164 sky­divers smash head-down world record


Trav­el­ing at speeds of up to 390 kilo­me­ters per hour, 164 sky­divers fly­ing head-down built the largest ever ver­ti­cal skydiving for­ma­tion Fri­day over cen­tral Illi­nois, smash­ing the pre­vi­ous record.

It took the in­ter­na­tional team 13 at­tempts to beat the 2012 mark set by 138 sky­divers. The for­ma­tion, re­sem­bling a gi­ant flower, floated above the ru­ral drop zone in Ot­tawa for a few sec­onds be­fore the fly­ers broke away, de­ployed their para­chutes, and whooped and hollered their way to the ground to the ju­bi­la­tion of spec­ta­tors.

“It’s awe­some, man,” said Rook Nel­son, one of the or­ga­niz­ers. “It just goes to show that if you can get the right group of peo­ple to­gether and the right sup­port team and good con­di­tions, any­thing is pos­si­ble ... even on at­tempt num­ber 13.”

The team was se­lected af­ter train­ing camps in Spain, Aus­tralia and across the U.S. Seven air­craft were flown in pre­cise for­ma­tion to en­sure that the jumpers de-planed at the right place, time and al­ti­tude. The record-break­ing jumpers ex­ited at 19,700 feet.

Skydiving videog­ra­phers taped the jump, fly­ing above, be­low and along­side the for­ma­tion. The footage en­abled judges on the ground to ver­ify the record was achieved above Sky­dive Chicago, the drop zone and air­port about 130 kilo­me­ters south­west of Chicago where the event took place.

Three judges cer­ti­fied by the Fed­er­a­tion Aero­nau­tique In­ter­na­tionale — the World Air Sports Fed­er­a­tion — stud­ied the video and photos to make sure each flyer was in a pre­de­ter­mined slot in the for­ma­tion and has his or her hand in the cor­rect po­si­tion. The record was not with­out risks. The sky­divers flew at a min­i­mum speed of 260 kilo­me­ters per hour, and some reached speeds as fast as 390 kilo­me­ters per hour. Col­li­sion at such speeds can be fa­tal.

Jump­ing from such a high al­ti­tude brings a risk of hy­poxia — a con­di­tion aris­ing from a lack of oxy­gen that can cause un­con­scious­ness and other symp­toms — or even death. To re­duce the risk of fall­ing sick, jumpers and pilots sucked down pure oxy­gen once their planes reached 14,000 feet.

And with nearly 170 canopies si­mul­ta­ne­ously fly­ing in the sky, there’s a risk of two parachutists fly­ing into each other.

Still, of ap­prox­i­mately 3.2 mil­lion sport sky­dives in the U.S. in 2014, there were 24 fa­tal­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the United States Para­chute As­so­ci­a­tion.

De­spite the risks, fly­ers came from as far away as France, the UK, Dubai and Aus­tralia — one even spent three days trav­el­ing to Chicago from Re­union, off the coast of Mada­gas­car in the In­dian Ocean — to par­tic­i­pate.

“When (record) jumps work well, it’s like there’s a cer­tain peace to it all, a cer­tain har­mony to it all,” said Nor­man Kent, a long­time skydiving videog­ra­pher who filmed the jump. “And it’s con­ta­gious, it’s like it’s in the air and you can feel it even from a dis­tance as a cam­era­man.”

(Right) In this photo pro­vided by Mickey Nut­tall, mem­bers of an in­ter­na­tional team of sky­divers join hands, fly­ing head-down to build their world-record skydiving for­ma­tion over Ot­tawa, Illi­nois, Fri­day.


(Above) In this photo pro­vided by Jason Peters, mem­bers of an in­ter­na­tional team of sky­divers join hands fly­ing head-down to build their world-record skydiving for­ma­tion over Ot­tawa, Illi­nois, Fri­day, July 31.

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