For almost twenty years, Steve Woodford has been organizing night large formation records. Despite multiple successes, one goal eluded him. He was never able to get night world records acknowledged by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Based in Switzerland, the FAI is the official arbiter of aviation records worldwide. While they recognize large formation skydiving records, they had no category for night records, since vacating the category back in the early 80’s after the official FAI Night Large Formation World Record of a 27-way was completed at Perris in 1980. The women also completed a 15 way Night World Record in 1978.
In April of 2015, Steve petitioned the USPA Competition committee to recognize National Night Large Formation Records. After lengthy explanations in answer to the many questions concerning the safety measures involved, the Committee agreed and created the Category.
In January of 2016, at the request of Steve, the United States Parachute Association’s IPC representative Kirk Verner petitioned the International Parachute Commission of the FAI to establish a record category for night large formations. Kirk did an excellent presentation and convinced the IPC to agree to create the Night Record category again. Night Large Formations that meet the FAI’s criteria would now be designated as official world records.
So Steve immediately started planning, set the dates for the night record event at Skydive Arizona, and put the word out. Recruiting jumpers for a night record event is no easy task. Plenty will tell you that they have absolutely no interest, period. Others would like to join in but lack good night vision. Since the timing of a night record effort must correspond to a full moon and preferably a weekend, there is little flexibility regarding the dates. With the proliferation of big-way events, boogies, Nationals and World Meets, schedule conflicts with other events are almost inevitable. Nevertheless, Steve charged forward.
Over the years he has developed an ingenious plan for night large formation jumps. For this event he would use that plan and add a new idea - a new light system. Sun Path Products sponsored each member of the team with a set of microLED lights designed for being wrapped around the frame of bicycles. Each strand is 6.5 feet long and has 40 ultra-bright lights. The lights were wrapped around one leg strap of each team member providing excellent assistance in approaching and docking on the formation. There were five light colors allowing each of the five sectors to have a distinct color.
The break-off plan Steve has developed for night large formation jumps is unique and effective. The formation of forty skydivers had five break-off waves starting at 6,000 feet AGL with a new wave every 500 feet. No wave had more than ten jumpers and everyone deployed 1,000 feet below where they broke off. The idea was to get trackers under canopy quickly and at multiple levels to avoid traffic. Long tracks from large formations are fine during the day when there is visual contact, but at night, the longer the track, the more dangerous it becomes as jumpers have no idea of each other’s location at pull time.
The final component of his unique plan is a downwind spot that allows for all jumpers to immediately, on opening, grab rear risers and orient to the same pre-determined direction in relation to the moon and fly in parallel until landing into the wind. Also, they switch on the red flashing light attached to their chest straps. So if a jumper sees a red flashing light, it signifies a canopy flying towards them and action can be taken to avoid a collision. The vehicles distributed around the open Arizona desert that is used for landings all have their headlights facing into the wind. With no landing pattern or turns after opening, conflicts are avoided.
For the first time, Steve made this a three day event instead of just a one day event as in previous Records. Each day presents only one actual night record attempt so a three day event would provide three. This is because each day consists of three daylight practice jumps followed by a twilight jump less than half an hour after sunset. The twilight jump allows the team to see all the lights that will be used for the night jump in dim light and practice the canopy flight plan. After landing, packing and time for dinner, a full dirt dive with lights and then the night record attempt..
On November 10 the team of 40 “Moonlighters” gathered under the direction of Steve and his plane Captains Kim Barden and Jim McCormick. The record attempt that night went well but no cigar. The next night the magic happened. At 8:20 p.m. skydivers from eight countries exited two Twin Otters at 16,250 feet AGL under the surreal light of the largest moon observed in 70 years because of its close proximity to the Earth. Following the plan they had now practiced eight times, each flew to their color-coded sectors and docked. With the final grip taken, those forty intrepid jumpers became the first to claim an FAI Night Large Formation World Record since 1980.
Photos - by Laszlo Andacs and Gary Roth – kindly supplied by Laszlo Andacs.
More photos to view or buy on Laszlo's website here.