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December 02, 2008 3:09 am

Shorb joins 70 others in breaking wingsuit formation world record

Written by Tribune Staff

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As he jumps from an airplane flying above California to join other skydivers in the world's largest wingsuit formation, Justin Shorb gives a peace sign to the camera. Shorb helped lead and organize a 71-person formation which broke the previous record of 48. Courtesy photos by Scotty Burns, www.sky2productions.com

Flying high above Californian terrain, Justin Shorb and 70 others soared into the record books for the largest wingsuit formation.
Shorb, a Powell High School graduate, helped lead the 71-person formation or “flock” in the jump earlier this month. Shorb also was part of the previous record of 48 that was set in Florida in 2006.

Skydivers from six continents and 14 different countries participated in the formation, Shorb said.

A wingsuit is the closest a person can come to human flight, Shorb said. Unlike typical skydiving, a wingsuit gives jumpers flying capabilities, allowing them control of their speed and direction. It allows a person to literally fly for several minutes before opening a parachute.

Shorb, 27, founded Flock University, based in Pepperell, Mass., a skydiving school that trains people for wingsuit jumps. Shorb helped train and qualify 17 of the divers in the world-record formation.

During the formation, the wingsuit skydivers fell at a rate of 68 mph and flew forward at rates of around 100 mph.

Achieving the perfect formation thousands of feet above ground took nearly 30 jumps. After months of preparation and several days of practice at the drop-zone site at Lake Elsinore, Calif., the daredevils accomplished the feat, which some in the skydiving community said couldn't be done.

“There were a lot of naysayers,” Shorb said.

Shorb began planning the formation with fellow skydiver Jeff Nebelkopf of Florida last year, and sometimes even they doubted whether a jump of such magnitude was possible.

“For a while there, we thought that we bit off more than we could chew,” Shorb said. “But we pulled it together and did it.”

The technical details of the record-setting jump were intricate and had to be precise. To create a V-formation, the 71 jumpers were split into four quadrants to form each section.

The front group formed a chevron, the middle a diamond and two wings formed on each side.

Timing had to be exact. From four airplanes — staggered and flying at 14,5000 feet — 71 wingsuit-clad divers synchronized their jumps, then flew in the opposite direction of the planes.

Shorb was the captain of the left wing. He led his team as they jumped out of one plane, then had to fly forward at a speed up to 150 mph to join the other skydivers in the formation.

Shorb describes a 71-person formation as “breathing,” with people moving in and out as they soared above the earth's surface. Each person was about 3 meters from one another, so it was crucial that jumpers were aware of their neighbors' positions.

“Our biggest concern is a collision in the sky,” Shorb said. “A collision in the sky would knock you out or break bones.”

Safety was taken seriously.

“It was really important that we were safe,” Shorb said. “And there were no close calls, no fatalities.”

During the jumps, if a skydiver made a mistake, a yellow or red card was issued. A yellow card was a warning, a red card meant you were done. Only one jumper received a red card.

Shorb said no one was seriously injured in any of the jumps. During the first day of practice jumps in California, a jumper flew into one airborne man, bruising his arm, Shorb said.

“From the shoulder to his wrist, it was bright purple,” Shorb said.

Fortunately, no bones were broken.

In addition to flying together, the group also had to be careful when opening their parachutes after separating at 4,500 feet above ground.

“A parachute collision can be deadly,” he said.

To accommodate 71 skydivers parachuting to the ground, they organized four separate landing areas.

The fact that they pulled off a jump that was deemed impossible — with no serious injuries — “is a huge accomplishment,” Shorb said.

Though it hasn't been a month since the Nov. 12 world record, plans for the next record-setting jump of 99 next November are underway.

Shorb, who visited family in Powell during Thanksgiving with his wife, Ashley, and baby son, Turner, said he's ready to start planning the next jump.

Until next November, he has plenty to keep him busy. In addition to leading Flock University students, Shorb is publishing an instruction book on using wingsuits. He pre-empted its release with a short guide titled “Wingsuits on the Drop Zone: What You Need to Know,” which he issued to drop zones around the country.

Shorb has been in contact with Batman film producers, who may use wingsuits in the next movie, though a contract hasn't been signed yet, he said. Other media coverage in the works includes a PBS show, a commercial for the Gillette Mach 3 razor and a History Channel series.

Last September, Shorb and Flock University were featured in the History Channel show “The Works.”

He's also working on a movie about wingsuits, featuring jumps over volcanoes and Mt. McKinley.

“It'll be a busy year,” Shorb said.

For more information or photos of the formation, visit the Web sites www.flockuniversity.org or www.sky2productions.com.