Pushing the Boundaries
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Wingsuiter Jhonathan Florez Sets Four Guinness World Records
Twenty-two-year-old Colombian soldier Andres Uribe was the fourth man on the patrol. During the previous couple of minutes, he just knew something was about to happen. Suddenly, he heard a couple of shots fired, and then an explosion threw him down. He tried to point his rifle but couldn't. When he took a look, he realized the blast had amputated his right forearm. A few hours later, while lying on a stretcher, he thought of all the things that he would miss doing because of his loss; the one that particularly bothered him was parachute training, for which he had recently volunteered...
The Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (faster, higher, stronger), is no joke. Athletes are always aiming at breaking their own personal marks or even better, the world records that define the limits of their sports. Jhonathan Florez is no exception. Since he began skydiving 10 years ago, he's been dreaming about making his mark on the sport. For more than a year, he's worked toward breaking several Guinness World Records: greatest horizontal distance flown in a wingsuit (distance over the ground), longest duration wingsuit flight (longest freefall time), greatest absolute distance traveled while in freefall (total distance flown—the hypotenuse of the flight) and highest altitude wingsuit jump.
With the help of main sponsors Coldeportes and Indeportes Antioquia, Florez started his preparation a year ago by attending a course on aviation physiology at Arizona State University. Since then, Florez has jumped as often as possible, performing mixed canopy-wingsuit flights (commonly called “extreme relative work” or XRW) with friends Brian Drake, Katie Hansen, T.J. Landgren and Zak Tessier. He found the accurate, low-speed flying of XRW to be an excellent workout that developed his stamina and skills.
On the Record Trail
Inside the king Air 200, FAI representative Ricardo Ospina (left) and oxygen expert Tad Smith (center) look over the equipment with a Colombian Army technician after the first record attempt. Photo by Mayor Rodriguez.
Many obstacles stood in his way, but in December 2011, Colombian Army Aviation agreed to help him make it happen. Florez chose late April 2012 for the attempts due to logistics and weather. Once he set a date, he immediately started working on overall fitness with trainer Gershom Rosengarten and concentrated on upper-body strength and arm endurance to target the specific muscles that would take the maximum strain during his flights.
Because Florez wanted to give his project some kind of social significance, he decided to make the jumps in honor of the thousands of soldiers wounded during the Colombian internal conflict. He spoke with Damas Protectoras del Soldado, a non-governmental organization that helps wounded soldiers during their convalescences, and offered it involvement in the project as a way to get media attention about the soldiers’ plights. Hanna de Navas, the organization’s director, accepted Florez’s offer, and the organization chose two amputees, Lieutenant Valencia and Soldier Uribe, to represent wounded soldiers at the event.
Not many airplanes suitable for skydiving have a service ceiling of 35,000 feet or more, but the Colombian Army operates a few Beechcraft King Air 200s that are. It assigned one of them to Florez for the jumps and made some basic alterations to it, mainly the replacement of the standard door with a Plexiglas® one for skydiving exits.
On April 8, just one week after getting married to girlfriend Kaci Reed, Florez traveled from his home in California to Colombia. Due to the generally favorable weather conditions in the area, the jumps would take place in La Guajira, the northernmost province of Colombia, which is mainly desert. Florez spent the next days in meetings with Army Aviation, giving interviews to local media and organizing the logistics for the jumps.
One of the key members of the record-attempt team arrived April 18. Tad Smith, an American expert on high-altitude jumps and the oxygen systems necessary to make them, brought the systems Florez would use on these attempts. Smith has 30 years worth of experience on high-altitude jumps and has worked on seven previous skydiving record attempts, of which six were successful.
On April 19, the airplane arrived with the team, the equipment and four 250-pound bottles of oxygen in Riohacha, a small town that is the capital of La Guajira. As soon as the plane unloaded, it took off again to make an ex- ploratory flight over the general area of the jumps. During the reconnaissance flight, the team tried to open the Plexiglas® hatch and found it stuck due to excessive flexibility on the rails. When they tried to loosen it, the Plexiglas® cracked and then shattered.
When the plane landed, the long faces of the crew were immediately evident. Because the flights were going up to 37,000 feet, where temperatures would be -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit), it was unthinkable to make them without a door. The hour was getting late, and the first attempt was the next day, but the team could not find any Plexiglas® in the few nearby hardware stores. The airplane’s crew chief then said he could replace it with a thin sheet of steel. During the next four hours, the team built a new hatch using the seediest, least-well-equipped roadside workshop imaginable.
While that was going on, Smith gave Florez, the airplane pilots and Ricardo Ospina, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale delegate who would witness the event in an official capacity, a quick workshop on the oxygen systems they would be using. Everybody had prior high-altitude experience, so the equipment fittings and explanations went smoothly.
Florez took this self-portrait during his 9-minute, 6-second record-breaking flight, during which his fall rate averaged 39.14 mph.
Jumping for the Records and a Cause
On April 20, the team arrived at 5 a.m. and started all the last-minute preparations. The scheduled 8 a.m. takeoff would put the team at altitude around 9 a.m., just in time to take advantage of the one-hour no-air-traffic window the Colombian aeronautic authorities had provided.
In addition to equipment preparations, the team needed to prepare their bodies. Going to high altitudes is similar to ascending from a 30-meter dive in the ocean: The nitrogen in the blood stream increases in volume and can possibly cause decompression sickness. Jumps at 37,000 feet require the jumper, the pilot and any passengers to breathe pure oxygen on the ground for one hour prior to the flight so that their bodies can purge as much nitrogen as possible.
Once the airplane (with its brand-new hatch) began its flight to altitude, a helicopter left from Riohacha’s airport toward Uribia, a small town in the vicinity of the planned landing area. In addition to carrying three FlySight® GPS units to monitor his position, speed and distance, Florez carried a SPOT® satellite GPS messaging device, which would help the helicopter locate him once he landed. The device sends out GPS coordinates that users can track via the internet or email. Additionally, due to the poor communication facilities in the Uribia area, fellow wingsuiter Catalina Orrego tracked Florez’s jumps in Bogotá so she could transmit the GPS data to the retrieval helicopter.
Five people rode the plane to 37,000 feet: the pilot and co-pilot, the FAI delegate, an oxygen jumpmaster and Florez. After a brief struggle, the crew managed to open the frosted hatch. Florez then switched his oxygen supply from the main system to the 20-minute capacity bottles that he had strapped to his right leg under the wingsuit. He stepped to the door, holding the frame with both hands, and exited. On exit, he had to deal with a high airspeed, since the pilot could not cut the airplane’s engines due to the altitude. He expected the rather weak 30-knot prevailing winds to be at his tail, but instead he felt a crosswind, so he decided to forget about distance and focused on the longest freefall time record. He increased his angle of attack to the maximum the wingsuit would allow, so much so that during the flight, the suit would twice almost stall.
Minutes passed, and the recovery helicopter waited, flying a holding pattern over Uribia. The SPOT® coordinates arrived one after the other, until the helicopter crew received the preplanned landing message and flew to the latest coordinates. Two minutes later, they picked up a beaming Florez, who shouted over the sound of the rotors, “I think we got it. I had never flown for so long. It feels like my arms are going to fall off.”
During the afternoon, Florez and his team reviewed footage from the three different video cameras that he wore. To everybody's surprise, his flight time from exit until parachute deployment was around nine minutes, far more than expected. He had broken the previous record by three minutes.
The next day, the second record jump was somewhat anticlimactic, since everybody knew what to expect. The pilot made some course corrections to take full advantage of the prevailing winds (which again clocked only 30 knots), and Florez took flight, this time working his wingsuit for distance. Less than 15 minutes after he exited the plane, the helicopter picked him up in the desert. At the airport, he embraced the two wounded soldiers whose cause he was championing and told them, “A couple of times during the flights, I knew I had probably beaten the records, and my arms were hurting so much that a voice in my head kept telling me that it was enough and I should open, but I remembered you guys and all your friends that I met at the military hospital, and that kept me flying as long as I could.”
After the jump, the team stowed all of the equipment and flew back to Bogotá. They then sent the FlySight® data to the manufacturer to get its official statement. After a few hours, the word was back that Florez had set four world records:
- Greatest Horizontal Distance Flown in a Wingsuit—16.315 statute miles (the previous record was 14.04 miles)
- Longest (Duration) Wingsuit Flight—9 minutes 6 seconds (the previous record was 6 minutes)
- Greatest Absolute Distance Traveled While in Freefall—17.52 statute miles (the previous record was 16.06 miles)
- Highest Altitude Wingsuit Jump—37,265 feet
The team sent the data to Guinness for validation, and a couple of weeks later, it answered: Florez’s achievements are officially recognized as Guinness World Records.
How long will the records stand? Not too long, surely. Wingsuiting is growing rapidly, and other athletes will take notice and make their own attempts. Florez himself wants to be the first human to freefall for more than 10 minutes. As Joe Kittinger, who jumped from 102,800 feet in 1960, said recently, “Records are made to be broken.”
Florez (back row, third from left) poses with (from left) Teniente Valencia, Coronel Pereira, Milton Pachon and (front row) Andres Uribe while fulfilling a promise to arrange tandem skydives for Uribe and Valencia after the record jumps.
After his record-breaking flights, Florez (front right) meets with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (middle right), members of the military and representatives from Damas Proctectoras del Soldado, an organization that assists injured Colombian soldiers. Photo by Luis Felipe Ariza, courtesy of Presidencia Republica de Colombia.
Three days after setting his records, Florez met with Valencia and Uribe at a Colombian Army aviation base. After the usual ground training, instructor Milton Pachón took them on tandem jumps, both of which Florez captured on video. After the jumps, the commander of the Colombian Army Parachute School gave the injured warriors honorary military wings and certificates. With a huge grin on his face, Uribe said, “I thought once I lost my forearm, I would never be able to skydive. This is a dream come true, and one thing is for sure: I want to jump again.”
About the Author
Luis Hernán Reina, A-59881, is a Colombian historian, journalist, filmmaker and a new skydiver with 80 jumps. His most recent feature-length film is a documentary about skydiving, “200 Kms/h,” filmed at Skydive The Farm in Rockmart, Georgia. He's currently working on a wingsuit film project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Choosing the right equipment was a priority during the prep work. Florez made a 30,000-foot training jump in California, which helped him decide on the gear he would use. He chose:
- The latest Tonysuit Apache XRW wingsuit for its excellent inflation and glide performance. Master Rigger Pete Swan and Zak Tessier made some modifications to integrate the oxygen system.
- A Tonfly CC1 helmet, which allows multiple mounting points for cameras and has a reliable release mechanism.
- A United Parachute Technologies Vector container because the company has extensive knowledge about high-altitude jumps and because the container featured the added safety of the Skyhook® in case of a cutaway.
- A military-model Airtec CYPRES automatic activation device because of the company’s impressive track record. Florez knew an AAD was a must-have, since oxygen failure can lead to hypoxia in a matter of seconds.
- The FlySight GPS flight recordersince it’s easy to use, compact and reliable. Florez carried three units during the jumps.
- Two altimeters, a Larsen & Brusgaard Optima audible altimeter and Altitrack visual altimeter Both worked perfectly despite the altitude and the cold.
- The GoPro HD Hero 2 video camera for its low weight, toughness and reliability and because, “If it's not on video, it didn't happen.” However, the footage was the second priority after the GPS data.
- Spy Optics goggles due to their good UV protection and excellent fit. In extreme conditions, even the smallest gap can lead to exposed and burned skin, as Florez learned on the training jump.
- Electric, self-heating gloves The single most difficult thing Florez had to overcome during the training jump was the pain in his hands because of the cold, which actually made him wonder whether he would be able to deploy his main. The solution for the record jumps was to use electric, self-heating gloves, which worked like a charm.