Tales from the Trail Plane – A World Record Story

Tales from the Trail Plane: A World Record Story

All I could see was the flat landscape of the outskirts of Skydive Chicago – Interstate 80, a few industrial buildings, the river… All I had was an in-air radio communication in my ear under my Tonfly helmet.


First I hear, “Check, check.” Then, “Red light,” cuing us to open the door. Finally, “Green light,” that signaled us to hang our oxygen masks. Then, “Exit! Exit!” Looking into the open landscape I leapt and rotated on my back.


This Vertical World Record marked the change of how big way formations are engineered. Traditionally big ways chunked out the “base” with a dozen or so floaters and the majority of jumpers diving towards the base. Rook Nelson designed the 142-way formation to have half the jumpers float up to the base and have only a few divers. And there I was, in the Skyvan, trail plane, slot #133.

On Attempt #3 my radio failed. As I stared out the back door of the Skyvan I saw the base. And I frantically leapt into the sky and dove my butt off. Wait, what? I’m a floater, diving? My Pro Track clocked my dive at 217 mph and I made it to the formation just before break off! But… besides the 2 other floaters beside me, everyone expected to see the base from a floaters perspective. It was too late. As described by Mike Wittenburg, “Floating up to empty planes in formation was like being in a Stephen King movie.” We exited too late.


Attempt #4. We’ve learned the value of radio checks prior to take off and again at 16,000 feet. On jump run we stood at the edge staring out at the plain landscape and all of the sudden there was yelling and I was out the door. My radio came in. “Standby, standby, we are doing a go around.” I was in freefall receiving this message with ten others from the Skyvan, again looking up to a formation of planes-this time, with closed doors.

My goal for the second day was to leave with the other airplanes, and leave on time so everyone on my plane could float up to the formation. I did radio checks on the ground and at 16,000 feet with Vince who rode in the Sherpa, the lead plane. We had a pep talk with everyone on our plane about communication and a back up plan in case my radio didn’t work so we could still leave on time-our apparent learning curve for this formation to work was in our communication. I learned that on Attempt #4 the people in the back were watching the planes and shouted, “Shut the door!” as we were doing a go-around, but somehow that translated to, “Go!” to everyone near the door. Lesson learned. The second day of attempts we left on time, every time! There was a small victory every time we left and we saw the base leaving moments later after we exited.


On Day 2 we built a 142-way, but the paperwork was submitted incorrectly to the judges. To make a skydiving world record count, all the participants need to have current international license (for us in the USA, we need an FAI license) and a current country’s license (for me, USPA). Then, you submit the names with each participant’s paperwork. Finally, you submit the formation you’re attempting to the judges. Rook and his team admitted we did the record as we dirt dived, but they submitted the wrong formation. Rook was definitely upset, but still determined we could do it again. So again, we went up for Attempt #10 at the end of the second day.

Although there wasn’t an official “World Record” for us, we did accomplish an official state record of a 142-Way Vertical Formation.

On Day 3, I was tired and sore, but my spirits were high. I was up early and feeling excited about the day. I had reflected what the last two days had brought-6-plane formation loads with new and old friends from around the world building 100+ ways, breaking the old World Record on EVERY jump!! How freakin’ cool is that?! This doesn’t happen every day! And although fatigued and having logged several hours riding up to altitude in the airplane, we improved on every jump, making the formation look better – we were flying, literally working our butts off to fly 100+ people together in formation!! It was incredible.

It was ground hog day getting into the planes again. I walked behind the Skyvan squinting my eyes as I did every other load before to hide them from the burning jet fuel. I was the last one on and I high-fived the loader. I turned around to close the door and smiled. I hope we get this. I’m tired, I thought to myself. It was Attempt #15.

Attempt #14 saw some similar problems throughout the day and the organizers had to make a decision. Rook said, “Our job is that everyone goes home safely and goes home a World Record holder.” So they cut 4 people, we were now 138.


The door opened and I looked out to the familiar barren landscape. “Exit!” comes through my radio and I count down, “Three, two, one!” and I exit. I got this exit down and I know my visuals and how to fly this “super-duper” floater slot. My pod took its time to build. You could see the rest of the formation still, on level and focused. Finally my docks presented themselves and I wasted no time taking my grips. I saw Noah Bahnson in the base shaking his head, then as my stinger took his grip, Noah nodded and smiled. The entire formation electrified. We knew it, without a doubt, we just built a World Record!!


Thank you to all that supported this event! I’d like to thank my sponsors who were here to support us as well: Sonic from Tonfly USA, Chris Talbert from Sun Path, Rob Kendall from Cypres, and Kyle & Matt from Performance Designs.

Originally posted in the summer of 2012

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VFS – The Beginning


It was the winter of 2003, and I was alone in the 46,000-sqaure foot hangar called Skydive Chicago – bored. The temperatures neared freezing levels, snow covered the Skydive Chicago landing area in white, and the hallways were empty of eager skydivers. I distinctly remember thinking that I need to keep my hands busy and for some reason, I went to my computer and downloaded the USPA Competition Manual and read it word for word.

I competed in “Freestyle” in 1999-2003 and in “Freefly” with the Sugar Gliderz (Amy Chmelecki & Jen Key [2002-2004] then Brooke Schultz and Kate Hoffstetter [2004-2005]). Freestyle and Freefly are considered “Artistic Events” [AE]; which basically means the disciplines are judged subjectively. The creativity and ingenuity enhance the AE disciplines greatly! It’s the dedication to come up with something unique that makes these disciplines challenging, technical and progressive.

I found myself challenged to develop a routine satisfactory to judges, who weren’t necessarily current skydivers or even freesylists/freefliers, and be judged fairly. I wasn’t alone either; many other AE competitors complained of the same frustrations. Training, traveling and competing isn’t cheap. When it’s time to compete, you want a fair competition!

So here I am, nose in the Competition Manual thinking of more conversations….

I was at Perris Valley for a National competition in the early 2000’s and remember joking with Eli Thompson, Mike Swanson, and my brother, Rook Nelson about how funny it was that freefliers jumpsuits had similarly progressed as RW had. Relative Workers used to wear big, balloon-type jumpsuits, then went to tight fitting jumpsuits with nylon fabric. I remember wearing a big pair of baggy jeans and a huge sweatshirt when I started learning to freefly because I couldn’t afford a jumpsuit. Now I wear a tight fitting Tonfly that mimics an RW suit!!

Still flipping through the Competition Manual.

Eli, Mike, Rook and myself talked about how freeflying would soon have a discipline like 4-way FS and that it was only a matter of time. I smiled. That conversation sparked several ideas that had stored in memory files in my head. But, was the sport ready for a new discipline – 4-Way Vertical Relative Work? It had to start somewhere.

I finished reading the competition manual and started trying to figure out the possibilities of 4-Way VRW. In that moment, I somehow elected myself to spearhead VRW. Why not? I had the time, resources, experience and motivation to do it. So I created a to-do list:

  • Create a Vertical Dive Pool
  • Judges
    • How to train judges to “see” points vertically
    • How to train judges to become VRW judges
  • Spread the Word
    • Get People Involved
      • Go to events, show dive pool
      • Load organize using dive pool
      • Make website
      • Attend Events
      • Petition for the USPA BOD to support the event
    • Host Events
    • Go to USPA for support in seeing VRW as a discipline worthy of National recognition
    • Get VRW into Nationals and in 2 years, International Competition

So that winter I created the dive pool and wrote the rules, put it together in a binder, made t-shirts, a website and a banner. Then, I was on the road. I went to many events such as Chick’s Rock, Nationals and World Records to promote the upcoming discipline. I did everything on my checklist.

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Melissa at Skydive Chicago for a competitor briefing about the future of VRW

“When we started Team Mandrin over the winter of 2004/2005, there were no other VFS teams around. In fact it wasn’t even called VFS, it was still VRW at that point. Skydivers had been freeflying for several years by then, but the only competitive disciplines that were out there were freefly or freestyle, both artistic.  When the opportunity presented itself to help pioneer a brand new discipline, we jumped on it!  – Brian Buckland

“After a particularly disappointing event in California in 2004, we [Dave Brown, Brian Buckland, Kyle Starck, Jon Pinyon] started talking about the four of us getting together at random DZs and busting out a bunch of jumps for a weekend, coming up with sequences of medium to difficult formations and trying to execute them, just the four of us. No plans for competition, we just wanted to hone our skills.

“A few weeks later we became aware of something called “vertical relative work” that Melissa Nelson had been working on. We downloaded it and set a date to meet up in Atlanta to try it out… officially calling ourselves a skydiving team for the first time.” – Eric Deren
Dave Brown, Brian Buckland, Kyle Starck, Jon Pinyon and Eric Deren were my biggest supporters and together they created the VRW team known as “Mandarin.” They trained – a lot. They were the first engineers of how VRW worked and Buckland was the first cameraflyer to train a 4-Way VRW team.

There were many nah-sayers along the way, saying that “VRW” was too progressive and there’s no way the video guy would be able to film all the points. The negative feedback made me even more excited that there was going to be new territory to be discovered in the sky – and the camera flyer was going to have to be a badass flyer too!

“Being the first official VFS camera flier was an amazing experience. It was an honor to say the least, but took a lot of figuring out seeing that no one else had ever done it before. I can still hear my teammates telling me ‘steeper…steeper’ during our debriefs. Tweaking the camera angles and learning how to get all of the grips visible was indeed a challenge. At the same time we were trying to apply the training methods that have been honed over the years in traditional belly 4-way FS. We engaged multiple FS coaches to help us learn how to train and for me, how to film.” – Buckland

Deren had been my informant on what worked and didn’t work. But it was a difficult transition being the original author and having it all come to fruition. I did not having the capabilities at the time to train what I had written. Phone conversations were meaningless because I couldn’t understand or see what was going on in the sky. Mandarin ultimately became a key to VFS’s success.

“Everyone who didn’t live in Atlanta flew in, and we went to the DZ. After we missed more than one 40 minute call trying to figure out what the hell the diagrams and descriptions were meaning, and calling the author up for clarification without success, we spent the rest of the weekend just flying some of the more unambiguous formations. After that weekend, I took charge and took on the task of taking the ambiguity out of the formations, and then I designed the formation diagrams in the computer, modifying them to match what I knew from 4-way FS… as well as renaming it to VFS to match the IPC nomenclature for formation skydiving.” – Deren

During this time I gained about 800 signatures on my petition for USPA and I attended a BOD meeting with Deren.

I’d been to several USPA BOD meetings throughout the years and am the daughter of the late pioneer, Roger Nelson. For those of you that don’t know him, he was extraordinarily progressive in his teaching methods. When USPA told him he couldn’t do something (such as jump square mains for students), he’d do it anyways. So I anticipated meeting the same kind of resistance he had in the past. After our presentation, I was astounded by USPA’s backing to help see the vision into fruition for competition (which ultimately relied much on Deren’s input afterwards).

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In 2006, 4-Way VFS was included at USPA’s National’s at Skydive Arizona as a test event. Only one category, the gold for the taking, and an overwhelming number of teams (9) came in support of the new discipline. The success was astounding. Amy Chmelecki awarded me with a bouquet of flowers and credited me for originally creating VFS. Then, VFS 4-way was adopted as an addition to FAI world competitions, the first being the FAI World Cup in Eloy, AZ, in October 2008; exactly 2 years later from the first competition, it was seen as an International discipline.

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“Team Mandrin trained and competed from 2005 – 2008 and still holds the current World Record for the most points scored in a round; 40 points in 35 seconds set in 2008.” – Buckland

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VFS is now entering into its first decade from its inception from that lonely winter in 2003. Deren nor I are not involved anymore. But it’s amazing to see how VFS has progressed.

At the 2010 USPA Nationals at Skydive Chicago, Skydive TV did an interview on the origins of VFS and dubbed me, the “Godmother of VFS.” Flattering, but it took me, Mandrin, Eric Deren, Dennis Cowhey, and all the past and current competitors to make it happen, and keep it going.

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Nine teams from around the world participated in the recent World Meet in Dubai; and overall, a whole new breed of sky flyers had been created.

“The best part of being on Team Mandrin wasn’t just the fact that we were able to pioneer a new part of our sport, but being able to sit back year after year since the team’s inception and see more and more VFS teams become major players over the years. The limits keep getting pushed and now VFS is a globally recognized disciplined practiced and competed in by hundreds of skydivers around the world and the best part about it is that it’s only getting bigger.” – Buckland

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Former 4-Way VFS World Champions,         SDC Standard

(Originally written and posted in late 2010.)