At first glance, the scene—people and airplanes falling out of the sky—looks like something from a Hollywood movie. But what appears to be chaos is actually a highly coordinated effort to set a skydiving world record.
On July 30, 2009, after four days of effort, 108 skydivers flying out of Chicago set a new record for the most people linked in a freeflying, head-down dive. (The previous record, set in 2007, was made up of 69 skydivers.)
Photographer and skydiver Brian Buckland was asked to document the attempt. Click on the gallery below to see more of his photographs from the recording-setting attempt and read excerpts from our interview. Or watch his video here:
Buckland uses a Canon 5D Mark II, with a 24-mm lens, and employs a bite switch to release the shutter in order to leave his hands free. (The camera is attached to his helmet.) For this particular record attempt, Buckland was in a sitting position, almost lying on his back while looking up at the rest of the group. “I’m trying to frame them,” he recalls, “and make sure I’m the right distance away, because it’s not like regular photography where you can just zoom in or out a little bit. To zoom in or out, I have to fly my body ten feet closer or ten feet away. You have to make sure your head is at the right angle, so that you’re not cutting off part of the formation. When it gets that big, it’s very easy to cut off the bottom edge or the top edge and not realize it.”
While 108 skydivers were part of the record, there were approximately 140 jumpers on site. “There was a pretty big ‘bench,’ as we call it,” says Buckland, “of people that were waiting to get on.”
Every jump is recorded with video and still photography; event organizers review the video after each attempt and identify who needs to step down, and who will be brought in as a replacement. “There’s a chance you can get back on [the record attempt],” says Buckland, “but when there’s that big of a bench—over 30 people, and they’re all good—they’re all going to be given a shot before you get back on. There’s a good chance you’ll be sitting for a while. It’s hard. They train all year, and then they get cut.”
The team completed six attempts on July 30th, jumping out of five DeHavilland Twin Otters “flying in formation like a flock of geese,” remembers Buckland. “Early on, one of our first jumps was over 100 [people], and then all of a sudden we built 106, and there were two people just about to get on… But for safety we have to break off at a certain altitude, and we ran out of time.”
Before setting foot in the aircraft, however, the group joins in “dirt diving,” or building the formation on the ground. “That way,” says Buckland, “you can get the site picture of who’s where, and figure out how you’ll get to your spot from the aircraft.”
Mastering the Formation
The photographers—and there were five for this event—are among the first to jump out of the aircraft. “The front lead plane has the base, or the center of the formation,” says Buckland. “When they leave, all the other planes unload. As we get ready to unload, we climb out—there are steps and handles and bars on the outside of the aircraft. As the cameraman, I’m all the way in the back towards the tail with a foot on the step and a hand on the handle. I’m watching the front center plane, and as soon as I see bodies coming out of it, I let go and I start my skydive. I was one of two people who were underneath the group, and then we had someone who was on level, and two people that were above, moving around.”
Coordinating a triple-digit jump wasn’t easy. “People would fly down and follow a person into what they thought was their slot, or pod, and when they got there, they’d realize they were following the wrong person—or it wasn’t their slot,” says Buckland. “On the very last jump we had that happen with somebody. This guy was one pod off. He realized he was on the wrong pod right away, but instead of going to the left—one pod over and fixing it, he went the other way, all the way around 107 people. He got all the way around, and got in at the very last second.”
Visit Buckland’s website to see additional aerial photographs. To learn more about his interest in combining skydiving with photography, read a piece he wrote in 2008 for Boston.com.