Team XRW kicked off our donation drive by contributing $2,000 to sponsor 10 children at our partner school in South Africa. The Pastoral Centre Preschool is a remarkable, innovative, and life-saving institution in the heart of an informal settlement in Soweto. Help us reach our goal of $10,000, which will fill two classrooms with future leaders. Every dollar goes straight to the cause. Sponsoring a vulnerable child, aged 2-5 years, guarantees their education for a year and two square meals a day – something that none of their families can provide without assistance. Many of these kids have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS, and they are all growing up in a high-risk and high poverty environment with no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. We are passionate about our Flying Dreams South Africa program, and we invite you to join us. Someone from our US-based team visits the school at least once a year and Warren Pretorius, a Raise the Sky board member, lives nearby and checks in with the teachers and kids on a regular basis. Please help us make a difference to a child’s education today by clicking the “Donate” button on the top right. Any amount – any amount at all – is welcome. $200 sponsors a child for a year. It doesn’t matter how much – Donate now!

For two days in January, Raise the Sky partnered with the Skydive Sebastian dropzone and Skydive Chicago to begin a bold expansion of Project XRW. The main goals were to fly the largest mixed canopy-wingsuit flocks ever attempted, to include new wingsuit pilots, and to raise awareness for the Flying Dreams project that brings skydivers into under-resourced schools to connect with kids.

I remember the first time I pulled my new wingsuit out of the box, zipped it on, and flew towards PD Factory Team member Jessica Edgeington under her 71 square foot Velocity. In September 2010 the sight of the canopy, the lines, and Jess’s body coming closer and closer – and then stopping next to me, in freefall – was almost too cool, and crazy, to process.

Fast forward to January 2012. I’m in the door of Skydive Chicago’s Otter over Sebastian’s blue coastline, giving the count to lead six wingsuiters and two videographers down to a 3-way canopy formation. As I fly in, I’m focused on dialing in my no-contact slot so I’m symmetrical with Jessica and Mike Swanson on the other side, at the front of a 9-way. We’ve come a long way, and the more amazing stuff we accomplish, the more there is to learn and wonder at.

The expanded Project XRW Sebastian team accomplished incredible things. The 8- and 9-way flocks were bigger and more challenging than the few smaller, groundbreaking flocks we did at Skydive Elsinore just over a year ago. Edgeington, Jonathan Tagle, Ian Bobo, Jeff Nebelkopf, Will Kitto, and I represented the core founding team. We invited Mike Swanson, Roberta Mancino, Barry Holubeck, Jhonathan Florez, and Mark Harris to fly with us. Raise the Sky’s Eli Bolotin not only stepped up to the plate as our ground crew coordinator once again, but also took on a data collection role. Bionic Avionics sponsored FlySight GPS units for the team, and Eli employed the use of a slightly less high-tech bathroom scale from WalMart to complete our analytical tool kit.

From wing loadings to vertical speeds, we are gathering more and more data from the FlySight GPS units, and we hope to use this information to make Project XRW cooler and safer. Our vertical flocking speeds tended to be in the 32-35 mile per hour range, and canopy pilot wing loadings ranged from 2.7 to 3.2. Jessica Edgeington wore so much weight she wouldn’t have been able to walk to the plane if she didn’t adhere to a notoriously hardcore workout schedule.

Remember when you had never heard of XRW? Well, now we have sub-disciplines. We are learning a lot about engineering and flying no-contact mixed flocks as our numbers expand. For the first time, a group of wingsuiters flew a tight formation inside a 3-way canopy flock. We began to strategize about what’s possible given what we know about burbles and break-offs.

After our flocking goals were achieved, several of us went out to try a 2-stack of Velocities and a wingsuiter surf-style docked underneath. It was the sunset load of the last day, and I had first shot at the dock. Bobo and Tagle got linked up and were flying steady, but as I approached I realized too late that the fall rate of a 2-stack was drastically different from what we had been doing all day, and I blazed past it with too much forward speed – waving hi to Bobo on the way. Will Kitto had followed me to the formation, and had enough reaction time to slow down his forward speed. With a few tries in the remaining altitude, he managed to get linked up with Bobo, and Nebelkopf filmed from above as I laughed my way down to pull altitude with Florez, who had also misjudged the fall rate.

After our last sunset jump, many of us sat down for a Skydive Radio roundtable interview at a picnic table over a few beers. As a group, we contemplated out loud about the newness of it all, and how high-performance canopy lines are less like a web and more like a cheese slicer (see “What can possibly go wrong?”). Team bonding had begun.

The morning after the Project concluded Edgeington, Tagle, Eli Bolotin and I drove to Vero Beach Elementary School to meet with principal Bonnie Swanson and a class of second graders who were extremely knowledgeable about human flight already. When asked what skydivers do, responses included, “they jump and then they ride their parachutes softly to the floor. Also they sometimes jump off cliffs and it’s awesome! And they have to know what the wind is!”

Nearly all of the students at the school are in need of subsidized or free lunches, and many are homeless. We plan to return with more PD Factory Team members in April, when we will spend more time with kids and continue to develop relationships with them. The Flying Dreams project is as much about articulating our core values to ourselves as it is about sharing those values with others.

Team XRW takes risks, and sometimes, we fail. When we don’t make it, we encourage each other to go up and try it again. In skydiving as in life, when you’re still figuring stuff out, you have to do it more than once. Kids who start out with the socio-economic deck stacked against them need that teamwork and confidence as much as we do. Luckily, Skydive Sebastian made us look good even when, as part of the learning process, a formation was less than perfect. And the Skydive Chicago Otter was there, waiting to help us try it again.

What can possibly go wrong?

Just in case you were starting to think it’s easy…

Exits: For wingsuiters, flying larger suits and being very focused on watching and following canopy pilots that can be hard to see out the door creates a higher risk of a tail strike.

Approach: Collisions are always a danger, as in any formation flying. Wingsuit flyers aiming at canopies must have them visible at all times on the approach and take great care in being precise with their aim and flight path. Multiple wingsuits on approach towards canopies need to also be aware of each other to avoid a collision. Finally, high performance canopy flocking comes with its own set of risks, and adding wingsuiters takes away much of a canopy pilot’s range to use evasive maneuvers.

Relative Work: A wingsuiter creates the same vortices that a canopy creates, and just as two canopies move towards each other when bumping end cells, a wingsuiter can get sucked into a canopy’s burble, leading to injuries from contact with taught lines (“like a cheese slicer”) and the possibility of a difficult malfunction for the canopy pilot.

Surf-style docks could result in a premature deployment as the canopy pilot may engage in some some aggressive handling of the wingsuiter’s rig.

When flying smoke to highlight flight paths, chunks can fly off from smoke canisters without screens on them, risking hitting others in the formation because of the different positioning of wingsuiters relative to canopy pilots.

Breakoff: Wingsuiters flying in front of canopies have the potential to burble the high performance parachutes, which can cause malfunctions.

Landing: For canopy pilots, the risks of landing very highly loaded canopies have been well documented. Trim tabs add another layer of risk.

Canopy-wingsuit interaction has a history longer than Project XRW. This timeline represents the evolution of a specific project with a dedicated and highly experienced team of wingsuit flyers, canopy pilots, data crunchers, and ground crew managers.

April 2010

Project XRW: Moab

Raise the Sky organized the first stunt branded “XRW” (eXtreme Relative Work), a term coined by Taya Weiss. Jonathan Tagle of the PD Factory Team flying a Velocity 71 parachute and Jeff Nebelkopf flying a TonySuit X-Bird wingsuit linked up in a surf dock configuration. Videographer: Phil Peggs. Ground crew coordinator: Eli Bolotin.

Charity Benefit: Operation Freefall, “the Two-Mile High Stand Against Sexual Assault”.

September 2010

Project XRW: Elsinore

Jessica Edgeington of the PD Factory Team and Taya Weiss of Raise the Sky became the first women to achieve multiple sustained docks between a wingsuit and parachute. The expanded team, including PD Factory Team members Tagle and Ian Bobo and wingsuit pilots Nebelkopf, Will Kitto, David Gershfeld, and videographer Peggs, flew the first mixed wingsuit-canopy flock and double rodeo docks (two docked wingsuit-canopy pairs in surfing configuration).

Charity Benefit: Raise the Sky launched the Flying Dreams Project to benefit and inspire children in under-resourced schools.

February 2011

Project XRW: Abu Dhabi

At the opening ceremony of the International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, a mixed flock was presented as a demonstration jump for the first time. Participants included Edgeington, Tagle, and Bobo of the PD Factory Team, and wingsuit pilots Weiss, Nebelkopf, Peggs, Barry Holubeck, Jeb Corliss, and videographer Craig O’Brien.

August 2011

Project XRW: New England

In the skies over Skydive New England in Lebanon, Maine, Edgeington and Weiss paired up for a low-key exploration of XRW performance at lighter wing loadings. Weiss’s exit weight is approximately 133 pounds, and Edgeington wears 35 pounds of weight in competition. They were able to fly proximate without trim tab risers, and take sustained hand docks at far lighter wing loadings than anything that had been done before.

January 2012

Project XRW: Sebastian

The team expansion project included PD Factory Team pilots Edgeington, Tagle, and Bobo, wingsuit pilots Weiss, Nebelkopf, Kitto, Holubeck, Mike Swanson, Roberta Mancino, Jhonathan Florez, and Mark Harris. The group flew the largest mixed wingsuit-canopy flock to date, a 9-way. The team also experimented with and achieved multiple configurations of 7- and 8-way formations and the world’s first XRW CRW-style surf dock.

Charity Benefit: Raise the Sky’s Flying Dreams Project at Vero Beach Elementary School in Florida.

January-February 2012

Project XRW: Dubai 3D

Team expansion continued with new canopy pilots Billy Sharman, Timmy McMaster, Mikeal Stevens, and Wuzi Wagner (organized by Jonathan Tagle) and the wingsuit pilots from Sebastian (organized by Taya Weiss). More details in the next issue!

The Flying Dreams Project brings skydivers into schools to talk to children about teamwork, facing fears, and following one’s dreams, all within the context of human flight.

Many of the children we reach eat their main meals at school because of poverty at home and feel at risk just walking to school every day because of neighborhood violence. By the third grade, many are already at risk of never finishing high school.

These students and skydivers develop mutual respect for each other once each understands the obstacles the other faces.

Every child has flying dreams: getting an education helps them come true.

Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche

Your donation to the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche goes straight to benefit vulnerable children, with no administration costs. This is a high-impact and easy way to help keep a child in a school and meet basic needs such as food, clean water, and clothing. The project is overseen on the ground day to day by our board member Warren Pretorius, and with once or twice annual visits by board President Taya Weiss.

To volunteer or donate in-kind goods and food, contact Pam Mfaxa, the Principal, via email: pam_pastoralcreche@yahoo.com or Warren Pretorius, warren@raisethesky.org. Pick-ups from the greater Johannesburg area can be arranged.

What is the Pastoral Centre?

The Pastoral Centre Preschool and Crèche is a registered non-profit, secular organization that provides a safe haven and early childhood education for 300 of the most vulnerable children from Freedom Charter Square, Kliptown, Soweto. It is situated in the middle of the informal settlement, surrounded by closely-built shacks separated by narrow dirt tracks. At least half of the children come from families that are too poor to pay school fees; some of the parents do volunteer work in exchange for their children’s attendance.

Many children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, or have parents who are dying of AIDS. The crèche engages in community outreach to help grandparents who are raising orphaned children, to create self-help projects for poor parents, and to assist child-headed households. The crèche has 9 full-time staff: Pam Mfaxa, the principal for 20 years, 5 teachers, two cooks, and a handyman. They work for very little salary.

What you can contribute:

The Pastoral Centre welcomes donations both in cash and kind from foundations, corporate entities, and concerned individuals. The following are needed:
1. Financial donations are used:

  • To cover the large budget gap created by the number of children attending school who cannot pay fees.
  • To help individual children and families on the “most needy list,” those who need additional food parcels, and to assist families affected by HIV/AIDS with basic necessities.
  • For improving the small playground and for the building fund to enlarge the kitchen.
  • To send a staff member on a relevant course (First Aid; dealing with child abuse; teaching techniques).

2. Children’s clothes and shoes for age 3 months to 6 years: undamaged, good quality play clothes and comfortable shoes. In winter we appreciate donations of warm jackets, hats, gloves/mittens, and jerseys. Adult clothing is distributed to parents.

3. Food and kitchen items.

4. Educational toys and games, especially large-sized illustrated picture books for story time; puzzles and blocks for children 4-6 years; and art supplies such as paper and paints, crayons, magic markers, and coloring books.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A team of the world’s best skydivers arrived at Skydive Dubai this week to push the boundaries of human flight and change lives. Raise the Sky, a non-profit organization that connects skydivers to humanitarian and charitable outreach, organizes Project XRW (eXtreme Relative Work) in which high-performance parachute pilots and wingsuit skydivers in freefall interact in the air.

Cutting edge wingsuits slow freefall speeds, and small, aerodynamic parachutes accelerate their pilots’ descent speeds without compromising safety, allowing this stunning achievement. Special GPS units from Project XRW sponsor FlySight aid in data collection that quantifies these developments. They can fly together, have a conversation, and even link up for extended periods. The team’s main goal was to complete the largest ever mixed wingsuit-canopy “flock”. That goal was achieved with an 11-person formation, five parachutes and six wingsuit pilots flying together over the Palm Jumeirah, one of Dubai’s most famous and recognized landmarks.

Skydive Dubai’s generous sponsorship of this Project aims to raise awareness and funds for Raise the Sky’s Flying Dreams program, which supports schools catering to underserved and low-income children. The skydivers visit the schools to talk about teamwork, facing fears, and following one’s dreams, all within the context of human flight. They also bring much-needed resources. “Every child has dreams for the future. For some, even the simplest goals can seem as impossible to attain as what we are doing here this week. Getting an education helps them to make their dreams come true,” said Taya Weiss, a Raise the Sky founder and Project XRW wingsuit pilot.

Project XRW Dubai will support the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche in South Africa, a secular non-profit school that provides 300 low-income children with early childhood education and basic nutritional needs. Situated in an impoverished community and working with very few resources, the teachers and staff give children a chance at development that will allow them to eventually graduate from high school and contribute to the upliftment of their families.

Raise the Sky thanks our generous sponsors, Skydive Dubai and the Habtoor Grand Beach Resort and Spa.

Project XRW and our entire team extends a special and heartfelt thank you to His Highness, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum for his visionary support of sport skydiving.

If you happen to be flying over Lake Elsinore, you better hope you have Sully Sullenberger flying your plane…because there will be birds everywhere!!

Today, we saw many participants showing up early to the event. Duncan was organizing 16-Ways, while Justin and Jeff were handling the smaller groups. Austrians, Brits, Canadians, Danes, Finns, Germans, Italians, Russians, South Africans, and of course Americans are all coming together and making some great skydives…and the event has not even started yet!

Media attention began early, as we were featured in a HUGE front page spread of the local paper. Many thank you’s to Mark and Taya for providing information and pictures to make it possible! We also had a news crew show up from CBS2/KCAL9. It has been wonderful having an opportunity to not only raise awareness about wingsuiting and our event, but also for City Year and the wonderful kids we had the opportunity to meet yesterday.

Yesterday part of the Raise the Sky and Wingsuit Bigway record team visited an elementary school in South LA, where a City Year Los Angeles group of volunteers (known as “Corps members”) tutor and mentor kids in an after school program. We were excited to see what City Year is doing on the ground, since we are supporting and partnering them through both fundraising and awareness raising at the US National Wingsuit Record attempt here at Skydive Elsinore in Southern California. We met some of the bravest young people you could imagine, shot some wonderful footage and interviews with students, Corps members, and a school representative, and saw a side of LA that most skydivers don’t get to experience.

Some of these kids have never been to the beach, even though they live only a few miles from the Pacific shore. The school sends food parcels home to their families because some can’t make ends meet. Their elementary school is surrounded by a tall fence and locked gates to guard against threats from the neighborhood. And this is only an hour away from where we soar through the sky wearing wingsuits, and where we are about to set a record in the history of human flight.

Did you know that every 26 seconds a student gives up on school in America? Many of the students we met yesterday are at the highest risk in the nation of dropping out eventually. They are bright eyed, cheerful, playful, and full of life – but because of where they live, graduating from high school ten years from now and succeeding in life is a dream as crazy as flying through the sky without an airplane. We wanted to tell them: If we can fly, you can graduate!

They responded by yelling: “If you can fly, WE CAN GRADUATE!” We even got to sign a few autographs and talk about our own experiences overcoming fear and challenges. I think there are some future City Year wingsuit champions!

WINGSUIT SKYDIVERS BECOME HUMAN SURFBOARDS FOR PARACHUTISTS

First women in history dock wingsuit and parachute; “Project XRW” sets new records

Today we attended the Portland Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Event in Portland, Maine. Eli, Jason Fogg of Skydive New England, and me were excited to hand over our donation from the Skydive New England (SNE) fundraiser in August. The dropzone donated a portion of every tandem skydive and tandem video for the weekend, and there were several prize draws for both fun jumpers and visitors. Our check also encompassed a very special donation from SNE staff members Tony and Kelly Hays.

When planning a fundraiser, we often have no idea exactly whose lives we are going to touch. During the weekend of our event, Kelly came up to me on the packing mat at the dropzone and gave me a hug. Until that moment, I had no idea that her mother is a breast cancer survivor, or what she and her family went through. I asked her if she would take some time out after the weekend to tell me her story, and she agreed. As human beings, and within our skydiving communities, one of the most important things we can do is bear witness to each other’s struggles and celebrate the triumphs that come after adversity. This is Kelly’s story.

When my mom called that day in 2007, the last thing she wanted to tell us was that she had cancer. She was worried we wouldn’t handle it. But all I could think was that I wish I would get it, if that would save her. My stepdad lost his first wife to melanoma, so it was especially hard dealing with the diagnosis. I told my mom, “We can get through this all together. You’ve been a tower of strength and a guiding light my whole life, so now it’s time for me to be here for you.”

 We did a charity swim and raised money. We stayed positive, and one thing I believe that got us through was talking and realizing that she chose not to be a victim. We chose to rise above it and focus on how to get through it, more than anything. She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She’s always thrown positive light on everything, and she never gave up her dark chocolate, her bags of chips, the things she enjoyed. She wouldn’t lay down and die. She’s an amazing woman. If you never believed in angels, you have to meet my mom and then you would. 

When treatment began, she had a lumpectomy, then chemotherapy. For me being her daughter and having training as a hairdresser, it was heartbreaking when she started losing her hair. I would go home and cry so she wouldn’t see me being upset. We’d sit in the chemo clinic where everyone would go, and they’d have little cards with sayings for the day that would make you smile. We would giggle our heads off, just laugh over nothing. We had an overwhelming feeling of joy that we could be together and share the experience.

Before her hair fell out, they gave her nutritional diets, a makeup session, and wigs. Steve (my stepdad), mom and I went to the wig place. It was full of wigs in shoeboxes. We tried on all the funny wigs – I had a gray, curly-haired one, she had a red sexy one, and the lady that was with us said, “this is the most fun I’ve had doing this!” It’s a sad time. My stepdad was okay with us laughing. He didn’t know whether to grieve, and we were all on an emotional roller coaster. Because he had lost his first partner, it was hard. But he realized that the laughter was keeping us together.

 My mom didn’t want to eat with all the chemicals in her body. I guess you feel like you’re poisoned with all those drugs in you. She said she’d get a metal taste in her mouth, and her nose would tickle.

 The radiation came, and she had to get the markings of where they would do it. She said, “Look, I got my first tattoo!” and it was just four little dots. She’s not the wildest woman, but she joked about it. And she got a porto-cath, which felt foreign. When she got clear, they removed the porto-cath and that felt like the end.

 All the laughing and crying was healing for the whole lot of us. We laughed so many times about silly stuff that was probably so inappropriate and so uncalled for, but it kept us alive.

Now, Kelly’s mom is in remission after the several-year ordeal. Kelly’s husband Tony donated his earnings as a working skydiver for one whole day of the event, a huge gesture and one that made our donation possible today. Kelly and Tony, and everyone at Skydive New England who contributed to raising awareness and funds for the American Cancer Society, thank you for being a part of the healing energy for cancer patients, survivors, and their families. We can’t wait to do this again next year and donate an even larger amount – though the check itself probably couldn’t get any bigger!

Your fundraising support, through Raise the Sky, enables the American Cancer Society to save lives by:

  • Helping people stay well by educating and empowering women to live healthy lives and reduce their risk for breast cancer, and to get screening tests such as mammograms to find breast cancer early, when it is easiest to treat
  • Helping people facing breast cancer get well by providing information, day-to-day help, and emotional support to guide them through every step of their breast cancer experience
  • Finding cures by investing in and conducting research that leads to groundbreaking discoveries into breast cancer’s causes and cures
  • Fighting back by working with legislators to support laws that help fight breast cancer and help all women get access to screenings and care