In November 2008, 71 wingsuit pilots flew in a stealth-bomber-shaped formation over Skydive Elsinore.
It was the largest slot-specific formation in the short history of this emerging
discipline. But how did the event, which was billed as a “Wingsuit World
Record,” change the future of wingsuit flying (if at all)? In a discipline still
unrecognized by the FAI and the Guinness Book of World Records, what does it
mean to try setting new standards?
71: Achievement and Frustration
The idea of a big-way wingsuit record was not new. The most notable previous
event was in Cochstedt, Germany in July 2006. Organizers there sought Guinness
recognition for the largest number of wingsuits exiting on a single jump run,
out of an Antonov 72.
In contrast, the 2008 71-way at Skydive Elsinore was a purely invitational event
focused on slot-specific flying in a four-plane formation. A diverse
international team reflected a worldwide growth in the discipline and a global
desire to achieve something recognizable within our sport. Hailing from as far
as South Africa and Russia, participants from 14 countries qualified for a
chance to fly in the big-way by demonstrating their skills at official camps and
through a referral system. Five were women (the few, the proud, the only gender
not to have a single member axed from her slot!).
The 71-way marked significant achievements as well as frustration. In the
achievements column, the team flew a new, wider spacing that reduced oscillation
and movement within the unlinked formation. This led to multiple smooth and
on-level jumps that looked beautiful from the ground.
The previous slot-specific record recognized within the wingsuit community was a
16-way diamond. Like that formation, most small groups had employed a
“head-to-foot” spacing technique that encouraged proximity but usually resulted
in trailing flyers at the back and reactive vertical motion within the flock.
The scope and level of organizing, while it left much room for improvement, was
also a check in the achievements column. While there was some initial grumbling
about the level of seriousness and the pushing of safety standards in
communications to team members prior to the event, most participants expressed
relief that the 71-way jumps would be a focused record attempt and not “just
Frustration arose when it came time to judge whether the group had succeeded in
setting a “world record”. The initial goal was to have each wingsuit pilot
flying within three-square-meter boxes arranged in a grid that would be
superimposed over still photographs of the formation. The organizers’
proclamation of success was based on a photograph where all flyers were either
fully within or touching at least one edge of their three-square-meter grid
square. However, without an outside judging structure, heated discussions
escalated the meaning of “success” and the best way of judging unlinked
formations into a full-throttle debate.
Beyond R&D;: 100 over Elsinore
The debate about how to judge large wingsuit formations will continue unabated
until an outside governing body agrees to recognize one set of objective
criteria. The 71-way was destined to be a “work in progress” since it had never
been done before. With the lessons learned from the experience, an expanded
organizing team is preparing for a 100-way wingsuit event at Skydive Elsinore
from November 7th to November 13th, 2009.
While some ask whether trying to set records before there are established
categories is futile, skydiving is not a sport that waits for mainstream
approval in order to change and grow. Wingsuiting is an especially
entrepreneurial and fast-growing subculture. The hope is to continue safely
demonstrating what is possible. In doing so, organizers strive to create events
that excite new skydivers and unite those already committed to wingsuit flight.
Armed with evidence from last year’s judging attempts, big-way organizers are
prepared to continue lobbying both the FAI and Guinness.
The 100-way five aircraft formation is invitational. Skills camps are planned
between now and July, when official qualifying events begin. A specific Skills
Checklist sets out minimum jump requirements and what exit, flying, and canopy
skills potential participants need to practice and perfect in order to gain a
spot on the team. For more specific information about the 2009 Wingsuit 100-way,
go to www.wingsuitworldrecord.com.
Numbers and Recognition
Official recognition of wingsuit flight as a skydiving discipline will bring a
clear judging regime – and therefore, is ultimately necessary for long-term
growth. Competition drives our sport, and desire to achieve recognizable goals
is at the heart of every team. Whether with the versatility and creativity of
vertical relative work or the sheer size of the formation World Team, standards
and rules (some made to be broken) compel excellence and progress.
In the current vacuum, setting new standards and claiming achievements without
official rules is difficult but necessary. The 71-way, for all its
imperfections, spurred the wingsuiting community to more seriously consider how
it wants to be judged. It also demonstrated that such events have the potential
to recruit serious sponsorship and interest from both new skydivers and
experienced jumpers in other disciplines. That’s the future.