Wings over Elsinore: Wingsuit Pilots Make History
By Taya Weiss
Published in Parachutist Volume 50, Number 01, Issue 591. January 2009.
When 71 wingsuit pilots built a slot-perfect formation at Skydive Elsinore in November, observers on the ground were stunned by the sight. The wingsuiting community had previously defined its largest slot-perfect formation as a 16-way diamond. Wingsuit pilots from 14 countries on six continents traveled from as far away as South Africa and Russia to be part of the big-way team. Five of the 71 were women, a ratio that organizers hope to increase next year.
Behind the achievement of the team’s 71-way goal was a committed team of six organizers working around the clock on logistics, planning, and safety: Jeff Nebelkopf (the event’s founder), Taya Weiss, Phil Peggs, Mark Harris, Ed Pawlowski, and Justin Shorb. Together with Skydive Elsinore DZO John Hamilton and his staff, they had a secondary goal: to push an emerging discipline to the next level of safety and recognition.
Although the FAI does not yet recognize wingsuit flying, the organizers believe it soon will. As an invitational, slots on the team were reserved for wingsuit pilots who proved their skills at qualifying events all over the United States and the world throughout the year. Once qualified, team members received regular communication about the event beginning more than a month in advance. Taya Weiss wrote and disseminated Team Briefings, including a clear and instrumental set of safety rules on a “yellow card/red card” system developed by Peggs.
Ten alternates were present at Skydive Elsinore to take up slots vacated by red cards or injury, and all of them were pulled in at least once during the week. The entire team focused on maintaining safety standards, and rules were enforced without fear or favor.
Breakfast was provided daily at Skydive Elsinore starting at 6am. As participants arrived before sunrise, coffee was a welcome way to wake up before dirt dives on dew-soaked grass in the landing area. For the initial dives on Saturday and Sunday, the team was divided up into four groups – led by plane captains Harris, Nebelkopf, Pawlowski and Shorb – so that they could learn to fly their separate quadrants. Videographers Matt Hoover, Scotty Burns, Craig O’Brien and Norman Kent filmed the jumps.
Sunday night, after one of three dinners sponsored by Team Ill Vision, organizers held a detailed safety briefing to get everyone ready to join the quadrants for the big-way attempts. Everything was planned and briefed in advance: jump run, climbout, exit, build and breakoff.
On Monday, the entire team joined together to begin the large formation attempts out of four Otters. The quadrants came together, and though not perfect, the stealth-bomber-like shape of the flock was visible from the first attempt. Team captains worked hard to maintain participants’ focus and morale throughout the remaining days of non-stop jumping, dirt diving and sunrise-to-dark commitment.
On Wednesday, the hoped-for skydive was achieved. The result was spectacular; an unlinked, slot-specific formation in constant forward motion. Reporters and photographers from all over the world came to witness the achievement. Douglas Spotted Eagle, in addition to jumping on the team, coordinated media exposure and kept a detailed blog that he updated every day.
For Nebelkopf, who conceived of the 71-person formation a full year before it became a reality, seeing the team come together was a vindicating experience. “There were so many people who said this could never be done,” he said, “and we have now proven that we can build big, safe, precise formations just like any other discipline in skydiving.”
The organizing team, far from resting on its laurels, has already begun planning for next year’s event. Official skills camps and qualifying events will be held all over the world – so get your wingsuit on and get ready!
Copyright 2009 Taya Weiss