Traveling at speeds of up to 240 mph, 164 skydivers flying head-down built the largest ever vertical skydiving formation Friday over central Illinois, smashing the previous record.
It took the international team 13 attempts to beat the 2012 mark set by 138 skydivers. The formation, resembling a giant flower, floated above Skydive Chicago in Ottawa for a matter of seconds before the flyers broke away, deployed their parachutes, and whooped and hollered their way to the ground to the jubilation of spectators.
"It's awesome, man," said Rock Nelson, one of the organizers. "It just goes to show that if you can get the right group of people together and the right support team and good conditions, anything is possible ... even on attempt number 13."
It was no easy feat. The team was selected after training camps in Spain, Australia and across the United States, with dozens of talented skydivers disappointed to not make the cut. Seven aircraft were flown in precise formation to ensure that the jumpers de-planed at the right place, time and altitude. The record-breaking jumpers exited at 19,700 feet.
And no record could have been achieved without four videographers — also accomplished skydivers — who flew above, below and beside the formation so the judges on the ground had evidence that the record was achieved.
"The record doesn't count without proof ... it's almost like we live in a sport that doesn't exist without a photographic device," Norman Kent, who has been shooting skydiving photographs and video for four decades, told The Associated Press recently. He has made about 25,000 skydives and has credits on movies including "Get Smart," ''Grudge Match" and "Kingsman."
Three judges certified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale — the World Air Sports Federation — studied the video and stills to check that each flyer was in a pre-determined slot in the formation and has his or her hand in the correct position at the same time.
"They need to do exactly what they tell me they are going to be doing," FAI judge Marylou Laughlin said before the event. "All the grips have to be in exactly the right place."
The record was not without risks.
The skydivers flew at a minimum speed of 160 mph, and some reached speeds as high as 240 mph. Collision at such speeds can be fatal.
Jumping from such a high altitude brings a very real risk of hypoxia — a condition that arises from a lack of oxygen that can cause a variety of symptoms from euphoria akin to drunkenness, to unconsciousness — and death. Thus the jumpers and pilots all sucked down pure oxygen once their planes reached 14,000 feet to reduce the risk of falling sick.
And with nearly 170 canopies simultaneously flying in the sky, the risk of two parachutists flying into each other was also very real.
Of approximately 3.2 million sport skydives in the U.S. in 2014, there were 24 fatalities, according to the United States Parachute Association.
But despite the risks, flyers came from as far away as France, Britain, Dubai, Australia and one who spent three days traveling to Chicago from Reunion, off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, to participate.
Kent summed up the excitement, and calm, of taking part.
"When (record) jumps work well, it's like there's a certain peace to it all, a certain harmony to it all. And it's contagious, it's like it's in the air and you can feel it even from a distance as a cameraman," he said. "Everything all of a sudden just flows and you think 'yeah, it's right there,' and you just know and people in the formation know and it just feels good. And that's everyone working together in harmony."