World Record Night 50-way Skydive
by Jan Meyer
This is my account of my path to the World Record Night 50-way skydive. Other people took different paths. Some folks left the path too soon. Some tried to take the path but were turned back.
Several months ago Steve Woodford announced his plans for a night 60-way sequential skydive at Skydive Elsinore, April 14-16, 2000. Not many jumpers signed up for the night dive. As an added enhancement, there was also a 60-way speed competition. Some of the folks that wanted to do the speed event didnít sign up because they didnít want to do the night dive.
A friend of mine said, ĎThose guys are crazy!' for doing night 60-ways. Yeah I sort of agreed. Then again, there were folks from the previous 42 and 49-way night dives night dives coming back for more. Those dives obviously didnít scare them so much to stay away from the next level.
I was not concerned about the dive out and dock part of the dive. A group with high enough experience can do that time after time.
The canopy ride did not concern me that much either. You can see others very well with a high moon. The (mandatory) strobes gave you an extra indication of flight path and time to correct.
Break-off is what I was concerned about. How do you see each other? I asked folks from the previous night dives about break off. Some were scheduled for the 60-way, some not. All said it was very safe. One said "You canít see anyone after you turn and track. You turn, get your heading and flat track for your designated amount of time and pull. If everyone does this, you have clear air." One guy said you see each other at first but then could not after a few seconds. It meant you had to trust everyone on the load to take a proper heading and flat track for the proper amount of time. Day jumps donít have this requirement. A lot of us say we can out track some idiot that does a diving track and gets underneath us. This only works if you can see these folks. At night, you can not see them. You have to trust them to do the right thing. Who were these folks I would have to trust?
I looked at the roster on http://www.SkydiveElsinore.com. They were ringers. They were capable of 60-ways. Some were on the previous night dives. They didnít get scared off.
Almost daily, for a week I received emails from Hammo and Steve asking me on the load. I still held out. I tried using the "I have to get a new contacts prescription." excuse, "I havenít done a night dive since 1983." excuse, "I am very concerned about breakoff" excuse. Just when I was ready to sign up for the day jumps only on Sat/Sun, I got an email inviting me to be a plane captain for the event- including the night dive.
Jeesh, what a dilemma. If I do one night dive I can have all my jumps for free. Was it worth it? I took a half a day and convinced myself that they must be doing something right. I sent an email back saying I would do all the jumps.
For the next 24 hours, I seconded guessed myself. I said I could send an email back, rejecting the plane captain slot, pay for my jumps and be happy not doing the night dive. No one would know except Steve and John. Well, I never sent an email like that.
I stayed fixed to my original commitment, even though I was very scared about the breakoff. I tried to convince some other jumpers to do the load. They were ringer types: well qualified in big-ways and flat tracking. No one joined me. Some said I was crazy. Well, that was not the first time that was said.
So along comes Friday, April 14th. We have an 8 AM call. Iím driving to the DZ, north along I-15 from San Diego. Iím yakking to myself that I must be crazy yadda - yadda - yadda. Then I realize I took I-215 instead of I-15. I was going to Perris instead of Elsinore. Damn. I took the next exit, back tracked to Clinton Keith Road and boogied west to Elsinore.
The DZ had overcast skies on Friday morning. Steve gave a night dive briefing and showed us the video from the other night dives. The dive out and dock part of the jump was lit up by the photographers lights. Everyone said the base was clearly visible. No one had a problem with finding their quadrant and slot. The break off had folks turn onto their respective outgoing radial from the formationís centerpoint. They would flat track for a pre-determined amount of time and pull. The canopy pattern at Elsinore was different than at the Ranch. Elsinore has wide, open fields. The plan was for everyone to open downwind of the landing areas. This way, everyone did a "straight-in approach" to the landing area. There was no pattern with turns to be concerned about. Everyone had to wear a dirt alert set at their break off altitude and a strobe.
We had a lot of no-shows. Some folks did not even call or email to cancel. They just blew us off. Near the end of the day we had clear skies. Carl Daughertery and I put our groups from the trail planes together to do a 20-way. The base 20-way did two practice jumps. We only got one jump in before the clouds rolled in again. The Friday night jump was called off. Show time for Saturday was 8 AM.
Saturday morning came and went with clouds. Around noon we could jump. We did 3 practice jumps with some day-only people on the load. They all went well. On the last day jump the left arm of my white jumpsuit decided it was time to blow up. I had a bunch or other jumpsuits, but they were all dark colored. My option was to tape myself into the white suit.
The full dress rehearsal for the night dive was scheduled for dark-thirty. We said those that only were doing the daytime dives were excused, but were more than welcome to do the night dive. It turned out that 4 folks added themselves to the night dive. They did the daytime jumps and saw the briefings. They were convinced this was a safe jump.
Our total count was 50, one more than the previous record. We did a dark-thirty load with chem lights on, strobes on under canopy, straight-in approaches to the landing areas. Everything was done according to plan. We did two points. The flying was stellar. The formation was flat, level, flying on glass. It wasnít a night dive because it was done less than an hour after sunset.
Our real night dive was planned for 9 PM. We took off under clear skies and a bright, nearly, overhead moon. We climbed up to 16K AGL. The oxygen was turned on at 10K. It was cold. Our left trail plane was the Arizona Otter, flown by the *night crop-duster pilot*, Jim Leary. We had heat on aboard. We had the first class seats.
We were on jump run. I heard Jim shouting and cussing at something from the cockpit. Then he sasheyed the plane over to the left some. It turned out that the lead plane photographer was looking at our plane with his lights on. Jim was blinded by the lights. Next we were given a climbout command. The floaters got out and the rest of us jammed up for our exit. Twenty seconds went by; then 30 seconds; then 45 seconds. I heard some shouting again from behind me. I was in the first row, most forward position. We were doing a go-around. Everyone had to climb back in. Andre, our photographer, was rear floater. He had the hardest time getting back in. Fortunately, Shelly Miller climbed back out to block the wind for him. All hands got back in safely. Everyone sucked on the oxygen again to get a clear head.
We were descending. We were returning to the ground without jumping. As best as we could tell, we must have lost someone off one of the other planes. As we descended we noticed clouds. Well, maybe no one fell off and it was the clouds that aborted the jump. After we landed, we found out that the photographer on the right trail plane, Greg Lau, did fall off. His spot was far, far away from the DZ.
It was more than an hour before we learned where he landed. He told us that he dumped at 13,000. He saw some bright lights through the clouds. He thought that was the stadium lights. They were lights for the parking lot of a strip mall. He landed safely and called the DZ.
The sky, in the meantime, was clear to the northwest. The clearness was headed toward the DZ. We agreed to do another jump. It was hard to do this. We had been at the edge of jumping, all psyched up, focussed and determined to do the jump. We then aborted the jump. It was emotionally and physically draining. Add to this that we had been at the DZ since 8 AM. Most of us skipped dinner and were very hungry. It was getting colder too. These were not the idea conditions we had expected.
Around 11:30 or so, Steve gathered us around in a circle. We counted off. All 50 of us were present. Did anyone not want to go? I knew some did not want to go up again. No one got off the load. No one was going to be the person to prevent the record from happening. We were here. We made a commitment. We were not going to blow off the load as others did. We were here for each other.
We geared up, dirt dove again. The crowd of spectators dwindled. The lead and right trail planes boarded before us. Julie B, there for our moral support, was walking around with a blanket wrapped around her. She offered her blanket for us waiting to board. I took it and almost warmed up.
It was crystal clear, just as the 9 PM jump. We loaded up and started our climb to altitude. I gave the good vibes cheer at 9,000 feet. "Weíre tired, cold and hungry. Letís come away with something! Letís do it!". The oxygen was turned on at 10,000 feet AGL. We quietly rode up to 16,000 feet AGL.
Fernando Gallegos was the last jumper out of our plane. He received commands from Jim and relayed them to Duffy Fainer by the door. The 3 minute command was passed back. Then the 1 minute command. The door was opened. Climbout. We were there for a few seconds. Duffy, the front floater, left. I did my turn through the door. "Iím committed - no going back now. Make It Happen." I was slightly uphill from the base. I was abeam of the base on the other exits. They must have had a tighter plane formation. I saw Steveís flashing light. I saw Roger Allen. He was still 50-75 away from the base and illuminated quite well by the photographerís lights. I swooped over behind Roger and followed him to the formation. He docked. He got his grip with Dr. Bob. I docked. I glanced left to see Vic Ayers dock. Then Abe Villanueva docked on Vic. Abe took the grip on me for our zipper. I looked back to the center, then at the ground beyond the far side of the formation. Lights, lights, look at those lights on the ground. Wow! Was it kool looking! I looked back through the formation. It was not flying as nicely as the dark-thirty load. It was never in danger of funneling. I watched the folks on the far side dock in the wacker slots. Chem lights coming out of the darkness to join us. It looked complete. I poked my head up just far enough to see Steveís strobe. He turned it on to key the next point. I dropped my grip on Rogerís leg. He dropped his grip on Todd Hawkins. Damn, my arm is floaty-whatís with that? I gripped Rogerís arm, still wondering what that flailing I did was. I glanced at Steve, now facing me in the wacker formation. I figured we were getting close to breakoff. I saw the folks on the other side leave. I glanced out to the end of my wacker to see their feet disappear into the darkness.
My dirt alert started beeping. I set it for 5,500, instead of 5,000 because it didnít go off at 5K on the dark thirty load. That happened on some other dive I had a 5K breakoff. I think my dirt alert doesnít like 5K. It was hard staying as the beeper ran itís course. Iím trained to bolt when it goes off. I saw someone else twitch and started to bolt along with everyone else in our wave.
I picked my heading, noticed that a translucent cloud was in my flight path. Hey no big deal I can see right through it. I flat tracked. Checked my altimeter. It read 4000K. keep on tracking. Then my visor fogged up as I passed through the wispy, kind of pretty cloud. I couldnít read my altimeter. It was mounted on the right side of my main lift webbing. Oh geez, I am supposed to be counting. Ah, I think thatís about 5 more seconds. I waved off and pullled. My dirt alert started beeping again as I got line stretch. Whew! The hard part is done. No one around me.
I could not see through my visor. I tried to turn on the strobe. Damn. It wasnít working??? I brought two little flashlights with me and had them in my jumpsuit. I groped around and turned those on. I zipped my jumpsuit back up. I was visible, but why wasnít the strobe working?? I pushed my helmet back to clear the visor, turned back to the DZ and unstowed my brakes.
Wow! Look at all those strobes! I could make it to the trucks, but I could see a bunch out near the water that would not. Hope everyone puts their feet together for landing. Wow, the moon was bright! The lights were awesome!
I did a straight in landing approach - just as the plan called for - and landed next to a truck. Safe and sound and ENERGIZED!!!!!!! Wow - what tiredness, coldness and hunger??? That was all gone and replaced by the most euphoric feeling! AWESOME!!!! The visuals of the dive were beautiful. The plan worked. We did it!!! Everyone was safe. It was an incredible and tremendous team effort lead by Steve Woodford.
The Brits brought all the jumpers back to the packing area to check in. We were all jazzed!!! I even had enough energy to pack! People grabbed a beer and headed to the video show. It was awesome. We were great! We did it! Yahoo!
We thanked Steve Woodford for the great job he did. We thanked the pilots, Karl, Alec and Jim, and manifestors, Peggy and Janna. We thanked Bo for keeping the food available. We thanked the photographers, Gary, Greg and Andre. We thanked the jumpers for keeping their commitment. They are the ones you want on your team.
After awhile, folks went back to where ever they were staying. I was hungry, so I went over to the Arco station. Nothing else was open. Barbara Duke and Kliff Keltner were there too! I grabbed a couple of hotdogs and a beer. I went back to the DZ to my usual out in the wilderness camping spot. The moon was still bright. It was cold. I was wired. The hotdogs were pretty bad. I gave about half of each to my dog RePete. Then I noticed my jumpsuit. The right arm blew out! Thatís why I flailed during that transition. Geez, what a time for my jumpsuit to bail on me.
Skydiving will always be different from now on! I definitely appreciate the bonding we do and the commitments we keep.©Copyright 2000 by Jan Meyer.
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