Parachuting into the record books
In September of 2006 one man successfully completed 640 non-stop parachute jumps, and set a new world record for the most parachute jumps in a single 24 hour period. I was the chief pilot and one of five who flew the aircraft used to complete the mission. The event was a charity fundraiser for Special Olympics and the Special Operations Warrior Fund.
On a chilly, night in the rain at Elsinore, California in 2003, Jay Stokes stepped aboard Skydive Arizona’s Pilatus Porter. “Go … Go … Go,” were the first words out of his mouth. Over the next two hours there was no time for formal introductions while Stokes cranked out 63 parachute jumps, on his way to a record 534 total jumps in 24 hours.
The Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter’s STOL capability is legendary and this mission made maximum use of the aircraft’s performance. After an absurdly short take-off roll, it’s an alarmingly nose-high 2,800 fpm-plus, climbing turn to 2,100 feet AGL. Directly over the runway at 40 knots and idle power, Stokes rolls out the door, then it’s hard over on the stick into a screaming descent. Right beside the airplane, Stokes is deploying his parachute, but there is no time for sight seeing. The steep descent becomes a carving turn to final, flaring onto the dirt runway with the prop hard into reverse thrust. The airplane slows, turns around and Stokes is already coming in the door shouting, “Go … Go … Go!”
Stokes broke the existing world record that night, but foul weather and aircraft problems prevented him from reaching 600 jumps. He finished that jump-marathon convinced that with the right aircraft, weather and support crew, 600 jumps was an achievable goal.
Three years later, a determined Stokes arranged sponsors, dipped into his own wallet when necessary, and gathered a volunteer crew to make the 600-jump goal a reality. Skydive Greensburg, on the Greensburg Municipal Airport in Indiana where Stokes teaches skydiving students and instructors, hosted the record attempt.
Arriving at the airport several days prior to the start date of September 8, I was asked to serve as chief pilot to advise and train the other pilots. Over the next few days, several practice sessions for the pilots took place.
During the day and night practices, Stokes made more than 70 jumps, more parachute jumps than many skydivers make in a year. The brief, but intense, sessions gave the pilots, safety people, ground crew and parachute packers a taste of what setting the record would take.
To meet the required turn-around times, turbine powered aircraft; two PAC-750s and a Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter flew in. The PAC-750, built by Pacific Aircraft Corporation of New Zealand, is a relatively new, purpose-built, skydiving aircraft. The aircraft is powered by a P&W PT6-27 engine and is capable of carrying up to 16 jumpers. A PAC owned by Robert Hallet, N820AB, flew in from Skydive Deland in Florida, and was flown by Bill Buchmann and Brent McClarty. The other PAC, N750SD, flown by owner Mark Pollack, came from Skydive Temple in Salado, Texas.
Ken Fraley flew the Pilatus Porter, N19TX, down from the Skydive Pennsylvania Skydiving Center, located north of Pittsburgh. Fraley and I shared flight duties on the Porter, which is also powered by a P&W PT6-27. It will carry up to 10 jumpers.
The tail-wheeled Porter’s STOL capabilities were known from previous record attempts, but the PACs were untested for this kind of fast turn-around work. Lightly loaded, the PAC’s climb and descent rates are impressive, but with its wing and tricycle gear configuration, the PACs needed more runway for takeoff and landing. Working from the middle of Greensburg’s 3,900-foot paved runway challenged all the pilots’ spot landing technique over and over again.
The pilots’ objective was to get Stokes to a minimum altitude of 2,100 feet AGL as rapidly as possible and, after Stokes jumped, get the airplane safely back on the runway by the time Stokes landed and changed rigs.
Stokes used 27 identical sport parachute rigs, using square ram-air canopies and square reserve parachutes. The rigs were modified with quick-ejector snaps on the chest and leg strap buckles, allowing Stokes to literally step out of the rig as he landed and strap into another rig on the way to the airplane.
Parachutes were inspected and packed under a parachute rigger’s supervision, then transported to the landing zone where a second inspection was performed and the rig placed into the rotation. Every parachute underwent a third visual inspection by a rigger prior to being jumped.
Ancillary equipment included aviator oxygen systems for Stokes and the safety person riding the airplane. Flying with the door open meant Stokes and the safety person were exposed to the engine exhaust, a potentially debilitating factor over a long period.
Preparation and Planning
One jump every two minutes and 24 seconds works out to 600 jumps over 24 hours. The fastest official turnaround time by a Porter during a previous record attempt was two minutes and 5 seconds. That record would fall during the night of September 8. Certified judges representing Guinness World Record, the United States Parachute Association and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale were on hand for the official timing and jump count.
Thursday was devoted to practice flights and final pilot and crew briefings. The nearly brand-new PACs were capable of turnarounds faster than the 2:24 required for 600 jumps in 24 hours, but this Porter, a 40 year-old airplane, heavy with fuel during the practice sessions, struggled to make the turn time. With less fuel on board, the Porter might make the turn time, but the PACs consistently met, or beat, the average time. As long as the airplanes didn’t break, the pilots stayed sharp and everyone else paid attention to safety, we were cautiously optimistic.
Pollack invoked the pilot’s prayer for all of us, “Oh Lord, don’t let me screw this up.”
The aircraft safety person’s job was to attach a safety belt around Stokes as he boarded, make certain the parachute rig was in proper order, monitor Stokes’ physical condition, supply a steady stream of food and liquids, relay to the pilot any changes to the jump run or exit point, then hang on for an E-ticket ride down.
Unlike the low door on the tail-dragging Porter, the PAC’s door is almost four feet above the ground. A sturdy, light-weight box was constructed to allow Stokes to step up and into the PAC with a minimum of effort, but that meant someone had to set the box in place as the aircraft stopped, and then hang on to it in the stinging prop blast of takeoff power. It was miserable duty, but there were willing volunteers to do the job.
The aircraft and pilots were scheduled to fly two hours shifts, allowing ample rest periods, time to fuel the planes and restock oxygen and supplies. Fraley and Buchmann, scheduled to fly skydivers after the record attempt concluded Saturday morning, would fly early shifts Friday and be on standby status if needed. The safety people were assigned to aircraft and time slots, packers and ground crew members were divided into shifts, and preparations were complete.
“We’re going to do this safely, or we’re not going to do it at all,” Stokes said.
The forecast for September 8th and 9th called for fair weather, light winds and an afternoon high temperature of 80 degrees. There had been rain and morning fog earlier in the week. Weather seemed the only thing left to chance. Thursday ended with a dinner celebrating Stokes’ 50th birthday, and a few jabs about his new eligibility for an AARP membership.
Under perfect weather, the crew gathered Friday morning for a last-minute briefing, a short prayer for luck, and the first airplane launched. At 08:00:01 am, Stokes stepped out the door of the PAC, flown by Buchmann. The official clock started counting down the hours while the judges counted up Stokes’ jump. After 45 minutes, Stokes’ choice of airplanes proved to be correct as Buchmann, followed later by Pollack, flew turn around times consistently below the target of two minutes and 24 seconds, averaging 26 and 27 jumps per hour.
Two minutes after takeoff, most pilots are finishing the departure checklist, and settling in for the flight, not spot landing where they just departed, and the door is usually closed. Timing and precision flying were essential to keeping the rhythm flowing with the ground crews’ choreography, and staying within the time constraint. The pilots unanimously agreed it was the most intense flying they have ever done. At the end of a shift, the pilots were drenched in sweat and it took a few minutes of being back on terra firma to wind down from the intensity level of taking off, following a precise pattern to the drop point, and landing every two minutes.
The Porter took to the air at noon as the temperature rose into the low 80s, but with two hours of fuel and reserve on board, it could not match the pace set by the PACs. To save precious time, Pollack’s PAC went back to work hauling Stokes. Fuel was drained from the Porter and the minimum safe amount for one hour of flight was pumped in. The flight schedule was revised placing the Porter back in rotation for one-hour flights while the PACs continued flying two-hour shifts.
The PACs’ door is on the left side of the aircraft, but the Porter’s door is on the right. To keep the landing and boarding area in the same place at midfield dictated that the PACs take off and land to the south, while the Porter took off and landed to the north. Altimeters were set at zero for simplicity. A misread altitude could have deadly consequences.
For safety, a NOTAM was filed officially closing the airport from 7:30 am Friday to 8 am Saturday. There is always someone that does not get the memo. Several aircraft called to enter the pattern and went elsewhere when informed the airport was closed, but one pilot insisted on coming in to land.
“You’ll have one minute to get down and clear the runway,” someone said over the radio, “And there’s a guy from the FAA here who wants to talk to you after you land.” There was no response from the pilot and no aircraft landed.
Skydive Greensburg owner, Bob Dougherty, served as the primary air boss. Dougherty, Stokes and the drop zone staff organized a smooth-running operation that ran for 24 hours without a single major hitch. Plenty of food and soft drinks were available to keep the crew going. When one of the PAC’s landing gear struts went low, a local mechanic rustled up a nitrogen bottle and the plumbing needed to air up the strut.
Around 230 jumps, Stokes pulled a muscle in his leg. Stoically, he sucked it up and kept going, but in the afternoon heat, the leg was cramping. The record was in jeopardy. Dougherty called a halt to the jumps and asked paramedics to check Stokes’ vital signs. Within five minutes, jumping resumed with the safety people encouraging Stokes to drink more liquids to avoid dehydration.
“I had a great crew supporting me,” Stokes said, “and I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Throughout the day and night, hundreds of spectators came to watch the aerial carnival. Media people from a variety of newspapers, radio and television stations were interviewing anyone they could find. An on-line website kept the skydiving community informed of Stokes progress.
At nightfall, portable floodlights illuminated the landing area and lights on the ball diamonds adjacent to the airport were turned on. The lights were helpful for reference to ground features, but ruined the pilots’ night vision. In the Porter, the pilot turned in over the bright ball fields, but descending at 5,000 fpm toward the pitch black farm fields was unsettling. Kite-eating trees, 50 feet tall, waited at both ends of the runway for the careless pilot who overshot the turn to final, but no trees were trimmed that night.
Shortly after midnight, while fueling the Porter, an older gentleman stopped on his way out of the airport for a closer look at the airplanes.
“I’ve been watching you guys go up and down all day, and this reminds me of my days in the Navy during the war,” he said. “You come down just like those Zeros that used to dive on us.”
Thankfully, no one was shooting at us, but some of the residents living near the airport may have wanted to. Turbines are loud and no one near the airport was getting much sleep. Off-duty crew members, friends and family lined the infield cheering Stokes on, staving off the exhaustion everyone was starting to feel.
In the moon-lit darkness and cooler temperatures, aircraft performance improved and the pace picked up a notch. McClarty, flying the Deland PAC, cranked a turnaround time of one minute and 54 seconds. The best turn time on the Porter that night was two minutes and 11 seconds.
Missing in action
Shortly before the sun rose, it seemed for a few minutes that the 600 jump goal might not be reached. Just like the previous 598 times, the airplane took off, flew overhead and descended to the runway, but this time no parachute swooped in to land. McClarty confirmed that Stokes had jumped, but no one saw or heard his parachute. The crew scrambled frantically to find Stokes with no idea where to look. For nearly 10 tense minutes a terrible fear that Stokes was out there in the dark, possibly injured … or worse, spread. The eerie silence broke as cheers erupted from the hangar and Stokes trotted out to the airplane, grabbed the next rig and resumed his quest.
On jump 599, Stokes was answering “the call of nature” into a bottle during the climb. McClarty had just started flying his final two-hour shift and had turned wide in the climb, reaching 2,100 feet before the aircraft was over the airport. Stokes, finished his business, looked at the altimeter and seeing the correct altitude, rolled out the door, immediately realizing his error. Landing near a road, he flagged down a vehicle for a ride from a farmer on his way to the airport to see “the guy making all those jumps.” Characteristically, Stokes later insisted it was his error that resulted in his landing off the airport. Stokes refused to count that jump in the record.
Seconds before 8 am, Saturday morning, Stokes landed jump 641. Surrounded by jubilant family, friends and support crew, he looked fresher than many of us who helped make the record happen.
During a pilots’ post-mortem Saturday evening, we determined that with three PACs and six qualified pilots, 700 jumps, maybe even 730, is possible. That is, if another person with superhuman stamina and determination ever decides to try and break the record. Stokes met and exceeded his goal, and promised his wife there will be no more record attempts for him, “unless” Stokes later said, “someone breaks my record.”
Copyright, Oct 2006 Robert M. Engstrom
Willard Lee (Jay) Stokes was born September 7, 1956. Currently a resident of Yuma, Arizona, he retired in 1998 after a 24-year Army career, serving 21 years in Special Forces with the Green Berets. He is married with three children, including a son with cerebral palsy. A private pilot, he holds all (21) the military and civilian parachute ratings and is considered one of the top skydiving instructors worldwide.
Additional information about Stokes and his charity fund raising efforts is available at Stokes’ official website, mostjumps2006.com on the Internet.
Jay Stokes’ world records
• 1st Guinness World Record, 331 jumps in 24 hours, 31 May 1995, Raeford, North Carolina
• 2nd Guinness World Record, 384 jumps in 24 hours, 27 November 1997, Somerton Airport, Arizona
• 3rd Guinness World Record, 476 jumps in 24 hours, 13 November 1999, Somerton Airport, Arizona
• 4th Guinness World Record, 534 jumps in 24 hours, 11 November 2003, Elsinore, California
• 5th Guinness World Record, 640 jumps in 24 hours, 8 September 2006, Greensburg. Indiana
We’ll jump off that cliff when we get to it.
It had been a long hot summer getting greasy and sweaty fixing airplanes. Charlie and I took a spur of the moment day off from the airport and drove up to Roosevelt Lake. It’s a man-made lake formed by Roosevelt Dam in Arizona that holds catfish, sunfish, bass and lots of snags.
The fishing can be pretty good, and there are some big fish, especially catfish, caught there, but this was mid-July of 1991, 100-degree-plus temperatures, and near-capacity water levels. The locals said not many fish were biting. The kid at the marina where we rented a 14-foot boat with a 10-horse motor said the only thing we were likely to catch were snags and sunstroke.
A rented boat was yours for 24 hours, so like on other visits, we arrived around 1p.m., loaded our tackle and camping gear in the boat and putted out to troll along the shoreline. We would fish until about midnight, pull up on shore someplace and get a few hours sleep, get back to fishing around dawn, and return to the marina about noon.
Less than a quarter mile from the marina I caught the first bass, too small to keep, but close. Five minutes later I hooked another bass then a sunfish grabbed my lure, and then a two pound blue catfish. Mostly, we’d catch-and-release anything we caught. I was busy, but Charlie hadn’t had so much as a nibble. We realized we’d left the net back in the truck, but we didn’t go back for it.
Charlie was driving the boat and trolling us along to different spots we’d fished before, but all that accomplished was that neither of us was catching anything. I suggested we head back to where we knew fish were biting. Charlie agreed grudgingly, set course across the lake and dug around in his tackle box for yet another lure to try.
No sooner did we get back to trolling when I hooked another bass, then another sunfish, but Charlie was still skunked. We were using thin-fins and shadraps, but Charlie pulled out a little red surface popper and tossed it out.
We started another pass down the bank almost in sight of the marina as the sun began to set. It’s a scenic lake in the mountains and there were just enough clouds for one of those famous desert sunsets that colors the sky and water. Sitting in the stern, Charlie was steering the boat and watching the sky change and enjoying the view. His pole, a light weight spinning rod with two-pound test line, was all but forgotten with the haft resting on the bottom of the boat and the line trailing out over his shoulder.
Charlie didn’t see the sudden swirl in the water behind his lure, but I did. Something big hit that popper and the rod bent over, nearly getting away from Charlie before he grabbed a hold.
“It’s a #@*% snag,” he said, reaching for the tiller to come about, ignoring the rod’s taught line.
“That’s no snag Charlie, it’s a big fish.”
He gave the rod another good set-the-hook yank and said, “Nope, it’s a snag,” and set the rod down.
“Charlie, it’s a fish, a big one. I saw it hit. You’re gonna lose a trophy.”
He picked the rod back up, gave a tentative pull and cranked the reel a few turns until the line went taught again. He was unconvinced until a lunker broached the surface, jumping clear out of the water, fins flapping and splashing back down for a headlong run away from the boat. The fight was on.
It lasted a good while, too. As Charlie played the fish, we switched positions so I could drive. He had the drag as tight as he dared with that light line and this fish wasn’t giving up easily. Twice Charlie got him close enough to the boat to net, but with ours safely back at the truck, all he could do was hope to wear the fish down and grab it by hand.
For 20 minutes, maybe more, Charlie played the fish, repeatedly getting it close to the boat before it would take another make-the-drag-sing run. While Charlie battled the fish, I dug out my camera. Then mounted a flash as daylight faded. I couldn’t get a good shot of the fish, even close to the boat, so I waited to see who was going to win the fight. Disappointment or exaltation, there was going to be a good photo to remember this adventure.
We were in an area with sunken trees, rocks and old barb wire fences where we’d lost plenty of lures on past trips. Twice the line went slack suddenly, making Charlie think the fish had spit the lure or the line had snapped. It was just the fish being crafty, but Charlie was staying with it, working that lightweight rod and line to the limit, reeling in then letting it run.
Just as it got full dark, Charlie got the fish next to the boat and it rolled on its side in exhaustion. He reached out and the fish instinctively shied away, trying to run again, but the fight was finally over. Charlie leaned out, got his hand in a gill and lifted a near-record catch into the boat. I snapped a picture of his once in a lifetime catch.
We had no scale, but a tape measure showed it was a 23.5-inch smallmouth bass. Charlie only got one fish, but it was a keeper. He must have checked the stringer tied to the oar lock a hundred times making sure it was still there.
We fished a few more hours until it was time to get some sleep. About 3a.m, Charlie woke me up to ask if there were any turtles in Lake Roosevelt. I assured him there were and rolled over to go back to sleep. Charlie couldn’t rest. His fish might get eaten.
At daybreak, I discovered that Charlie had dumped the ice chest and had his fish safely ensconced in it away from turtles, coyotes and any other predator that might have found the stringer tied to a stick poked into the ground.
We fished until noon and headed back to the marina, encountering another boat just setting out. They two guys asked if we’d caught anything and Charlie wanted to show off his fish, so we stopped. I said we’d caught about a dozen fish, but only one keeper. The fish had died sometime during the morning, but when it was lifted out of the ice chest, both their jaws dropped.
The older of the two said he’d been fishing at Roosevelt for 30 years and had never seen a bass that size. A Fish and Wildlife ranger happened along just then and came alongside to ask if we were having boat problems. Charlie showed him the fish and the ranger congratulated him, especially for landing that beauty on light tackle without a net.
He pulled out a scale and tape, weighed the fish and agreed on the length. According to the ranger, Charlie’s “snag” was within a quarter of an inch and just a few ounces lighter than the current state record.
Today that fish decorates Charlie’s wall in a frame that includes the photo. The film captured one of those perfect, unforgettable moments of achievement when a trophy fish and a good friend created a memory. I can still see the look on Charlie’s face. We need to go fishing again soon.
Major Carl M. Engstrom inspired me to become a pilot. His stories of flying in the U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force convinced me that I had to learn to fly. His tales and a flyby he did over my dad’s house in an F-102 are indelibly fixed in my memory.
Sadly, he passed away on my birthday in 1996 at his home in Leesburg, Florida. I got to take him on what was probably his last airplane ride during a visit to Leesburg in 1986. He had not flown an airplane since retiring from the Air Force in the mid-70s, but he handled the PA-18-150 Supercub like a pro. He was a character, a fine pilot, and served his country proudly.
Fly while you’ve still got wings
Airplanes, gliders and a little bit of rotor wing time got me up in the air for many hours. Sometimes, you have to step out the door to really get the feeling of flying.