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Skydiving after 60: Senior thrill-seekers look to break world record in ‘three-dimensional dance’

Skydivers create a formation similar to what will be attempted by about 100 skydivers older than 60 in early April.
Skydivers create a formation similar to what will be attempted by about 100 skydivers older than 60 in early April.
(Courtesy of Craig O’Brien)

UCSD professor will take the plunge with about 100 others 60 and older.

Looking to prove that people can “continue to have a blast well into your later years,” a group of senior skydivers — all older than 60 — will take to the skies early this month to attempt a record-setting jump from 18,000 feet. Once in the air, the 100 to 110 divers will link up in a snowflake formation.

One of them is Steve Briggs, a UC San Diego distinguished professor of biology in La Jolla.

“There have been jumps with hundreds of people and jumps with older people, but there has never been a formation of 100 people all over the age of 60,” he said. The skydivers hope to break the record of 75 jumpers 60 and older set in 2018 in Illinois.

The divers will take off in five planes from Skydive Perris in Riverside County. They’ll depart in a very specific order so they can jump out in a very specific order to take their place in the elaborate formation.

“It’s a three-dimensional dance,” Briggs said. “It isn’t trivial by any means. It’s a highly choreographed effort.”

The participants are gathering in Perris on April 7-10 to execute four or five jumps per day and finesse their formation. They rehearse on the ground, referred to as “dirt diving,” then go airborne in small groups to practice logistics.

The effort is being organized by and in honor of six-time world-record holder Dan Brodsky-Chenfield, who is turning 60.

“Dan wanted to celebrate his birthday by doing something remarkable, so he organized this,” Briggs said. “I enjoy the sport and am over 60 and do quite a bit of large-formation skydiving with Dan, so I wanted to be a part of it.”

Divers are coming from as far away as Australia, Scandinavia and South America to join them.

People fall at different rates, and all the divers must try to reach the same general area by “flying” horizontally toward one another, creating drag to slow down or making themselves into an aerodynamic shape to go faster, Briggs said.

Time is of the essence. The divers have only about 90 seconds of freefall time to find the person with whom they must link.

Eight people join at the center, and the formation fans out from there until the final diameter is 150 feet. Upon completion, those in the center kick their legs to signal the skydivers to break away. With 110 divers, 60 will leave the formation at 7,000 feet, 42 will break off at 5,500 feet and the final eight will separate at 4,500 feet.

After that, it’s about three minutes under a parachute, during which they must find their designated landing zone and maneuver to it.

“There have been jumps with hundreds of people and jumps with older people, but there has never been a formation of 100 people all over the age of 60.”

— Steve Briggs

Briggs has been skydiving since 1979 and said he still vividly remembers what got him hooked.

“I was a student working on my Ph.D. and it was a lot of work and stress, so I wanted to have something I could do that gave the maximum cathartic release in the shortest amount of time,” he said. “I couldn’t take a week off and travel, but I could take a day, do a few jumps and feel great. When I first jumped, I thought it was like a roller coaster. Then someone flew to me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had no idea you could fly. When I realized that, I wanted to fly. I got hooked into the sport experience and soon I started building friendships with the people I was diving with, and it created this valuable social aspect.”

Now, Briggs said he skydives every weekend and is training for the U.S. Parachute Association national championships.

“It’s intrinsically beautiful and exciting; the visuals are unparalleled,” he said. “If you have been hiking and reached the top of a mountain, you have some idea of the view, but the top of a mountain is nothing compared to freefall, where there is nothing between you and the earth.

“I also like the speed. I like being the last one out so I can dive really fast.”

The older divers “really enjoy sharing an amazing experience,” Briggs said. “Most people can’t imagine going skydiving ... they have closed that door for themselves. They are never going to know what they are missing. But we want to encourage those that might be interested to try it.

“We want to make it easy and safe by having events and training opportunities, but the idea is to show that you can continue to have a blast well into your later years. One of our friends just celebrated his 90th birthday by doing nine jumps.”

Though Briggs also scuba dives, “there is just nothing like skydiving,” he said.

San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Diane Bell contributed to this report.