4-way VFS Team Arizona X-Force exits the Dentri (formation M of the IPC dive pool) over Skydive Arizona.
As the clock struck noon on a recent Sunday, the four-man vertical formation skydiving team at Skydive Arizona was 10 minutes from taking off for its 12th jump of the day. As members walked over to the shuttle that would take them to the plane, they took the last few moments to practice their formations, rotating around each other and grabbing various arms and legs with machine-like precision
This is one of about 30 days that the team of Johnny Gunn, Niklas Daniel, Seth Studer, Brianne Thompson and their videographer, Kevin Mitchell, practice for their competitions.
“When you can get four people that are jiving on the same page with a really good video guy like we have, it’s impressive to get four people to do the things that we do in the same time, in the same space in the sky,” Gunn said.
They compete in what’s called four-man vertical formation skydiving (VFS), one of the many disciplines within the sport. It involves the four divers and videographer hopping out of the plane with roughly 35 seconds to pull off all their formations, all while at high speed facing head-first or feet-first toward the Earth. On the ground, the video will be reviewed by judges who base their scores on completion of the formations, precision and style. Different sizes of teams compete in different competitions, from two all the way up to 16-man teams.
Back at the drop-zone, the team finalizes how they will disembark from the plane in a mock-up exit before they are taken to the plane. A team colleague, Justin Price, explains that they will be taken to roughly 13,500 feet in the air before they drop.
As the team pops their canopies following their freefall, it takes members a few minutes before they come zooming into the drop zone from the west side. Despite the fact they are landing into a strong wind on this day, they slide on their feet across the grass for almost 20 feet before coming to a complete stop.
They grab their used parachutes loosely and run around the corner where they return with a freshly packed parachute, and before you know it they’re back on the shuttle for another jump. This round, there’s no time to practice their formations on the ground.
They are practicing for the U.S Parachuting Association Championship, which is slated to take place in Eloy at the Skydive Arizona drop zone in late October. Doing well at this event would qualify them for international events, competing for the U.S. at Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) events across the globe, something that has been a dream of Gunn’s for a while.
“My ultimate goal would be competing at the world meet in 4-VFS,” Gunn said of his favorite discipline of skydiving. “That in conjunction with competing for the U.S. in canopy piloting would definitely be the dream.”
Eloy is a special place when it comes to four-man vertical formation skydiving. The first official U.S. championship for it was held at Skydive Arizona in 2006, and the first ever FAI world cup for VFS was held there in 2008.
While he’s not training with his four-man team, Gunn is training in a different discipline of skydiving called canopy piloting. Just last week, he won best overall in his division at a USPA competition in Florida, and gold in the speed competition.
For Gunn, canopy piloting is a nice break from the team-oriented formation skydiving, something he can practice whenever he feels like it.
“I just love being up in the air, it’s quiet and it’s peaceful,” said Gunn. “It’s just me and my wing doing what I need to do to win.”
In canopy piloting, unlike the freefall disciplines in skydiving, scoring is done on the ground. In a typical meet, such as the one in Florida, there are three events, speed, distance and accuracy.
Speed is self explanatory. Skydivers will guide themselves through gates with their parachutes, and the fastest time wins, with divers sometimes reaching speeds of 90 miles per hour. Distance is measured by how far the divers can go using a technique called climbing in which they manipulate their canopy to give themselves some extra lift to go greater distances.
“Zone accuracy is what separates the men from the boys, for sure.” Gunn said. He placed sixth in accuracy during that particular meet. In this event, divers must drag their feet across four water gates before trying to land on a 3-by-3-foot landing pad, with varying degrees of success.
Competing at such a high level in both freefall and canopy piloting disciplines is uncommon, according to Price, who also competed in the competition in Florida. Unfortunately a botched landing in the event led Price to be on crutches for a few months.
“It’s pretty cool being able to participate in multiple disciplines to that extent,” said Price, who does the same. He shoots video for the belly-down formation skydiving team at Skydive Arizona.
For Gunn competing in skydiving is what he hopes to continue doing for a long time, and hopefully on the international stage following the event in October
“I’m going to keep competing and hopefully be fortunate enough to pay the bills with it because it beats an office job,” Gunn said. “There’s way worse ways to make your money.”