By Stephanie Choate
Nearly 140 skydivers hurled themselves out of six tightly packed planes earlier this month, assembling into a record-breaking giant snowflake formation while careening toward the ground at up to 220 miles per hour.
The 138-person group was the largest number of head-to-earth skydivers linking up in a pre-arranged formation—beating the previous record of 108.
Former Williston resident and Champlain Valley Union High School graduate Mike Swanson was one of the organizers of the dangerous feat, along with fellow professional skydiver Rook Nelson.
“Finding the right people, the right team, is probably the biggest key to success,” he said. “You can’t do it without the right people.”
Swanson and Nelson spent months preparing—meticulously planning each detail of the formation and assembling an expert team before heading up in the planes themselves. Skydivers exited the plane in an orderly stream, each following the person in front of them.
“We figure out the whole process first on paper and theory then go up and try it,” Swanson said. “It builds from the middle out. The last people into the formation are the last people to drop, so there’s not much traffic to worry about.”
It took the group 15 tries over three days to nail the formation.
“It ended up being like a puzzle, trying to get the right people in the right slots that work best for them,” Swanson said. “Sometimes it takes a little while.”
To claim the record, skydivers must form into a predetermined formation and capture it on video or in a photograph.
Swanson said that in skydiving, speed is relative. Unlike in BASE jumping, when there is a cliff or building rushing past, skydivers are surrounded by other people falling at the same rate.
“It doesn’t feel as much like you’re falling as you are floating and moving around,” he said.
Skydiving has been a part of Swanson’s life since kindergarten. His father opened a drop site when he was 5, and he jumped out of a plane as soon as he was legally able at 16.
“I grew up hanging around it,” he said. “It was a natural thing, kind of like learning to drive.”
Since that first jump, he has won multiple world and national skydiving championships and appeared as a BASE jumper in several movies. Most recently, he jumped off downtown Chicago skyscrapers for Transformers 3.
Now, Swanson is part of the Red Bull Air Force—a team of skydivers and pilots that travels to various demonstrations and events for the energy drink.
In October, Swanson is set to head to China to compete in the Wingsuit BASE Race. Competitors in wingsuits jump off a mountaintop platform and race down the mountainside, swerve around a hot air balloon and fly under the cable of a cable car. The race takes planning and precision, since the suits have a glide ratio of 3 to 1—three feet forward for every foot dropped.
“It’s like a small parachute you wear,” Swanson said. “Like a flying squirrel.”