by Rudi Albrecht
The group, 19 jumpers and one camera flyer, was huddled under the wing of Elsinore Blue Otter, trying to find protection from the Southern California sun. We were preparing to go up with a four-plane formation to attempt to push the RW formation record for Skydivers Over Sixty (SOS) from 60 to 70. This was the last day of the event, and we had come to realize that our chances of success were slim.
At long last the pilot came over, telling us that the Skyvan from the Perris Valley drop zone was on its way, 10 minutes out.
“OK, let’s hear it for the pilot,” said Larry, our plane captain “He has been giving us good service all week”. A round of applause went up.
“Do you know what a ‘Him’ is?” one of the jumpers asked the pilot.
“A him?” The Pilot looked clueless. This of course was our signal-
“HIM! HIM! F*CK HIM!” we roared. The pilot smiled. He knew that coming from skydivers this was a compliment. Maybe he was also grateful that we had just added an important item to his cultural reference frame.
The electric airplane tow truck appeared, pulling the diesel startup generator for the Otter. Clean energy pulling dirty energy. We quickly lined up in reverse exit sequence and climbed up the ladder into the plane. Better to get hot than to get nauseated by diesel fumes and the smell of burning kerosene.
Quickly we took our assigned positions on the benches, which run the length of the cabin. We strapped ourselves in. We also checked our oxygen equipment—we were about to go to 16,000 feet, so O2 was required. Hypoxia is insidious. We had already had problems with O2, so we were extra careful.
The engines of Blue Otter were now up and running. Sitting on the starboard side next to the door separating the cabin from the cockpit I saw a white dot, low on the horizon, become visible through the windshield. The Skyvan, our lead plane. It landed, taxied swiftly to the loading area, and the skydivers got on. Interesting, I thought, from a distance you cannot really tell that all these guys—and gals—are 60 and older. What is it that makes a person look old from a distance? The absence of a parachute?
Wheeling around, the Skyvan blew a gigantic cloud of dust across the loading area. It gathered speed down the runway. The trail planes followed seconds later. The formation became airborne: the Skyvan in the lead, two Otters trailing right and left, plus a Cessna Caravan behind our Blue Otter on the right. Thermals buffeted the planes, but soon we were over the lake and things got quiet.
Seat belts and helmets came off at a thousand feet and everybody arranged themselves in a more comfortable position. I looked down the length of the cabin. Quite a collection of elderly gentlemen! Some pilots and retired military, as one would expect. But also medical doctors, grandparents, scientists, and even the odd accountant. Most of them with thousands of jumps, they had been national champions, had been at world meets. Still competitive, but not any longer in the Skygod type of manner. Challenged more by the task at hand rather than the desire to increase their social standing in the peer group.
I kept my helmet on until the Dytter audible altimeter went off. I was going to be in the outer ring of the formation and the break off plan had me start to track at 6,500′ and pull at 4,000′. With the altimeter on my wrist I have to rely on the Dytter to tell me the pull altitude. So I figured I better make sure that it still worked on the way up.
From my position I had a perfect view of the instrument panel. The rate of climb had settled at a steady one thousand feet per minute. The fat white ass of the Perris Skyvan was looming a hundred feet up and two hundred feet in front. Looking across, out the cabin window between Larry and Glenn I saw Red Otter hanging in the air. The Caravan, behind us, was out of sight.
There was not a lot of conversation. Everybody knew that we had been performing below our own expectations, so now was the time to get on the perfect wavelength, to be ready to deliver maximum effort during the jump. Eyes closed, hands moving slightly, you could tell that people were mentally going through the jump, were trying to anticipate all the challenges which could present themselves during those crucial 90 seconds of freefall, the time during which everything is supposed to come together.
Building a 70-way formation requires not only the kind of personnel which is capable of putting such a formation together, more than anything else it requires a plan. And then it requires an organization which is able to implement the plan.
There are some basic truths which are almost too embarrassing to repeat, such as: no base, no skydive. We had learned that the hard way years ago. The base team did a magnificent job last year, which got us the 60-over-60 record. This year, with changes and substitutions, plus a spell of bad weather just before the record attempts, the base needed a couple of jumps to get their act together. They finally managed.
Exits. This is probably where the age issue plays the largest role. We elderly gentlemen are accustomed to doing things at a measured pace. We also do not tend to stick our thighs into other guys asses, nor are we used to having this done to us. It took two jumps and some firm words from Larry to get Blue Otter Team to enjoy the required close physical proximity. And to sort of explode out the door. In the air it worked. Out of the mock-up, on the ground, the excitement wore off quickly and gave way to caution: no sense straining the old meniscus or risking an uncoordinated stumble, damaging knee or hip replacements, which a surprising number of people had.
“Why,” I hear you ask, “would anybody jump with an artificial hip?” Because they are fighters, that’s why. Because they acknowledge that there is fate, but they reserve their right to not accept it. Among the group were people who had recovered from serious accidents and from problems like heart surgery and cancer. Over the years these killers have taken several SOS friends away from us. But those that survived are back in the air.
“Oxygen! 12,000 feet, oxygen on!” commanded the pilot. Tom, the last diver, sitting in the copilot’s seat, repeated. Redundancy is a good strategy in this high-noise level environment. Glenn, across from me, put on his full-face helmet, stuck the oxygen hose into the port, and reached underneath the bench where the O2 bottle was strapped down. The flow of oxygen started, instantly cooling my tongue. Too much, indicated Larry. Glenn adjusted the flow. He then established eye contact with the people near the door, at the opposite end of the oxygen distribution system, to make sure that they, too, got an adequate amount. They gestured OK.
The position near the door is a thankless one. I have been a floater on some of our previous record attempts, so I know. On engine startup you get a generous dose of kerosene fumes. On the initial climb the Plexiglass door acts like a greenhouse, but above 12,000′ it becomes freezing cold. On exit you have to get off the O2 early, because you need to climb out and hang on. And you get even colder. There is a small reward, however: the view of a formation of planes against a steel-blue sky, tightening up to launch a large number of skydivers, is magnificent.
Well, time to go through the jump once more. For me the biggest unknown is where to expect the base after I exit the plane. Yes, the airplane formation had been flying predictably, but there is always the uncertainty where exactly the 8-way base, which is launched as a piece and which needs some rearranging after stabilizing, where exactly the base will be after all this maneuvering. How far down and how far out. Plus of course possible exit problems and other assorted challenges among our own group.
Larry calls himself a potato counter. When the floaters leave he starts counting: one-potato, two-potato, three-potato. The goal is to get everybody out of the plane by five or six potatoes. So this is approximately how far the base is down and out. A five-potato dive is a safe strategy. With emphasis on “safe”- a conventional dive does not allow you to keep the base in sight on exit, because you are looking the other way. Not that you would have seen it anyway: on a five-potato exit an 8-way base is usually too far away to be seen, it blends into the background. All you see is people going towards a point in space. And you follow them.
You don’t want to extend your dive too long, lest you run into the base like a human torpedo. This is frowned upon, even if you do no damage. So on large formations and long dives I take a quick look-see after about five seconds. Locate the base, find out whether it is still arranged along the line of flight, check how the slots are building. Check the plan against reality. They are now 10 seconds into their jump, the flakers should be in the process of docking.
Doing a lot of vertical RW I have been toying with the idea of doing the dive in a VRW head-down position, turned 180 degrees. This way I’d be much faster, see the base earlier, have it in the center of my field of view rather than at the upper rim of my goggles. See much better where I am going. In fact, one could initiate the track towards the base on the back- tracking on the back is faster than tracking on the belly. And then do a barrel roll and continue the red zone work conventionally. One day I might try this. But there is no use in surprising everybody with unconventional maneuvers.
Slowing the dive for this reconnaissance has its problems, though. It costs time. On the other hand it conserves altitude and thus might save you from hopelessly undershooting the level of the base, with no way in the universe to get back up to the formation. Have you ever tried to out-float a 70-way?
The worst case scenario is to find that there is no base. That there had been a funnel. And now there are 70+ people scattered in a 300-by-300-by-300 foot cube of air, waiting for something to develop. My strategy for the outermost people is not to wait too long. It is very unlikely that your slot will ever materialize. And just to touch somebody, anybody, is not worth the risk. Get out. Track. Track as far as you can. Track down to your assigned altitude. Do not wait for everybody else to start tracking. 70 people tracking in an uncoordinated manner is the stuff that nightmares are made of.
This is what goes through my mind while I am sitting there, sucking oxygen. The other thing which goes through my mind is safety: check reserve handle, check cutaway pad, make sure the pilot chute is properly in its pouch. I check my harness. I want the buckles tight enough so they will not lose tension and slip. I want the whole harness loose enough so I can move unencumbered. Easy to do in a Skyvan, where you can stand up. Difficult to do while sitting on the bench in an Otter, sort of doubled over. So I have memorized a number of reference points on my harness and I just pull the straps tight enough until they reach these reference points.
“One minute!” yells the pilot. “Bench up!” commands Larry. Everybody on the starboard side gets up and stows the seat belts behind the bench. Then the whole bench, running the length of the airplane, flips up against the fuselage. I turn left 270 degrees, such as not to twist the O2 line around my head. I kneel and find the latch. It is a new one, replacing the pin, which at earlier jumps had given us real problems. It is a sure way to have a lousy exit if 15 feet of bench come crashing down in the middle of it.
The new latch works well, but it requires a lot of pressure against the bench to make it slip into the little hole in the bulkhead. No problem, though, for a bunch of guys high on adrenaline. I report bench secured. I then try to make room for Tom, who is unfolding himself from the copilot’s seat, twisting and turning to avoid touching the pedals and the control column, and then squeezing through the narrow doorway from the cockpit into the cabin.
We are still on oxygen—no way of telling just precisely how long this particular one-minute will be. I have been on loads when the one-minute warning transformed itself into a go-around.
Not this time. “DOOR!” yells the pilot. Quickly the word is passed on. The floaters and the video flyer push the sliding Plexiglass door up. The noise level increases and cold air floods the cabin. The front floater sticks his head out, looking at the Skyvan. The rear door is up, he can see the base team take grips and move to the edge of the ramp. There they will wait for 10 seconds, to give the floaters in the trail planes a chance to get into their position.
The noise of the slipstream changes as the front floater climbs out. He is supposed to protect the other floaters and the camera flyer from the prop blast. Five people are now on the outside of the plane. Time to get rid of the oxygen hose and to move towards the rear of the plane. We know that the base team in the Skyvan will not be able to hold their position for much longer. Even if they did, we know that after about 12 seconds with people on the outside of the plane, Blue Otter will start porpoising. This will make you float up inside the cabin like an astronaut. It does not make for fast exits.
“Tighten up!” yells Larry. We try, but before we fully succeed the floaters are gone and with them the first row of divers. They had been crouching in the door with their helmets in the bellies of the floaters. Instantly a mad shuffle towards the door sets in. 12 more people, go, go, go! Don’t push the guy in front, but don’t let him get away either. Larry, in front of me, launches himself from four feet inside the plane. I do the same, in lockstep, aiming for the center of the forward half of the door. Avoid hitting the floater bar. Avoid being pushed into the door-frame by the prop blast. Keep your shins away from the lower edge. Bring your right shoulder up to meet the airstream properly so you can transition into a dive right away. And be prepared to protect your face from the heels of the guy in front of you.
For a moment I lose sight of Larry as I enter my dive, putting my hands on my buttocks. Looking up between my legs I can see Tom and Glenn following me. I can also see Blue Otter fly away. Off to my right I see the last divers, which had exited the Skyvan.
I enjoy the feeling of speed building up. Give it another couple of seconds of clean dive, I think. And then it is time to take a snapshot.
I bring my head up just enough to see the base. It is roughly where I expected it to be, with the early divers closing in. It is also aligned along the line of flight and so I have indeed been heading for my correct quadrant. The flakers are nibbling at the base. Mad John’s garish green jumpsuit is clearly visible, I use it to establish my precise radial. I adjust my direction of flight and dive again for about three seconds, intensely checking for traffic.
As I flatten out I can see that the flakers have done their job and the zippers are getting to work. I locate Larry, blue jumpsuit, black helmet, gold emblem on his reserve. I can also see Tom, worn frap hat, faded blue suit with flower-power grippers, who passed me during my slowdown. He is sheep dogging Larry, who in turn is following Eike. Eike will close the zipper of our sector once it is built. We are still about 200 feet out, but closing swiftly.
I move up. Larry likes to have us follow him in the red zone at 10 feet or less. A bit close for me. Lots of spurious things can happen, and the last thing you want is a collision. So I am being very careful. Burning a little altitude I am now about 10 feet above and 15 feet behind Larry.
We both reduce forward velocity. I watch Eike take leg grips on his two zipper guys. He docks with some leftover momentum, but gets rid of it by quickly flexing his arms and bringing his knees up for an instant. Larry waits until Eike is in the boxman position and then moves in and takes a grip on Eikes left leg. He settles in for a moment, while I move up, entering the buffeting air between sectors. Off to my left other people are working towards their assigned positions, I must not interfere with them. Larry’s left thumb comes up, signaling that it is all right to dock. I move in, sacrificing the last foot of altitude which I had been conserving. Contact.
I feel Larry’s wrist watch underneath the sleeve of his jumpsuit, but there is no need changing the grip now. Instead, check how the rest of the formation is doing and help it fly. Help it fall as fast as possible in fact, to give the guys who are still out there a chance to get in. I am certain that Tom got in, he was in a perfect position. Also Glenn made it, as expected. They are both in a whacker position off Larry’s right leg. Our sector is now complete.
There is some commotion in the formation as more people dock in other sectors. Rubber sheeting. We have been up against this problem all the time. Move with the flow, try to dampen the oscillations, but never wrestle with the formation. Push cautiously towards the center to take the tension off the grips. I see one person hopelessly low, probably the result of having gotten into a burble for some reason. Two other people are in a desperate floater position across the formation from me. They are just a few feet down, but unable to float up. The formation, by now containing more than 50 skydivers, is too slow.
Seconds later I see a deployment bag lift off on my left. It is the prearranged signal for break off. I don’t even wait for the canopy to extract the jumper from the formation, but do a quick 180 to the right, as called for by the break-off plan. So does Larry, his feet missing my face by inches. I find a clean line away from the formation and make haste. Legs stretched and arms along my side I fly at maximum horizontal speed, always checking that nobody crosses my flight path below me. I now continue to fly, relying on the Dytter to tell me when to pull. In such a situation time moves slowly and the ground comes up quickly. Finally the signal goes off. I bring my arms forward very deliberately, to let people who might be above me know that I am about to pull. One more wave with my left hand, while I bring the right arm back to the bottom of my container to pull the pilot chute. I extract it and throw it into the airflow. Two seconds later my canopy unfolds and jerks me upright.
I had survived the jump. Now I only had to survive the landing. I knew that there were more than 70 canopies around me. Fortunately the separation was clean for everybody, so no problem heading for our assigned landing zones. I aimed for the outer fringes of the area. Flying a 107 I do not want to get boxed in between slower canopies. The drop-zone van, already in position to pick up jumpers after landing, presented itself as a convenient target. The last remaining problem was the fact that there was hardly any wind. Running off the brisk landing speed of a small canopy in no-wind conditions is always a bit of a challenge for the elderly gentleman.
Well, we did not get the record this year. Not on this jump and not on the jumps which followed. But not to worry. There will be another year, and we will try again, and we will—git ‘er done!
©All rights reserved Rudi Albrecht