The Birth of Sequential Formation Skydiving

Sequential Formation Skydiving was introduced in 1976, as the third generation of group free fall competitions

(The first generation was free fall relay: «baton pass», in use in the
late 1960’ies, – the second generation was free fall speed star: 10-man star formations on time, in use in the early 1970’ies.)

This is the story of how the sequential competition format came about, and who were the persons to bring it to the World scene.

The FAI – the “World Air Sport Organisation” – is the international institution that  registers all kinds of aviation and space records, from spacewalks down to model aircraft, and authorises (sanctions)  international competitions in aviation sports – particularly World Championships. FAI was established i 1905, so it has has been around for 112 years.

FAI oversees aviation sports through International Air Sport Commissions, one for each sport branch. Parachuting has been included since 1936, when the Commission International de Parachutisme  (CIP) was established, so it has been  included for just over 80 years.

Parachuting involves a number of competition forms , which are governed by subcommittees – the one involving groups manoeuvring in free fall were known under the name “relative work” – RW for short.  In 1988, the CIP swithed acronym to IPC (english) and RW was renamed “Formation Skydiving” – FS.

The Start
Triple baton pass team (flour way) Elsinore, 1959

In the late 1960’ies, FAI’s parachuting section dabbled with some advanced frefall competition exercise called “baton pass”.  It was used at the Adriatic Cups in Yougoslavia, but not much more. At the beginning of the 1970’ies, however, the idea of group freefall competitions was brought up, as a result of the widespread skydiving pastime of “star building”. The building of 10-way ”stars” was particularly popular in the USA.

In 1972, the CIP created a five member RW Subcommittee with Eilif Ness (Norway) as chair. At this time, the dominating competition forms were «style» – individual free fall maneuvering, and «accuracy» – precision landing. An intense fight ensued: as usual, it was the Rebels against the Established, the latter not wanting to share their glory monopoly with others. It didn’t help much that the Rebels had a reputation as unruly, long haired pot smokers.

The Breaktrough

The CIP went for the most common variety, building a 10-man star in the shortest possible time. Early on, it became clear that many small nations were unable to raise large teams, mostly due to lack of access to large aircraft. This was resolved by designing a competition format for a group of four: a four-man star – all four back-loop separately – build a new four-man star, the whole sequence in the shortest possible time.

It was the US who managed the coup that broke through the barrier. People like Norman Heaton, Bill Ottley (RIP), Chuck McCrone (RIP) and others, got someone high up in the US to say: “OK, let them use Sicily Drop Zone and a couple of Chinooks for a few days”. Which resulted in the first RW World Cup at Fort Bragg – a 10-way speed star / 4-way event.

First RW World Cup: French team loading up in CH-47 Chinook at Sicily Drop Zone, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, USA

14 nations participated, all Western. Please remember that this was at the height of the Cold War – which was very cold at the time – it was the Angels against the defined emeny: the Soviet Bloc – it permeated every aspect of life – the world of sports very much so. In the case of parachuting competitions, the Soviets didn’t want any new fangled activities.

The US won the Fort Bragg meet, with a funny team called “Jerry Bird’s All Stars”, who beat the French by a narrow margin.  With that, the wall was broken. The year after, the Angels outvoted the Soviet Bloc in the International Parachuting Commission – the IPC  (CIP it was called then) – authorising a World Champion­ship in RW, to be held in Warendorf, West Germany, in 1975.

Rod Murphy,South Africa, RW Subcommittee member 1974

Thanks to efforts by South Africa, the development continued. South African Rod Murphy was a member of the RW-committee, and the South African situation at the time, with international boycotts growing, made for official domestic support. The organised RW Cup no. 2, in Wonderboom, Pretoria in 1974. Once more it was 10-way speedstar + 4-way. Again Jerry Bird captained the winning team, ”Wings of Orange”.

The first RW WPC

That first RW WPC in Warendorf, West Germany, became the only one to feature speed star / 4-way event. 23 nations entered teams, still, all were from the West only. The 10-way event was won by the US team – Captain Hook’s Sky Pirates – again just a hair ahead of the French. But something else happened at Warendorf.

World RW Championships in Warendorf, West Germany, 1975

During the meet, a strange group of 16 Americans showed up, who called themselves the US Freefall Exhibition Team, outside the competition. They got two Hueys to lift them to 12,000 feet, and proceeded to make not only a 16-way diamond, but to do a two-point sequence with it. It left us all speechless.

Skratch Garrison, USFET 1975

The main architect behind many of USFET’s dives was one of its members, Skratch Garrison – a quiet, low voiced philosopher with a very creative mind. He inspired another one of the team, a long haired, mustachioed 23-year old: B.J. Worth, a gifted young man with an immensely productive mind.

BJ came up with the idea of a totally new RW competition format: sequences of different formations – fixed or random – to be scored by the number of formations made within a certain time.

All of us in the IPC RW subcommittee knew at that time that the speed star competition concept was a dead end – soon we would pull 10-ways out of tailgates – we needed something with open ended scoring. I was chair of that Subcommittee at the time, and I invited this young guy to the next IPC meeting i Paris.

The 1976 FAI-CIP Meeting
B.J. Worth USFET 1975

In February of 1976, at Rue Galilee in Paris, BJ presented his proposals for 4-way and 8-way sequential competition formats – complete with dive pools and everything . It had to be discussed step by step, finally fixing the format for the next WPC in 1977.

A strange session followed. BJ presented his case very convincingly I grew more and more surpsised as I led the delegates through five consecutive votings – all proposals were approved, the Soviet bloc voting Yes throughout (in view of later developments, I am convinced that the Soviet bloc was convinced that it was a fad that would die out).

The end result, however, was that we had eliminated a doomed competition format, and replaced it with an open ended system that subsequently proved its suitability and durability unchallenged throughout the next 40 years.

The «Dive Pool» – pre-determined formations from which each round’s set of manouvres was to be drawn. The ones shown are for 4-way teams. A corresponding Dive Pool was made for 8-way teams.
The Repercussions

That same year, I was invited to the Z-hills Turkey Meet- they wanted me to assess its potential for hosting a RW WPC. Fortunately, I stayed with Jim Hooper (who really hated me for having taken away the speed star, which was his True Love). But at lest he protected me from being killed by the multitudes of 10-way teams present, who were all furious at me for having quashed their event.

At Zephyrhills Turkey Meet 1976, middle: Jan Arvidsson, right: Eilif Ness

Which goes to prove the hard headedness of skydiving populations – at that time they did not recognise a dead-ended concept that was staring them in the face (at that meet, The Herd pulled off a 4-second 10-way jump – in reality signing the event’s death warrant. I, the paper pusher – the rule writer – got the blame, while BJ, the actual inventor of the whole idea – walked unscathed through it all

Testing

Once the new format for Relative Work Skydiving competitions was in place, it was –at that point – untested. It existed on paper only, but we had already made the decision that was binding for the 1977 RW-WPC. Once more, South Africa saved the day: Rod Murphy organised a RW Cup in Oudtshoorn , Southern Cape, in October 1976.

Chief Judge for the event was Charles Shea-Simonds (UK). Participation was limited because South Africa was under intensifying boycott measures, but with entries open, 25 teams from 15 nations entered: 18 teams in 4-way and 7 teams in 8-way teams.

Winning 8-way team at Oudtshoorn 1976
USA – «Baby Up» (BJ center back row)

Among the 4-ways were four South African, three US , three French and two Italian 4-way teams. Of 8-ways, there were two South African, two US (BJ was there with «Baby Up»), one French and two International (mixed) teams. Even if the Soviet bloc had voted for the new format, there was no participation from that corner – the cold war was still cold, and the boycott did not help. This test turned out to be very useful, as it resolved a problem that arose when the top teams overran the 5-point dive pools – it was quickly fixed by repeating the formation sets.

It also turned out to be a watershed in terminology: Due to a French all-girl, 4-way team named the «Pink Panthers» refusing to be called a «four man» team, the RW Subcommittee decided to use the term «way» in stead of «man», i.e. «4-way» and «8-way» replaced «4-man» and «8-man», thereby gender-neutralising all RW events.
Gatton 1977: The first Sequential WPC

As late as the FAI-CIP meeting in Zurich, Switzerland in February 1977, the location for the RW WPC in 1977 was not decided. At that meeting, however, Australia came up with Gatton in Queensland – on the other side of the globe – and won the bid.

FAI-SIP RW Subcommittee 1976: L to R: Curt Curtis, USA. Richard Charter, South Africa (RIP), Eilif Ness, Norway (chair)) , Bert Wijnands, Netherlands, Charles Shea-Simonds (UK0

Again, the entire West turned up, with 19 countries, but none from the Soviet bloc – this time there was no boycott to explain it – it appeared that the East was determined that sequential RW was to be a Western nations event only.

The US won the 8-way, with the team ”Mirror Image”, captained by BJ Worth, with Canada a close second, but winning the 4-way event. Sweden won a surprise silver medal in the 4-way, ahead of USA.

Epilogue

The big international break-through for RW (FS) came in the 1979 RW WPC in Chateauroux, France, as China fielded a full team in both 8-way and 4-way. The Soviet Union sent observers, but no team – no other Soviet bloc country participated. China was the sensation, with 4th place in both in 4-way and 8-way – following a shock opening with 9 points in the first round, ahead of all others – it was close to China winning the 8-way ….

Finally, the East was forced to show up – cold war or not. It was still quite cold, but Gorbatchov’s entry as leader in the Soviet Union started a thaw that would, eventually, normalise the situation …

The story of Arne Husby landing head down.

(This story became an international media sensation that, at the time, was spread all over the world as a curiosity news item. 15 years later (1994) the Norwegian TV channel TV3 re-enacted the incident with flying, jumping and interviews, in a program called «Alarmen går»). 

A large part of my life I have been actively engaged in skydiving – throughout the 70’ies I was very active. I also acquired a pilot’s licence (PPL) – someone had to fly us to exit altitude. We created the ”Nimbus” Skydiving Club at Rygge Air Force Base (RNoAF) just south east of Oslo, and after a few years, the club had acquired two jump aircraft: One Cessna 182 (LN-TSB) and one Cessna 206 (LN-IKC).

Sunday December 11th, 1977:

Nimbus scheduled training jumps every weekend before Christmas, despite the cold and the short days. This Sunday it was about 5 degrees below zero (C), a light but ice cold southerly breeze and overcast at 5000 feet. During the night there had been a light snowfall, less than two inches. The students from our latest training course lined up at Rygge AFB at 1300 hrs (i.e. after church hours, it being a Sunday).

Usually I jumped myself, but this particular day it was my turn to fly the jump aircraft – Nimbus’ aircraft number 2, Cessna 206 LN-IKC. The low ceiling dictated student training only, and as load number four I got jumpmaster Arne Husby and five static line students – he planned to send them off one by one, then make a 360 climbing turn, and jump on a last run.

At Nimbus, our student rigs were modified B-5 emergency parachutes with 28 foot C9 canopies and double-T (Hustler) steering  mod. The opening system was static line with cotton break cords closing the container. A PCA – pilot chute assist system  – a short web piece with a male velcro piece attached, was tied to the end of the static line, paired with a piece of female velcro attached to the pilot chute inside the pack.

The static lines were attached to a point of the cabin floor. IKC had a ring in the floor behind the pilot’s seat for the static line hooks – all lines were hooked to the same ring, and all lines were hooked up when loading, one by one. When exiting, the line was stretched out, the break cords broke, the pca pulled the pilot chute out of the slipstream, ensuring a fast opening of the main canopy.

IKC had, like most 206es – a large cargo door at the rear of the cabin on the right hand side, so that students had no wing strut to hold on to, nor any step to use – exiting students had to sit in the door half out, legs dangling, and then push off on the jumpmaster’s order ”Go!”

Arne Husby – the photo was taken two weeks later, during the re-enactment of the incident.

We took off as normal, climbing to exit altitude 2500 feet. Arne directed me with”left-right”-signs, then placed student number one in the door and ordered ”Go!”. Once the student was away and a normal opening was observed, Arne coiled up the static line (with the pca piece at the end) and shoved it under my seat. New run in, next student, same procedure, in the end there were five static lines stowed under my seat. One last 360 turn and we were at 3500, Arne crouched in the door until we were lined up – gave me a short wave and disappeared. I drew back on the throttle to start the descent.

Suddenly, I hear shouting – and it was not in my headset – but I am alone up here! I look behind me – empty plane – but one of the static lines lies tightly across the floor and out at the rear bottom corner of the door. Suddenly I get a bad feeling, I kick hard right rudder and  bank right – and there I see Arne dangling about 15 feet below, hanging by one leg at the end of a static line. I trim the plane. unfasten my seat belt and go behind my seat to see if the static line can be unhooked – but No Way! – it is as taut as a bowstring!

Back in my seat, I call up RY Tower and explain that I have a jumper hanging head down 15 feet under my plane. The air traffic controller (ATC officer Einar Solum) responds with the key words (which I will never forget): What are your intentions?” That started my thought processes – What Now?

It was getting dark (it was the last load of the day), under me I had Rygge’s 2400 metre concrete runway, an 1800 metre parallel runway and 2000 metres of taxiways, to my left I had the large lake Vannsjø, frozen. It was clear to me that I could not land on the concrete surfaces with Arne hanging underneath; he would be  killed (in the blinding light of hindsight a landing on the concrete might have worked out). Regardless, I had to land.

But where? The ice on Vannsjø was new and most likely too thin to carry a ton of aircraft – besides; a landing in ice water would create a new problem. My biggest worry initially was about what Arne might do – if the pulled his main or reserve, one of two things would happen: His leg would be pulled off (killing him), or the plane would be stopped in the air and fall down (killing us both). After a while the shouting stopped, and I was relieved – it led me to believe (and hope) that Arne had fainted (he had not – more about that later).

Eilif December 1977

Once again, I was helped by the air traffic controller, who said”What about landing on the grass between the runway and the taxiway?”. Sure, that would be much softer, there was the added padding of the light snow cover, and the landing space was generous. So, I decided: Land between the taxiway and Runway 30 – and land at as low a speed as possible.

IKC happened to be perfectly suited for such an operation: its configuration was ideal, with  very large flaps, powerful engine (285 hp), very low weight, as it was empty but for Arne and myself, and the fuel tanks were only a quarter full. I lined up north of the field at 3000 feet, aiming at the landing spot, and commenced a long, long approach, gradually reducing airspeed by increasing flaps, pulling up the nose while adding power ending up about 20 inches MP.

The airspeed crept steadily downward as I approached the landing area, but IKC remained rock stable and the stall warning kept mysteriously quiet. Towards the end, the airspeed indicator was well under stall speed, but the engine kept us flying – like hanging on the prop. Just before touchdown, there was a narrow concrete road crossing over to an instrument hut – when we closed in I reduced power just a little, but IKC reacted like a brick, so I gave it a power burst to get us over the crossing road.

Firm landing! – we are down! I step hard on the brakes and cut the engine, release my seat belt and jump out of the cargo door – and there lies Arne, shouting to me:”I am fine, fine – I’m completely OK!”. I refuse to believe this (I’m thinking maybe a broken back) and tell him: “Lie still, don’t move! – wait for the ambulance!”. ATC had punched the emergency button much earlier, so the ambulance was right there. We hooked off his gear and untied the static line from his leg (the pca had taken a turn around his leg and the male velcro had attached to his jumpsuit leg), put him carefully over on the stretcher, and off to the infirmary with him.

I paced up the aircraft wheel tracks and the trail Arne had made in the snow. The wheel tracks left by IKC measured 35 metres – the drag trail left by Arne was 70 metres – 230 feet – believe it or not. He had dragged 35 metres (115 feet) on the ground while the aircraft was still in the air – braking its speed. Then came the best part: Half an hour later Arne came back from the infirmary – the doctor had found nothing wrong with him, apart from a sore ankle – happy end!

Front Page of the Norwegian pictorial magazine NA, 24 December 1977

Then, publicity took off – somebody called one of the country’s most notorious news rag, VG. They had an artist draw a picture of the incident (all wrong, with the door on the wrong side of the aircraft) but the sensation was there. The various press agencies picked it up, and the story went world wide as a news item – I received messages and congratulations from near and far, including Australia and the USA. National Enquirer sent a journalist to Oslo to interview me. Then came the pictorial “Nå“ and wanted to do a re-enactment with Arne jumping again, which we arranged with the IKC plus a chase plane and did it again – except for the hanging head down.. The report in Nå! was six full pages.

15 years later, in 1994, the Norwegian TV network TV3 made a program about the incident as part of a series called “Alarmen går”, interviewing both Arne and me, and doing the flying with another 206 owned by Stavanger skydiving club, featuring their skydivers.

Afterthoughts:

There are sides of this story that I have shared only with select people over the years – basically the decision process: Once I had decided to land on the grass, a slow, slow landing was my only objective.  I pushed away any thought of what, at that moment, appeared to me as a certainty: Arne would be killed. Behind that lurked another, built in question:

Is my decision the only solution? What happens when I land, having killed Arne, and everybody asks: ”Why didn’t you do that or that i stead, and you would have saved him?”  – and that there would be some other, obvious action that would have saved his life, a possibility I had not seen or understood …

As it happened, such a situation did not occur – what I did was right, and everything turned out well – he survived – but the awful feeling of ”what if” still bothers me …

When Arne and I finally got to sit down face to face and talk the whole thing over, Arne tells me calmly: “No, I wasn’t  really scared – I kept thinking that it is Eilif who is flying, he has years of experience, knows what he is doing, is steady as a rock, and all will turn out just fine!

Had he known …