Tales from the Trail Plane: A World Record Story

All I could see was the flat landscape of the outskirts of Skydive Chicago – Interstate 80, a few industrial buildings, the river… All I had was an in-air radio communication in my ear under my Tonfly helmet.


First I hear, “Check, check.” Then, “Red light,” cuing us to open the door. Finally, “Green light,” that signaled us to hang our oxygen masks. Then, “Exit! Exit!” Looking into the open landscape I leapt and rotated on my back.


This Vertical World Record marked the change of how big way formations are engineered. Traditionally big ways chunked out the “base” with a dozen or so floaters and the majority of jumpers diving towards the base. Rook Nelson designed the 142-way formation to have half the jumpers float up to the base and have only a few divers. And there I was, in the Skyvan, trail plane, slot #133.

On Attempt #3 my radio failed. As I stared out the back door of the Skyvan I saw the base. And I frantically leapt into the sky and dove my butt off. Wait, what? I’m a floater, diving? My Pro Track clocked my dive at 217 mph and I made it to the formation just before break off! But… besides the 2 other floaters beside me, everyone expected to see the base from a floaters perspective. It was too late. As described by Mike Wittenburg, “Floating up to empty planes in formation was like being in a Stephen King movie.” We exited too late.

Attempt #4. We’ve learned the value of radio checks prior to take off and again at 16,000 feet. On jump run we stood at the edge staring out at the plain landscape and all of the sudden there was yelling and I was out the door. My radio came in. “Standby, standby, we are doing a go around.” I was in freefall receiving this message with ten others from the Skyvan, again looking up to a formation of planes-this time, with closed doors.


My goal for the second day was to leave with the other airplanes, and leave on time so everyone on my plane could float up to the formation. I did radio checks on the ground and at 16,000 feet with Vince who rode in the Sherpa, the lead plane. We had a pep talk with everyone on our plane about communication and a back up plan in case my radio didn’t work so we could still leave on time-our apparent learning curve for this formation to work was in our communication. I learned that on Attempt #4 the people in the back were watching the planes and shouted, “Shut the door!” as we were doing a go-around, but somehow that translated to, “Go!” to everyone near the door. Lesson learned. The second day of attempts we left on time, every time! There was a small victory every time we left and we saw the base leaving moments later after we exited.


On Day 2 we built a 142-way, but the paperwork was submitted incorrectly to the judges. To make a skydiving world record count, all the participants need to have current international license (for us in the USA, we need an FAI license) and a current country’s license (for me, USPA). Then, you submit the names with each participant’s paperwork. Finally, you submit the formation you’re attempting to the judges. Rook and his team admitted we did the record as we dirt dived, but they submitted the wrong formation. Rook was definitely upset, but still determined we could do it again. So again, we went up for Attempt #10 at the end of the second day.

Although there wasn’t an official “World Record” for us, we did accomplish an official state record of a 142-Way Vertical Formation.

On Day 3, I was tired and sore, but my spirits were high. I was up early and feeling excited about the day. I had reflected what the last two days had brought-6-plane formation loads with new and old friends from around the world building 100+ ways, breaking the old World Record on EVERY jump!! How freakin’ cool is that?! This doesn’t happen every day! And although fatigued and having logged several hours riding up to altitude in the airplane, we improved on every jump, making the formation look better – we were flying, literally working our butts off to fly 100+ people together in formation!! It was incredible.

It was ground hog day getting into the planes again. I walked behind the Skyvan squinting my eyes as I did every other load before to hide them from the burning jet fuel. I was the last one on and I high-fived the loader. I turned around to close the door and smiled. I hope we get this. I’m tired, I thought to myself. It was Attempt #15.

Attempt #14 saw some similar problems throughout the day and the organizers had to make a decision. Rook said, “Our job is that everyone goes home safely and goes home a World Record holder.” So they cut 4 people, we were now 138.


The door opened and I looked out to the familiar barren landscape. “Exit!” comes through my radio and I count down, “Three, two, one!” and I exit. I got this exit down and I know my visuals and how to fly this “super-duper” floater slot. My pod took its time to build. You could see the rest of the formation still, on level and focused. Finally my docks presented themselves and I wasted no time taking my grips. I saw Noah Bahnson in the base shaking his head, then as my stinger took his grip, Noah nodded and smiled. The entire formation electrified. We knew it, without a doubt, we just built a World Record!!


Thank you to all that supported this event! I’d like to thank my sponsors who were here to support us as well: Sonic from Tonfly USA, Chris Talbert from Sun Path, Rob Kendall from Cypres, and Kyle & Matt from Performance Designs.

Originally posted in the summer of 2012