Skydive Arizona wrote a small introduction about the festival...
Freefly skydiving can be thought of as a hybrid of freestyle and relative work. In freefly skydiving, groups of two or more fliers attempt maneuvers relative to each other, much like in conventional skydiving. The difference is in the variety of body position used and the speed involved. A typical freefly jump can have an average fall rate of about 175mph - over 25% faster than skydives in a box man position. Freeflying is normally done in a head-down or stand up position, with occasional knee flying, sit flying, or back to wind position thrown in. Accomplished freeflyers can do many of the maneuvers used in conventional RW - swoops, docks, points, transitions - even piece flying. But their flying style opens up a new dimension as they fly over and under one another unconfined by the horizontal plane.
This past summer ESPN's Destination Extreme series of freefly meets pitted teams of two freeflyers and a camera flyer against one another. The meets sparked interest in larger formations, and after a successful freefly 10 way and several 6 ways dives at a meet in Sebastian, Florida, it became apparent that larger sequential freefly dives were possible - provided the talent could be gathered in one place.
It was at the Sebastian meet that Charles Bryan of the renowned Free Fly Clowns hit upon the idea of a Free Fly Festival. As an active competitor of the fledgling ESPN Freefly circuit, he knew most of the serious freeflyers. As a resident expert at Skydive Arizona, he also met most of the up and coming freeflyers in the south west, plus the many Europeans who visit Arizona every winter. It seemed likely that many other unknown free flyers were out there and that the time was right for a gathering of the freefly clan.
The Freefly Festival combined a relatively informal exchange of ideas with some very hard core skydiving. To explore the possibilities, Charles hand picked eleven other top freeflyers to make 100 big way jumps together during the two week period. The team included a who's who of freeflying: Charles Bryan, Omar Alhegellan, Olav Zipser, Mike Ortiz, Eli Thompson, Knut Krecker, Mike Vail, Fritz Pfnur, Greg Nevalo, Orly King, Stefania Martinego, and Adrian Nicholas.
While the selected team focused on big way dives, other freeflyers met potential team mates, swapped ideas, and enjoyed free coaching and video review from the top freeflyers.
The Freefly Festival was open to anyone and participants could come for as many days as their schedule and budget allowed. There were no registration fees.
On the weekends, those invited on the big way jumped with anyone interested in freeflying. During the week, they planned to make 10 jumps per day in order to make a total of 100 jumps over 10 weekdays. During the first week, the weather was good and they met their schedule of completing 50 jumps in 5 days.
Charles organized and sponsored the festival. He explained that all the freeflyers in the big way competed against one another in the SSI pro-tour. However, everyone is friends and they wanted to finish the year with one huge team collaboration with everyone.
A stereo TV-sound system was set up in the main hanger and continuously played freefly videos. Music included some rock, disco, and tunes from Hard Core Vibes (by Dune), Reverence (by Faithless), and Dreamland (by Robert Miles).
I divide this writing into three areas:
***The Big Ways***
- 1) The Big Ways,
- 2) Ground Coaching Sessions, and
- 3) My Jump Experience.
Charles had planned the following to get the big ways started. He planned 2 different dives for each day and planned to be flexible according to the ability of the group.
- --Day 1: Launch a 5-way head-down star with the others forming a second ring around the base. (If this dive goes really well, then the outer and inner rings could switch positions.) The outer ring breaks off at 5,000 feet at the start of the Dytter warning beep and the inner ring breaks off at 4,000 feet at the finish of the warning beep. Charles cautioned everyone to track away by gently curving away from the center of the formation. Going instantly flat to track could cause a high speed freefall collision with a person above and still head-down. The second dive is a vertical "V" with the lowest man as base and in a standup (with everyone else head-down). If there is tension on the grips, they should be immediately dropped. The camera flyer first would video the standing base and move backwards as the formation builds. On the first attempt, the standing base, set a screaming fallrate too fast for some of the flyers.
- --Day 2: A slot perfect 10-way head-down round. The second dive is a "weed-wacker," a 4-way head-down donut gripping right hands (or left hands) with 4 flakers, one on each person in the base. The other flyers hover around the outside. If the formation builds successfully, then rotate it.
- --Day 3: One person in the center, a second joins him in a formation, a third takes another slot and so on until a creative formation is built.
Here are some other big way ideas:
- --Stefania described to me a head-down no contact round with one person in the center. The center person points to another person. They carve together 360 degrees in the center and then the original center person joins the head-down no contact round in the empty slot and so on.
- --John Schuman thought of a dive which he called a "drill-bit." A 4-way head-down round is formed with grips. 4 head-down flakers dock with grips on the diagonal straps of each person in the base. The flakers all release the right (or left) hands and then rotate the formation.
- --I have the idea of a 6-way horizontal head-down no contact ring with a vertical 6-way ring that goes through the center of the horizontal ring with everyone in the head-down position. The horizontal ring carves and the vertical ring performs a ferris wheel action through the center of the horizontal ring. After watching video of the big ways, I realized that this dive would be very difficult.
As the first day of the big ways was coming to a close, one of the jumpers landed in such extreme happiness that she began sobbing. It was so very beautiful flying free with so many people, all your wonderful friends, in the sky! I am sure that many of us skydivers are familiar with such moments of extreme happiness causes tears of joy.
One of the big ways fell really slow and I noticed some of the techniques the freeflyers used to cope with it. Many would make something like an aggressive backslide motion followed by a correction to restore their proximity. In making the aggressive backslide action, the freeflyer is able to increase the surface area exposed to the wind for greater drag than that available by simply spreading the arms and legs and therefore could ascend on the base.
Omar proposed, one morning, an idea for the group--A 4-way no contact base so that everyone can fly well and in good proximity. Then, 4 head-down people fly in between each head-up person with the heads-level. This way, there is plenty of room and airflow for the head-down people's legs. From this position, the group could attempt an 8-way compressed accordion round.
A box-man RW coach thought about team dynamics while watching the big way training videos. He pointed out that stress can become a factor in team training of this type if everyone doesn't discuss and agree on their personal and team goals during the startup process. Also, as time goes on, small issues such as meeting times for debriefs, dirt diving, etc., being on-time, meal schedule, etc. become important and any lack of synchronization causes conflicts and poor team dynamics. These would become critical issues if the big way group decided to meet for 600 jumps for a half year training program.
However, the goals of the big way was to spend 2 weeks together during 100 training jumps to explore the possibilities and make discoveries. All of the participants held open minds and seemed to enjoy the experience.
I was asked by Omar to come up with some suggestions for the big way group, so I came up with the following list during a dive briefing. (The dive briefings were open to anyone interested to attend and listen.)
***Ground Coaching Sessions***
- --Learn from the box-man RWers the appropriate protocols to follow when doing big ways. These include traffic patterns, break-off procedures and the like.
- --Reduce "personal noise." The parts of the body should move only when making a correction to the speed curve. This encourages smoother flying.
- --When a grip is established, continue to fly the slot. I saw a number of legs begin to flop a good deal after grips where established. This makes it harder for other flyers to take grips on those already in their slots.
- --The highly skilled flyers shouldn't try fancy tricks (unless the dive is intended to be improvisational in nature). Fancy tricks can be distracting to surrounding flyers and increase the chance of mishaps (as in one example, someone became a bowling ball taking out the base after a fancy move). Those arriving first to their slots should just stay still and patiently wait for the other flyers.
- --Slow + Smooth = Fast & Efficient
- --When attempting a head-down round formation, you should match your fallrate to the person opposite you in the round. I believe that this is a common box-man technique.
- --In a head-down round, every other person can have their legs in a Daffy with the others in a Straddle position. This would help keep people from banging their legs against each other.
- --When initiating a motion to a complete formation, it would be best done gently and not aggressively. For example, I saw a single person attempt to turn the weed wacker formation too forcefully. (I was later told that it started to turn and someone aggressively tried to stop it.)
I listened in on debriefing sessions and picked up the following bits:
- --A student was encouraged to keep the legs spread from the knee to the foot too while flying head-down. This way, you are more stable and are less likely to fall if someone bumps into you.
- --Spotty explained to me how Adrian's instructional program works. First, he strives to get a student to stop falling chaotically. Then, he flies close to the student to show them the up close fun of freeflying. From my previous experiences, I've noticed that this can scare some students. Over the course of my previous year's experience in freeflying, several novices have mentioned to me about being nervous when I flew close to them. One said they felt uncomfortable because he didn't have control of the situation and of how close I was to him. Spotty pointed out that, similar to an introductory CRW jump with several basic points and contact, this technique gets the initial fear out of the way and then the student is free to concentrate well on the basic training dives. Next, Adrian proceeds to a phase in his lessons where he gives hand signals (fall faster, fall slower, recede, advance, go sideways, etc.) for students to follow.
- --I watched a video of a dive in which Olav Zipser took grips on Charles Bryan's knees and began to spin the 2-way formation. Charles collapsed in the waist due to the great centrifugal force. (Both were flying head-down.)
- --John Divore recommends to his student to first learn to fly the head-down Straddle before the head-down Daffy. The head-down Daffy is more for fine tuning.
- --John cautions his students that when learning the basic stances, they should practice transitioning between head-up and head-down. Hold any one position not more than 5 seconds. This helps prevent them from learning any bad habits or bad basic flying stances (as such short holds will not create any strong muscle memory).
- --Instructor John Divore tells his students that if a position doesn't feel right or correct keep moving, exploring, and changing the body position. Most students can tell if something doesn't feel right. Continuing to hold a position that doesn't feel right will create muscle memory and become a bad habit. (I realize that the same principle can be applied for instructing too. If a particular lesson doesn't get the TLOs across to the student, configure the same TLOs in a different manner. For example, a novice head-down flyer did the forward & backward movement drill and would move forward without stopping his forward motion. He claimed to be too excited by his initial success and the visuals that he was too distracted and didn't concentrate on the stopping action. He came up with the idea of repeating the drill with his side facing the instructor and the instructor would verify whether or not he moved forward and backward.)
- --One novice freeflyer reported that when he was learning the head-down position, he found it better to tuck into a ball after failing to do the position rather than arching. In this way, he was able to kick his habit of arching. Arching is not helpful for those learning to fly head-up or head-down.
- --Another instructor, Knut, was providing tips on how to learn to fly up to someone and take grips while head-down. He suggests for novice freeflyers to hold out their hand ready for the grip and then learn to balance that body position and fly it straight to the grip. This way, the novice gets a feel for the balance and can fly his hand straight to his mate's hand. Students who fly to their slots first and then reach the arm forward for the grip suddenly find themselves being swept off balance typically onto the back and driving forward over the person in front of them. I, myself, prefer to fly to the slot and then moving the arm(s) to take the grip remembering to adjust my balance to compensate. This seems very similar to the notion how some pilots prefer to cross control the aircraft for the entire crosswind approach or to crab and then kick in the rudder at the last moment before touch down.
- --An instructor directed a student of his to push back the opposite leg when reaching forward to take a grip with one arm. To reach out with the right arm push back with the left leg (or vice versa). In effect, the novice would be, in general, rotating his body slightly for taking a grip.
- --When reaching forward with an arm, novice head-down flyers have a tendency to let themselves arch, mainly, in that the legs fall backward. This drives them forward.
- --George, one of the students, was working on learning to fly in a standup. If the legs pop up, tuck them in and suck them back down underneath yourself. Push the hips forward to go forward. (Thinking of pushing the hips forward to go forward may be easier for a student to think about than thinking lean the back backward to go forward.) Notice that in order to not travel over your partner, you have to accelerate your fallrate as you go forward in order to maintain a level position.
- --An instructor's student reaches a hand forward to take a grip while in a standup. He loses balance because he didn't use his other three limbs to help him balance. To maintain balance in a standup, I believe it's best for a novice to first learn to control the fallrate by using the legs. By controlling the fallrate with the leg spread, a novice learns to control his balance also with his legs. The sensation of maintaining balance and controlling the fallrate with the legs can be described as a feeling of manipulating, squeezing, and/or riding a huge ball of air pressure in between the legs.
- --I watched students learning to transition between head-down and head-up and vice versa. In transitioning by a 1/2 cartwheel to the head-down position, the student should first master the transition while falling in the tube. (Students often would mistakenly get their backs or chests into the wind on the transition causing an unwanted forward or back slide.) After learning to transition in the tube, he can deliberately transition to move backward or forwards when finishing into the head-down position.
I received some ground coaching as well.
***My Jump Experience***
- --Since he seemed to explain things so well and have a lot of experience in freeflying, I asked John Divore for some tips on side sliding. To side slide in a head-down straddle, turn-in the left leg at the hip socket and bend the knee to push air to the left for a right side slide. The left arm would be straightened at the elbow and angled downwind (with the right arm in the normal bent elbow swept back position). To side slide in the head-down Daffy, the back leg is slightly pushed out laterally away from the body's mid-line with the same arm straightened at the elbow.
- --Olav suggested to me an independent arm maneuvering drill. Take a toy with you and your partner. Pass it around the torso, behind the head, between the legs all while head-down and in close proximity to your partner. And then pass the toy to your partner to do the same.
- --Knut explained to me that the head-down Daffy position gives better control of small relative movements when flying in close proximity. The straddle leg position is too sensitive for most to use for flying in close proximity. It is better to use the straddle leg position for covering larger distances. Although, it is true that it is harder to side slide in an head-down Daffy.
- --While speaking with George, I learned a technique for helping to stop novices from arching while head-down. Have the novice put their elbows on their sides. This discourages them from arching. (I am thinking of using this elbow position much like how a heel click is used in AFF training.) Also, having the chest strap tight, also reminds novices to not arch when they feel the tightness of the chest strap.
- --After messing up an AFF head-down exit with my friend, John Schuman, Knut had some advice for me. First of all, I should just physically use my arms to force my partner into the head-down position. If it is a student who really doesn't try and the exit funnels, he should be released and ground briefing should be continued. To give the student signals, you have to hold the student with one hand. To give you better leverage, put the elbow of the hand holding the student against the student's body. Also, to launch the AFF head-down exit, it's best to have both people center float and for the instructor in front float to fall backwards toward the prop blast and pull the student into the wind. I had made the mistake of leaving from inside the plane with my partner in the center float position (and he was actually leaning slightly away from the prop blast).
My freefall goals included 1) learning to carve, i.e., orbiting, in both the head-down and head-up orientations, and 2) practicing head-down independent arm maneuvering. The subject of my arm position also came up during the course of my own freefall activity.
Charles Bryan at the start of the festival took me on a dive to explore carving. He allowed me to practice by holding heading and letting me circle around him while head-down. I started the carve toward my right by moving forward and off to the right and pushing with my left leg. I was about 7-9 feet away and stayed at that distance throughout the carve. As I was coming back around to his front, it was building momentum and I really had to think to stop. Then, Charles would proceed to carve around me. My task was to cut him off and to keep our 2-way face-off on heading. Doing this requires backsliding and side sliding at the same time and toward the direction your partner tries to carve towards. The action felt odd and Charles gave me the OK sign that I was successful and worked me in the opposite direction. Something interesting happens when I "cut" someone off from orbiting about me. As I do so and keep our 2-way no contact formation on a constant heading, I see their body at an oblique angle with their side partially presented to me instead of facing directly towards me. (I had the opportunity to repeat a similar dive in a standing position.)
I was very happy in accomplishing the carving while head-down and another jumper invited me on a dive to carve around him while he stood. I had difficulty in doing so. The 3rd person video reveals that he was backsliding slightly. With carving new to me, I can do it now only around a subject falling straight down the tube. With a subject moving horizontally across the sky, the carving person must vary the speed of the carving depending on which side of the subject he is on in order to maintain a curve of constant speed and constant distance from the subject. I would compare this with the "turns about point" flying exercise with winds blowing aloft that student pilots may be familiar with.
In my observations about carving, I suspect that freeflyers will want to learn how to carve while being able to remain tight with their partner, at a medium distance, and at a farther distance. Freeflyers will also want to practice carving at various rates as well. Carving faster involves leaning the legs more steeply backward and arching the torso more. (I believe it would be harder to carve faster and closer to the subject.) Carving around a subject that is sliding horizontally across the sky requires both technical skills of varying the rate and distance of carving. If the subject is moving quickly enough, the carving freeflyer will have to even carve in the opposite direction just briefly on one side of the sliding subject just to maintain an orbit that appears to progress at the same rate and maintaining a constant distance.
Independent Arm Maneuvering and Grips
After my first weekend, I had became acquainted with Simon Ashenden from England. He is a good head-down flyer for sure with good command of a basic body stance, forward/backward movement, fallrate control, and good heading control. I was astonished by his skill level when I found out that he had just around 150 freefly jumps! With both of us having these skills, we jumped together and could practice independent arm maneuvering and taking grips.
We started our dives from a position on the door sill just inside the door facing one another holding right hand grips (just with the finger tips clasped). We launched into the head-down position into the prop blast. With both of us flying our slots, we had just nearly no tension on our fingers. Then, for the dive, we took turns practicing moving our arms while holding relativity. He clapped. I clapped. Then, I flew close to him and placed my hand on his chest. I wanted to establish the formation and tried taking grips on his chest strap. The shirt kept flapping around it. I maintained a no tension configuration and continuing for a number of seconds to secure the chest strap grip. I couldn't secure the chest strap and gave up to allow Simon to take his turn.
Reaching the arm(s) in front of the body while flying head-down can be a tricky task. If you simply just reach the arm(s) forward, the wind will catch them and flip you onto your back. If you simply decide to compensate for the arm(s) in front of yourself by pushing the legs back, you will drive forward into your partner (as I had fallen victim to and slammed into Brad during a 21,000 ft jump at Quincy shutting off his camera at 12,000 ft). To have the arm(s) forward, not only does one have to push back with the legs, they have to also change the pitch of their body so as to have slight wind pressure on the chest in order to hold their relative position. One needs even more of this pitch correction to have both arms forward. (Moving the arms within the plane of the body requires pretty much just only fallrate corrections with the legs (and adjusting lateral balance) in order to stay in the slot.)
On a following dive, Simon and I decided to practice taking grips. We took the same exit off the plane as before into the head-down position and released grips in good proximity. We decided to do a drill where we would reach left hands to make a grip between us, then the right and so on. Then, I stood up and we flew together into a joker, a formation with one person head-down and the other upright with one grip established (L hand to R hand or vice versa). During my initial approach, I was too low and then corrected my level. Afterwards, I realize how that would encourage Simon to reach downward potentially increasing his surface area which would tend to cause him to float or to lose balance. Afterall, the joker was slowly pirouetting but it worked out well. It was my first. Simon observed his tendency to relax and forget flying to some extent once a grip is established. While this didn't seem to disturb the balance of our joker, it caused him to fall onto his back and get blown away from me after he established two-handed grips on my 3-ring covers (when we were both head-down).
As our attention had shifted from the original independent arm maneuvering drills to grips and establishing formations, I made another observation. It is very easy for freeflyers to forget flying the body and to focus on the grip or the goal of making contact. Freeflyers must remember that grips and formations are THE RESULT of flying the slot in full control of level and proximity with good independent arm maneuvering skills.
My Arm Position
When head-down, I fly with my arms held in a position nearly identical to the position that flat box fliers use. However, most freeflyers seem to prefer a position in which the arms are blown back and bent at the elbows. I originally learned my position from Philippe Vallaud in late 1993 during which time he told me it was a good position for taking and presenting grips.
I learned that as a result of my arm position, my flying appears stiff to others because 1) my arms stay in that position until I decide to do something with them, 2) my arms do not engage often in independent movements (because I have to think about them and therefore do the movements only when needed), and 3) other freeflyers consider the arm position more difficult than the arm position in which the arms are bent at the elbows and swept backwards.
There is the claim that with the arms swept backwards, they can be used more to help you fly, i.e., help you side slide, etc. For example, the backs of the arms can be used to assist carving action by pushing backwards into the air.
Some experienced freeflyers expressed the belief that the box arm position could actually block air and restrict a freeflyer's horizontal movements. However, it does not seem that way to me.
Just before a jump with a French freefly group, Team X Fly, John Divore reminds me to try flying with my arms swept downwind and not in my so-called box position. I followed the French out in the head-down position, got level with the base man. My arms were in my typical "box-like" position. I moved them to the other swept back position for several seconds and then back again several times. The change didn't seem to effect my fallrate. I, also, didn't notice any advantages to the swept back arm position. If someone could comment on this, please do so!!
The French seemed to just flow with each other with the whole group sliding this way and that (by around 15-20 feet). The sliding seemed to help their work progress and at one point 2 were linked together with a slot passing my way. The motion shifted again before I docked as I tend to fly more with precision and a little slow yet. However, it was a cool dive.
Here I would like to make a note about flying styles...
While the popular trend is towards baggier suits, the French seem to prefer jeans and sweat shirt and cruise around 180mph instead of the 165mph in the baggier suits. Some flat RWers believe that freefly will pass the same landmarks as flat RW, i.e., the transition from baggy suits to tighter suits. In making my jump with the French 3-way, I wore my jeans and sweat shirt. It seemed that I could more freely move my body more with less effect on fallrate and horizontal movements. Yet, the range of maneuvering is narrower than that with the baggier suits.
Speaking of suits, Wayne, Skydive Arizona's rigger, pointed out to me that the insides of the arms seem to take the most wear on freefly suits.
I purchased a "Brand X" jumpsuit from the 70s that had been built just for a person of my size. It is a perfect fit for me. The suit is huge and I wanted to fly it at speeds of box-man RW. I jumped with Peter Unruh and his Skyball. We took his fast belly-to-earth model. He launched from center float and I went to the head-down position. I managed to fly on-level with Skyball. Peter was flying flat beside it. Then, somehow, in some correction of some sort I managed to float myself above the ball. I accelerated dreading all the strength that I have to muster up to slow again to the Skyball's rate. Once level with the Skyball, I tried the Daffy position which didn't seem to effect my fallrate. (I've heard claims that the head-down Daffy falls slower than the head-down Straddle.) I also side slid gently from side to side while viewing the sky ball. To get more from this suit and to feel comfortable to "play" in the head-down as I would on a normal VRW dive, I have to strengthen my muscles a bit. Because my level of effort and fatigue varied throughout the dive, I had the perception that the Skyball varied its fallrate. In knew it was my fatigue/effort level because the Skyball can't vary it's fallrate!! Nethertheless, it was a very cool dive.
I finished my stay at Eloy with a solo air bath. I left the plane with a leg extended and spinning precariously balanced. I stood, snapped an instant cartwheel, stopped, snapped another, etc. Then, I cranked the back layouts--real fast ones. I had to force myself to stop them in my sense of self preservation and immediately stopped in a head-down position and dizzy at the same time. I rocked from head to feet in a 180 degree pitching motion. And I finished the freefall standing on my head in a no-lift dive position with my arms extended over my head towards the earth. I realized that I had absorbed so much information and stimulation that I was actually stressed and needed this relaxing air bath to release myself!!