Dusty Hanks sits on a small plane with his teammates. He’s quiet, but his mind is full envisioning the maneuvers he’s about to perform. It’s pointless to talk, anyway; the plane gets louder as it climbs.
When they get closer to 13,000 feet, Hanks and the other four members of SDC Core assemble at the door of the plane. Hanks links hands with three of his team members, while the fifth holds onto a wing and a camera.
“Ready, set, GO!”
On go, they jump out of the plane and get to work. They spin and grip hands like cheerleaders ready to throw one of their teammates. Then two flip into handstands and grip hands again. The whole time, they are falling through the air. They remain vertical, almost as if they are standing on the ground. After 35 seconds, they separate, pull their cords, and begin to glide.
Welcome to vertical formation skydiving (VFS), one of the many forms of jumping out of a plane that make up the U.S. Parachuting Championships, which took place over a week and a half last month in Rochelle, Illinois. In vertical formation, teams of four divers and a camera operator jump from a plane, then configure themselves into as many vertical formations as they can in 35 seconds. It looks like a mix of ballet and skydiving with a touch of synchronized swimming, but with fewer rhinestones.
The day before the competition, each team has been given a standardized list of maneuvers. Each move is caught on camera, and later, judges in a conference room in an airport hangar will watch the video and decide if the execution of each move will count, awarding a point for each formation. After 10 dives, the team with the most points wins.
“You don’t feel the sensation of losing your stomach, like when you’re a roller coaster ride,” Hanks said. “I guess we have so much experience with it. I don’t feel like we’re falling. We’re flying, right?”
At first blush, the culture of skydiving seems to be at odds with the very idea of competition. Even here in the middle of the country, there’s almost a surfer vibe. Skydiving blends calm of falling through the air with the adrenaline of, well, falling through the air. And even the way teams compete is incredibly chill. After the team has landed, they might gather around to watch their video and scores. They might not. Teams who are neck and neck for a top spot cheer each other on.
SDC Core, based in Chicago, is one of the best teams in the world at four-way VFS. They are the defending world champions, and their U.S. title is on the line on this day in early September at the national championships in Rochelle, a small town about 80 miles west of Chicago that happens to have an airport and a field large enough for a drop zone. The hangar at the Rochelle Municipal Airport is transformed into a giant waiting room, with rubber mats set on the concrete floor. Teams camp out in their designated spots. Hanks lays on a mat with his head propped on his parachute-filled backpack.
Skydiving competitions started in the 1930s, when Russian skydivers would compete to land on a target, but formation skydiving—groups of people grabbing hands in the air—didn’t make it to the world championships until 1970. In 2007, vertical formation skydiving was added to worlds.
Hanks grew up in a tiny town in Idaho about 20 miles from Canada. He jumped out of a plane to celebrate his high-school graduation and immediately wanted to do it again, and again, and again. With his parents’ approval, he moved to Arizona, then to Utah, to pursue competitive skydiving. A woman with whom he paired on a tandem jump slipped him a $20 bill for a tip with her phone number on it. They are now married with three kids.
Earlier this year, Hanks’ sons Aidan, 15, and Cole, 11, joined their father on a jump in Colorado. They plan on jumping at least two more times before the year is up. Hanks has done more than 12,000 jumps, including world records and world championships, but his dives with his kids are still his favorite.
Hanks works at iFly Utah, an indoor skydiving facility with a wind tunnel. He can teach others how to fly while getting in plenty of practice himself, and still taking time to meet with his team for about two weeks every month. They practice grips, do long jumps in the tunnel, and just make sure they’re talking to each other regularly.
“Most teams melt down not over skill sets, but over personalities. Steph and I, Rook, Dusty, we’ve been on previous teams,” Jason Russell, the team’s leader, says of its members. “All of us have struggled with interpersonal relations on teams. Hopefully, we’ve learned from it. Right now, our dynamic is really good. Better than teams I’ve been on in the past.”
Each team is mostly white and mostly male, but teams are co-ed. The group teases Stephanie Strange, the one woman on SDC Core, no differently than they tease each other. “She’s actually better than the rest of us,” says Jake Jensen, the team’s cameraman.
Not one of them can explain exactly why they love skydiving so much. Instead, they encourage questioners to just try it. But while each member of the team got into skydiving separately, a theme emerges as to why they did. Jumping out of a plane is not as risky as other adrenaline junkie activities, but it’s addictive enough that once they tried it, they had to do it again.
“I was racing motorcycles and getting hurt a lot. I was recovering from injury, and a friend told me to try a tandem. Once I realized there was competition in the sport, I was all in,” Russell said.
Hanks and Jensen both did motocross too, and their injuries piled up. The injury rates from jumping out of a plane are nowhere near as high. Each member of SDC Core has more than 6,000 dives—Nelson has more than 30,000—but their list of accidents are short. Strange broke an ankle when she caught part of her foot on a patch of sand. Jensen dislocated his shoulder. According to the U.S. Parachuting Association, there were 24 skydiving deaths in the U.S. in 2017 out of 3.2 million jumps, making for a death rate of 0.0075 deaths per 1,000 jumps.
“It’s sensational when something happens, the media grabs a hold of it. To be honest, compared to motocross, this is super safe. Motocross is the sport for nutjobs,” Russell said.
The formations happen so high up that they are impossible to see from the ground. Instead, tiny dots in the sky start getting bigger until you suddenly realize it’s a group of people descending. They know how to control their parachute and harness the wind until they are standing upright a few feet off the ground. Then, they simply land.
“[The jumps] sometimes don’t go exactly as planned or as good as your wish. We’re all human and we make mistakes. In competitions, our team’s pretty focused. We control that distraction, and the mistakes we make are minor,” Hanks said.
There were no mistakes on those cloudy days in September, though. Once again, SDC Core team won the national championship. Then they flew to Australia for the world championships and won there, too, beating Canada by 41 points. Australia took third, losing to Canada by a mere four points. SDC is back to back world champions, better than anyone else at flying.