Falling to Earth safely at 160 miles per hour, from an altitude of 19,000 feet, requires a lot from a skydiver. When 100 daredevils jump at once, the challenge increases exponentially.
Skills and training are important for any team’s triumphs, but if there was ever a time when air-tight communication was critical to a project, it was during the world record-setting jump achieved by an all-woman skydiving group in Arizona in late 2022. The feat had been planned two years earlier, to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote, until the pandemic caused a delay.
For this modern history-making event, the group’s members were veterans — all with at least 10 years’ experience, some of them stunt women. Months of training, rehearsals, and a solid game plan, complete with hand signals and contingencies for missteps, played a crucial role in the team’s success. Over a series of jumps during Thanksgiving week, the skydivers attempted the record, each jump totaling a mere 80 seconds.
The effort started in 2018, when veteran Arizona skydiver Amy Chmelecki, a professional with 20,000 dives under her belt, hatched a plan to commemorate the centennial of the landmark legislation. “It’s hard to imagine,” Chmelecki says, “that women wouldn’t have the right to vote in the United States.”
Chmelecki enlisted fellow pro skydiver Sara Curtis to co-organize the event, which was sponsored by the Women’s Skydiving Network. The two put out the word for tryouts, and pulled together an international team of 120 experienced female skydivers from Chile to China. Ranging in age from 19 to 56, each had tallied 2,500 previous jumps, on average.
The goal was twofold: to surpass the previous record of 65 women in a vertical jump, which was set by an all-female group that included Chmelecki in 2016, and to inspire other women in whatever leaps of ambition they wanted to make with their lives.
The size of the group was one challenge. The method of the jump was another. Skydivers leap from planes in two ways. One is a belly dive, in which parachute jumpers fall toward Earth horizontally — flat on their stomachs, facing the ground, arms spread wide. The other is a vertical dive, in which they plummet vertically — upside down, heads toward Earth and feet toward the sky. It was the latter, a newer discipline, that Chmelecki chose for the group’s record attempt.
Training began in 2018, with the commemorative dive scheduled for 2020, until the pandemic threw a wrench in the group's plans. In 2022, as the world had begun opening back up again, the event was rescheduled for Thanksgiving week in Eloy, Ariz., roughly an hour southeast of Phoenix.
During training, participants gathered in groups of 10 to 20 in locations round the globe, slowly building their teams up to groups of 30 to 40. Teams rehearsed their formations in the sky as well as on the ground. This process, called dirt diving, requires participants to walk through the steps and movements they will make in the air, much like dancers rehearsing moves for a routine. Among the steps rehearsed: exit procedures, body positions, formations, maneuvers, and other aspects of the planned skydive.
This mental and physical rehearsal ensures that all participants are on the same page in understanding their roles and responsibilities in the jump. It also allows them to identify potential issues in advance, clarify communication signals, and improve coordination, all of which contribute to a safer and more successful skydive.
Skydivers also conducted training in wind tunnels, including a facility in Abu Dhabi. There, participants practiced formations without fear of running out of time before they reached the ground. The group meet-ups were coordinated by regional captains, including Melanie Curtis, a skydiver from New Jersey. A regional director for the Women’s Skydivers Network, she has undertaken more than 12,000 jumps. Others trained diligently at home, including Jazmyne Kalyer, a registered nurse and skydiver from Canada. In addition to physical and mental exercise, she practiced meditation to ensure she would be able to control her breathing during the dive.
During the week of Thanksgiving, the aspiring record-breakers met en masse in Eloy to rehearse the complex, high-level formation and make practice dives in small groups. Once skydivers are airborne, they can’t speak to one another, so the visual cues are vital. Although there are a few rudimentary hand signals to share information, success comes down to eye contact, reading body language, and falling into the rhythm of movements as rehearsed.
“Part of communicating well and performing well is creating those team vibes in those smaller sections, so that we can feel that much safer when we exit the aircraft,” Curtis notes. When people feel more comfortable, they feel they can share their ideas and give feedback, too. Creating confidence within one group of skydivers “reverberates out into the bigger team,” she added.
To allow all 100 jumpers to embark at once, they climbed into five airplanes that reached altitude in V-formation. Inside the aircraft, a light signaled go-time. As the skydivers leaped out, they turned themselves upside down. While descending, they steered themselves toward one another using specific arm and leg positions to aerodynamically manipulate the direction and speed of their freefall.
Then, they grasped hands in groups of five to form a circle, and within 80 seconds, those circles joined one another in a formation that resembled a snowflake, as this video provided by Womens Skydiving Network shows.
During their multiple jumps over the course of a week — 30 jumps in all — there was no way for team members to know whether they’d achieved a world record or not. As they descended from the sky, the divers’ watches buzzed to alert them when they reached a predetermined altitude at which it was time to break off and pull their parachutes for a safe landing.
When things went wrong in the sky — nothing fatal, for this experienced group — skydivers had to respond quickly. Kalyer, the nurse, said she leads by example, by noticing what’s going wrong and doing her best to fix it for someone else.
When things went right, it was a different sensation. “When the records happen, you can just feel that it's happening,” Kalyer says. The elation is fleeting. The mind, Kalyer says, switches back to “Now I’ve got to track off and open my parachute and land it, and have all the excitement on the ground.”
In the end, the team did not achieve a 100-person dive. However, these women, like the forbears they were celebrating, did make history. On Nov. 25, 2022, at 10 a.m., Project 19 successfully completed an 80-member formation, smashing the previous record by 15 divers.
Chmelecki, who organizes world record attempts every few years, says this isn’t the end, but the beginning of several new projects. She vows another try at a 100-way women’s vertical record, perhaps in 2026. “Records like this ask a lot out of each participant,” she notes. “Therefore we spread them out.” And she and Curtis, her co-organizer, are planning other record-setting jumps for 2024, including a night vertical record and a co-ed upright world record.
“Records — they’re this symbolic, tangible thing that represents the evolution of the sport,” Chmelecki says. “Once that new record gets built, that’s where the bar is now for the support. So you can literally see the evolution with each record.”
Bottom line: For plans to take shape, communicate.
Willa Hart is a freelance writer.
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