had several jumps where everyone but one or two people were in their slots. Missing those one or two people invalidated the intention of the jump.
During the third debrief, Taya Weiss gave us a pep talk. She made it a point to say that we’d already built the coolest, biggest, safest formation ever seen in wingsuiting, but now it was time to step it up and make it be the accurate formation we all so badly wanted to achieve.
Somewhere, somehow….everyone dug deep down into their souls and found energy, strength, and motivation. Was it Taya? We’ll never know. We’ll only know that we each were galvanized to greatness, to be where we needed to be with a sense of strength that only the most despaired seem to be able to find from deep within.
Although we loaded the planes with what appeared to be heavy hearts, something happened up there that can’t quite be explained.
Everyone was in their slot, everyone hit their mark. Justin Shorb led our group to the formation, and we sat slightly back waiting for a person from the second plane to plug into his place. It seemed like an eternity waiting for him so that we could completely move in and lock up the formation. You could almost hear the sigh of relief as he slid into his slot and Justin moved forward. Even though the formation had been heavily “breathing” with a lot of side to side and back to forward movement, there was the most brief of moments, almost like a flash of light that passed, where everything was still, seemingly in slow motion. It just felt “right.”
We achieved what we had come for. We had built the formation we came to build. We created something never before imagined nor achieved. And we knew it. It felt obvious by the time we hit the ground. The energy, spirit, and joy was almost palpable through the entire landing and drive back to the packing area. No one really spoke, no one really dared ask the question “did we do it?”
Just before the last jump of the day, manifest announced that all wingsuiters needed to gather up for a 15 minute call, but we needed to be at manifest first.
With a heavy face, Taya took the microphone. I was sure she was going to tell us that we simply could not possibly achieve this task. After watching wingsuit pilots much more experienced than I being cut from the team, I was expecting to hear that we simply couldn’t do this.
At 3:48 p.m. on Wednesday, November 12, 2008, Taya simply said “We did it.” No one said anything. She said “Guys, we did it. We built the formation. We achieved what we came here for.”
The cheers were loud, exuberant, and prolonged. Five days we’d been working to build this monster. Five days of 6:00 a.m. calls, dozens of dirt dives lying in the cold, wet grass in and out of our wingsuits. Five days of watching guys like Scott Callantine and Monkeyboy wearing Walmart bags on their feet in the early morning so they could keep their shoes dry. Five days of eating dust and dirt during long walks back to the packing area. Five nights of going to bed early so we weren’t too tired early in the morning.
Was it worth it? You bet your ass.
Dirtdiving the exits for the hundredth time. The sun is just beginning to hit the Ortega hills in the background.
And so we come to the end of our story, the end of this chapter in the wingsuiting saga. There will be other, bigger events; we’re sure of that. But this is the event that laid the groundwork for a specific kind of formation, with a specific flow and slot list. This is the first monster flock, and everyone involved from the ground crew to the pilots to the wingsuiters themselves should be beaming with great pride. The plane captains deserve a lot of credit themselves. Mark Harris, Jeff Nebelkopf, Ed Palowski, and Justin Shorb worked their collective asses off under the guidance of Taya Weiss. In case you didn’t know…Taya is in charge of the guy in charge.
Special thanks from me personally to:
Justin Shorb, Scotty Burns, Jeff Nebelkopf, Taya Weiss, Scott Callantine, Jason Carter, Rick Hough, Jack Guthrie, Debbie Zimmerman, Scott Campos, Phil Peggs, Sean Horton, Rick, Reed, Lurch….and all the others that helped me learn to fly better. I’m 1/71th of this record jresulting from you and your guidance.
Thank to Jeff and Justin in particular, for the opportunity to be a part of this terrific moment in my life and in the world of wingsuit skydiving.
Buh da buh BUH-ba….Jeff Nebelkopf!