The annual Arizona Challenge is an elite, invitational event run by US 4-way Champions Arizona Airspeed, as their way of giving back to skydivers who support the team. The event and the team have been going for over 20 years.
The 4-day Challenge is held at their home drop zone, Skydive Arizona, which boasts almost unbroken sunshine and near-perfect skydiving weather. The 2018 Challenge was run with Airspeed Captain Niklas Hemlin at the helm, ably assisted by current Airspeed members Mikhail Markhine, Thiago Gomes and Ari Perelman plus Airspeed Alumni Eliana Rodriguez and Mark Kirkby. Nik introduced the event by saying something along the lines of:
“Our goals are 1, SAFETY - Let’s all walk away on Monday. 2, FUN - have as much fun as possible. 3. COMPLETION of the Challenge formation.“
And so the games began…
Friday saw four groups of 16 or 20 skilled flyers each with one or two Airspeed coaches, who had carefully crafted some complicated, difficult skydives you’d never have the audacity to try at your average weekend. The groups are designed to be equally matched and that proved to be the case as every load had a day of brilliant skydiving. About 75 per cent of participants were Challenge veterans but the mix included an influx of new blood. Airspeed had set a specific goal of recruiting rising young jumpers, from teams they coached, recommendations and talent-spotting. The standard seemed higher than last year, and the jumpers were expertly managed by the coaches, putting people in the right slots for successful skydives. Jumps were out of 2 aircraft, a Skyvan or Otter in the lead and a trail Twin Otter. It’s super fun, a fast build and a rare treat to do 16-way out of 2 planes.
Saturday saw different groups for each coach, so everyone got to make some new friends and allegiances, and each person rotated through base, floater and diver, in trail and lead planes. This gave everyone a chance to try everything, kept it fresh and allowed the coaches to evaluate the jumpers. There was a brilliant energy from the very beginning and this built steadily each day, as the skydives were consistently good.
The wide variety of designs, formations and elements really kept these small jumps enjoyable. It’s useful for the coaches to try elements of Monday’s Challenge formation, and try out people in various slots but this was balanced with a huge range of other stuff, keeping it fun and leaving us guessing at this year’s theme. Ari and Mikhail's group for example took an 8-way zipper flake vertically over another and re-docked them. Eliana's 16-way group completed the 4-way dive 7, 4, with 4-way zippers as individuals.
On Sunday the groups from the previous day joined together to make two 39-ways, one run by Niklas, Eliana & Thiago, the other run by Mark, Mikhail and Ari. Both loads had one of the most successful skydiving days ever! JP, one of the participants, said “It was a day that reminds me why I skydive!” Me too! Both groups made five jumps of 39-way, with 3 different and challenging formations that completed every time, some held for more than 10 seconds. The day was more successful than Airspeed anticipated, they kept having to come up with second points when we completed the first one so quickly. As Ari said “it was a good problem to have!”
I loved some of the second point ideas, especially one where the base released grips and all ended up outfacing (above). An inventive folding in around the grip between cats charmed us and gave everyone the chance to fly. Finally we finished the day with a smaller jump, planned the previous day but stopped by over-excited winds.
Normally the Challenge formation is not revealed until Memorial Monday but this year saw a departure with the baby unveiled on Sunday night. We still had to wait till morning to find out the slots though. It was a picture formation looking like the triangular Airspeed logo, made up of inter-connecting 6-way donuts linked by 3-way donuts and 4-way bipoles. The bipoles had to be offset, (right knee to right knee) to make the formation possible. This led Ellen Monsees to voice what we all were thinking, “20 years you’ve been telling us to square up the bipoles and now you’re moving the goalposts!”
The energy and talent of the assembled skydivers, plus the standard of jumps so far led me to believe we would complete the formation well inside the five skydives planned. The first jump - at 16,000 feet using oxygen - saw it 90 per cent complete, with just a small section out. A different corner was absent on jump 2, and the formation developed a life of its own, with big squirling waves like rolling surf going through the formation.
Before jump 3 at the dirt dive we were treated to an atmospheric trumpet solo for Memorial Day, bringing a lump to many throats. It was particularly poignant to remember those we had lost in that moment, as Scott Latinis had just given me a piece of Tom Jenkins’ ashes to take with me on the jump. Tom had joined us on so many Challenges over the years and now he was still with me. I was moved beyond words. I felt then that this jump would be the one. Tom didn’t do failure. And so it turned out…
This next skydive proved to be successful, completing the puzzle, making a perfect triangular Airspeed logo - or depending what way up you viewed it – a Thong!
The formation design was inherently the same structure as the Sequential Games 17-Rings dive, completed in Klatovy, 2017. Niklas got his inspiration from the Olympic Rings skydive, Seoul, 1989. The Sequential Games design team of Patrick Passe and Dieter Kirsch were inspired by a book cover, The Flower of Life, and crafted a formation based on the Olympic Rings dive of 1989… so ultimately both formations were born out of the Olympic Rings.
There is a theory of ‘convergent evolution’, where organisms evolve in separate places to develop similar traits, generally because they are desirable. This formation is perhaps an example of convergence as both organisers arrived at a similar design. I asked Niklas if he had seen the Klatovy Challenge and he had not. Does the similarity matter? I don’t think so. Both were undeniably cool. I’ve always thought it would be excellent to build an Airspeed logo at the Arizona Airspeed Challenge and now we have :)
Niklas was an inspiring leader. He was respectful, full of energy, funny, paid attention to detail where it mattered and let the rest flow. His debriefs were efficient, positive and to the point, identifying the precise problems that had to be resolved. It was fantastic to see him grow so much over the 3 years he’s been running the Challenge. It’s a very a daunting task if you think about it, when at that point, he had not been to an Arizona Challenge, had less big-way experience than some of the participants and was stepping into very big shoes! This year he excelled. Niklas said he’d called key participants to ask for feedback on the last Challenges. It was clear he’d taken it all on board. The overwhelming answer was, people wanted to have fun. The big-way at the end is a bonus, the icing on a cake. And that’s the way they ran it. See the interview with Nik for more…
1. SAFETY - was excellent throughout, with a happily uneventful Challenge. Two ankle injuries on landing – so we all walked away even if on crutches! Check!
2. FUN – yes we had loads of fun and brilliantly successful skydives on all four days. You could see Nik, Mikhai, Ari, Thiago, Eliana and Mark enjoyed themselves too… and that is key. When, as an organizer, you can enjoy your own event, because you’ve done the prep and can relax into having fun, controlling the things you can and letting go of the rest. Job done!
3. COMPLETION – yes, we did it.
Thanks so much to Airspeed and friends for restoring the Challenge to its former glory! See you next year!…
Scotty gave me another piece of Tom, wrapped in a small piece of paper, to take home with me, and release over European dropzones on my tour – Hohenems (Austria), Hibaldstow (UK), Kharkiv (Ukraine), Moorsele (Belgium) and Alvor (Portugal). Yes it feels weird going through customs with a small paper wrap of white powder! But, anything for Tom!