How to Pull Off a 138-Person, World Record Vertical Formation Skydive


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World record vertical formation attempt. Photo: Brian Buckland

By Brian Buckland

On August 1, 2012, I joined more than 138 skydivers from around the world at Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois, to photograph an attempt at the largest formation ever built in freefall. All the jumpers had to do was link up while plummeting headfirst toward the earth at 165mph. Here's how they did it.

Everything began a long time before the record jump. Over the course of the past year, there have been several tryout camps around the world, from California to Florida to Spain to Dubai—to name just a few. Skydivers show off their skills and event organizers select the best and extend invites to the world record jump.

World record vertical formation attempt. Photo: Brian Buckland

At the actual jump, everything begins on the ground. To begin building a vertical formation, everyone does what's called a dirtdive. Before the athletes get into the planes, they have to figure out their positions. A base group of eight skydivers links up in a circle by their hands. Other people join in and start to build circles off of them, forming pods and then more pods. The last few people that dock, “sting” the formation with just one hand. The vertical formation is set, now athletes will just have to picture their position and flip it 180 degrees upside down in their heads so they can put it into action while freefalling a few miles up. Before setting off to claim the world record, the organizers must draw the formation on a piece of paper and submit it to the judges.

Once the formation is complete in freefall, the photographers submit a photo or video to the judges and they declare if the record is a success or not by comparing it to the paper drawing.

Every record attempt has its ups and downs. The group of skydivers gathered on August 1 first planned to build a 142-way formation. On the first day, we did four jumps. The jumpers created formations that linked more than 130 people together, but never the full 142. In order for a record to count, everyone that is in the formation on the ground has to link in the air. The jumps were good, the energy was up, and we had three more days to go.

Day two started out great. The clouds rolled in for a few jumps, the formations were taking shape, and everyone on the skydive was docking on the formation—just not at the same time. On the fifth jump of the day, a beautiful 142-way formation was built. After pulling up the pictures and scrutinizing the images it looked good. Time to submit to the judges. This is where the highs and lows of attempting world records come into play. The judges called the organizers over and asked about particular docks and compared the picture to the paper drawing submitted. They didn't match. All the organizers and the judges chatted for what seemed like an eternity and then the news. There was no 142-way. The formation that was submitted had two stingers with incorrect grips. They were using their left hands instead of their right hands, and we're in the wrong slots—each person was one slot over. It was a huge blow. The 142-way formation that might count in the Guinness books, would not be an International Air Sport Federation (FAI) official world record. The FAI is the international governing body of all air sport records, from parachutes to planes to hot air balloons. The only thing left to do was to keep the good energy up and move forward, and that meant going back up in the air and trying again.

On day three, the entire group was striving to recapture that magic moment. Unfortunately, many times there was just one jumper off. The group started to get frustrated. Toward the end of the day the organizers decided it was time to cut down the jump from 142 to 138 people. One of the pods that was causing issues just had to go. This was going to be the 15th jump of the attempts and the last jump of the day. It was now or never. 

Back into the air we went and did what we had to do. When that last jumper picked up the grip, everything smoothed out. You could feel it, see it, sense it. It was flying as smooth as everyone had hoped it would. There were no stragglers on the outside, just us cameramen trying to get that perfect angle and take as many pictures as possible, since after all this was the moment. The link up lasted for nearly four seconds, which in skydiving seems like an eternity. Upon review, the judges declared the offical vertical world record was set as a 138-way.

World record vertical formation. Photo: Brian Buckland

Here's a bit more about the logistics of the jump, by the numbers:

18,500: Altitude in feet we exited the aircraft at.

8,000: Altitude we built the record at.

108: Skydivers on the previous world record set back in 2009.

37: Alternate jumpers on the bench waiting for a shot.

17: The number of nations represented on this record.

11: Total hours spent in the six aircrafts that climbed to jump altitude.

To purchase the official DVD of these record attempts, please visit

Brian Buckland, one of four cameramen documenting the world record