Catching up with Larry Henderson
Larry has been organising world records and amazing skydiving adventures for over 40 years...
The Skydive Empuriabrava Challenge is a unique event, running World Record events in two orientations on the one drop zone. The famous French load organiser Patrick Passe assembled a group of 106 belly-flying skydivers, with 20 on the 'bench', aiming to break the FAI large sequential world record. Babylon and friends drew a veritable crowd of 104, with 50 on the bench, aiming to build a European record.
In the relatively new category of World Record, Sequential Large Formation, to qualify as a 'large' formation for these rules means you must have a group of at least one quarter the current World Record. Then 35% of the group must move to a new formation in order to be officially recognised as a second point.
The new management of Skydive Empuriabrava was in evidence, with a drop zone transformed like a film set, with plants, walkways, giant photos, lights, balloons, and Regan Tetlow commenting to a rapt crowd of spectators. Large formations are one of the best crowd-pleasers in skydiving as they present a great visual spectacle. A film crew was making beautifully edited day videos, shown on a giant TV screen. Kicking music energised the drop zone and there was a stylish festival atmosphere.
Patrick's group met on Wednesday 18 September at Skydive Empuriabrava, and made 2 and 3 jumps respectively, from 19,000 feet (with oxygen). The first jump for both loads was a bit zoo-stylee, but the second in both cases was mega. Patrick's group made a complete 104-way and held it for 10 seconds.. wishing perhaps that they had planned the second point!
The notorious tramontana winds kept us on the ground the next day but Friday dawned with clear blue skies and not a breath of wind. The first jump the formation did not complete due to a collision and some lost people – but half of the group got some sequential practice by making their second point. The formation flying by the pilots of two Twin Otters, two Beeches, a Caravan, a Dornier and a Porter was so close the organising team actually asked them to open up slightly and be farther away!
On the second jump, which was only the second attempt, the first formation built cleanly and beautifully and was complete by 9,000 feet. the key was given to make the sequential move, and by 7,500 feet the group were flying in their second formation. A wonderful feeling as everyone on the jump had time to 'feel' that it was completed. Often on big-ways you track off not knowing the outcome but this time the general feeling was one of elation, with whooping under canopy and high-fives on landing.
The judges are still counting as I write this so the record is yet to be official. But it seems guaranteed. In fact, it was almost too easy, it was a doddle! It was my second jump here and certainly was the easiest World Record I have made. But this quick success is a testament to the strength of the group Patrick had put together, from the top to the bottom. His laid-back style of organising is the opposite of the American 'boot camp' style. It seemed fitting for the relaxed atmosphere of Empuria.
We are dirt diving the next 106-way jump when the news comes in from the judges… it's official! A new World Record 2-point Sequential! The group goes wild – hugging, embracing, cheering, congratulating each other, all with our record-breaking dive playing on a giant TV in the background. It was like a mosh party but without the alcohol, just everyone high on their achievement. In true Skydive Dubai style fireworks and smoke were going off on all sides, to add to the party atmosphere.
We had planned a 3-point 106-way. The first two points the same as we'd just achieved, and adding a third point, keyed by a streamer. We climbed back up to 19,000 feet, with a long curving ten-minute run-in to allow the different planes to jockey into position. The jump was beautiful – building even quicker and smoother than before. The first point was built, the second was keyed from the centre. I was on tenterhooks for the streamer as I had the move in the third point… we went into cloud, it didn't bother me, I just kept my eyes on Patrick for the streamer - yes! There it was – I made my move and there was that visual silence that told me we must be complete. I sneaked a glance at my alti … 7,500 feet, so we still had 5 seconds to savour the world record feeling in the formation before tracking.
Once again I'm reporting before the judges have made the record official – but I feel so sure it's a given. Way to go! Two World Records in 2 jumps! A World Record in itself! Congratulations to Patrick Passe, his team of Captains (Milko, Martial Ferré, Stephane Mattoni, Alia Veselova, Victor Kravtsov, Pal Bergan, Tom Claeys and me) and each and every participant. To Patrick Passe, Chapeau! A seemingly effortless record, thanks to his excellent preparation, selection, slotting, and sublime leadership.
The judges had declared yesterday's 3-point jump a World Record, so we dirt dived a fourth point of 106-way. We were now to go 1,000 feet higher and break off 500 feet lower. I wasn't convinced we needed any extra time but it was good to feel we had it in abundance. The climb to altitude took forever and my legs started to cramp. When we ran in the set-up of the planes looked slightly different, I struggled to see the lead plane from the door of the Caravan (right right right trail). When we left the picture was different; previously the base had been straight across but now it was above us, turning everyone into floaters. I saw a few near-collisions because of this unexpected picture, and figured on my way to the formation, that this was likely going to be a hypoxic mess.
I just focussed on doing my job and was pleasantly surprised to see the formation built smoothly and quietly. I found my belief again and started willing the jump to succeed. There was the nod for the second point - yes! Streamer from Patrick for the third point, that's my cue, and I moved forward to my new place. Another streamer from Herman, the signal for the fourth point. The formation was flying beautifully and once again I had that incredible feeling of savouring the moment. I could sense Roy Jean-Jacques in my line geeking at me, so I returned the favour.
We landed in extreme elation. Three World Records on back-to-back jumps. Incroyable! High-fives, hand slapping, and more kisses than a New Year party! Someone commented, 'This is almost getting boring' – but it so wasn't. The camera team – Bruno Brokken, Henny Wiggers, Gustavo Cabana, Andrey Veselov and Alexander Khabibulin – were complaining their fingers ached, they had to press the button too many times. No-one was used to this level of repeated success.
Could we make five points of 106-way? We had time. Watching the video then we held the fourth point for 15 sec The plan, says Patrick, is to try one time for five points. Then, whatever the outcome, we will change the plan and make some fun skydives with no record in mind, just enjoying the great group of skydiving talent assembled here in the sunshine of Empuria. We dirt dived the fifth point of 106-way, saying “Is this for real?” It felt quite bizarre to be calmly planning five points of 100+ way, as though we do this all the time, every weekend. The fifth point of the sequence was a bold move, building 24 cats on the outside of the 106.
We boarded for our last World Record attempt (but still 3 jumps of the event to go). The jump was sweet, not flying quite so perfectly as before, but for sure we made 5 points, with time to spare. We're waiting for the judges' decision as to whether the record is official. On the previous jump, the timing between the last grip on one point and the move to the next is split-second.
I believe it's the first time a group has ever made 5 points of 100+ way. A decade ago Roger Ponce de Leon organised a beautiful 4-point 104-way, and to my knowledge this is the most number of points ever made in a 100+ formation. Look out in the photos for Brit Pauli who is wearing a pair of union jack boxer shorts over his red jumpsuit. They are surely his 'lucky shorts' as he only wore them on the record dives.
The crowd and jumpers again went wild when the judges declared our FOURTH World Record, and on back-to-back jumps!
To sum up, we made the most amazing four World Record jumps back-to-back, building 2, 3, 4 and 5 points of 106-way. Remarkably we did not change a single person into a different slot, nor did we use anyone on the bench. Outstanding. I've run out of superlatives so I'll sign off. Job done and 3 fun jumps to go!