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September 23, 2008 3:00 am

Shorb flies to fame

Written by Tribune Staff

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Justin Shorb, in the red wingsuit on the left, flies over Puerto Rico with other skydivers. Shorb has traveled around the world organizing wingsuit jumps and training skydivers. In November, Shorb will participate in a world record 71-way wingsuit formation at Skydive Elsinore in Southern California. Courtesy photo by Scotty Burns, www.Sky2Productions.com

PHS grad to be featured on History Channel Friday

By nature, humans do not fly — but that doesn't stop Justin Shorb.

Shorb first went skydiving 10 years ago as a Powell High School senior, and today is often airborne in a wingsuit.

In fact, it's his day job.

“I don't do anything else but skydiving for a living,” Shorb said.

Shorb founded Flock University in Pepperell, Ma., in September 2006, and the skydiving training school has grown to become one of the biggest wingsuit schools in the world, he said.

Shorb, who lives in Salem, N.H., said the school has trained hundreds of people.

Shorb first tried out a wingsuit in 2006, and since then has done more than 1,500 wingsuit skydives.


On Friday, Shorb will be featured nationally on the History Channel's show, “The Works,” airing at 8 p.m. According to its Web site, the program highlights interesting facts behind complex systems, revealing human ingenuity.

Wingsuits are ingenious indeed.

“A wingsuit is the closest we've ever come to true human flights,” Shorb said. “It's the closest you can come to a person who can fly.”

Inventors have long toyed with the idea of human flight, but early wingsuits were highly dangerous.

When first developed in the 1960s and ‘70s, wingsuits were nicknamed body bags, Shorb said.

“They had a 100-percent fatality rate,” he said.

In the late 1990s, inventors began designing wingsuits again, and this time, skydivers survived the jumps. Now it's a relatively safe sport — if you know what you're doing, Shorb said.

“The mortality rate now is almost zero,” he said.

Shorb said with proper training, he doesn't consider skydiving in wingsuits dangerous, but he stressed that a skydiver must know what he or she is doing.

“We're serious about training,” he said.

Flock University requires skydivers to complete 200 regular jumps before donning a wingsuit, Shorb said. The school has not had any accidents in its hundreds of jumps, he said.

What makes wingsuit skydiving different are the elements of speed, control and ‘flying' capabilities.

Just like regular skydiving, Shorb jumps out of an airplane at 13,500 feet above the earth. With a regular jump, a skydiver has about 60 seconds of free-fall before opening the parachute. With a wingsuit jump, Shorb can fly around for three to four minutes with a wingsuit before opening the parachute.

During that time, Shorb said he can travel as slow as 20 or 30 mph — more than 100 mph slower than normal skydiving rates. An average wingsuit-skydiver flies at around 50 mph, but high-performance skydivers can go much slower and be airborne longer.

A wingsuit also enables skydivers to fly considerable distances forward rather than just vertically.

Shorb said he's traveled more than 10 miles in the air.

“It would be like flying from Ralston past Powell,” he said.

Traveling for miles in the air requires much more experience than typical skydiving. When doing a distance jump, where the skydiver will travel several miles, Shorb said he confirms a drop zone location with the pilot, and every skydiver flies there.

If they can't make it to the location for some reason, they may have to land at a random location, such as a person's backyard. Therefore, it's necessary for wingsuit-skydivers to watch out for power lines, trees and other structures as they land.

In addition to organizing jumps and training students, Shorb also tests wingsuits for Tony Suits, a company that designs wingsuits.

Though Shorb's first skydiving experiences began in Laurel, Mont., the 27-year-old has since done wingsuit jumps and training internationally.

Shorb's wingsuit jumps have taken him to Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Puerto Rico, Denmark and multiple U.S. states including California, Nevada, Illinois, New York, Arizona, New Jersey and Florida — and that's just in 2008.

“It's a pretty ragged schedule,” he laughed. “It never ends … (but) I love it.”

Shorb said the downside is that traveling keeps him from seeing his wife, Ashley, and 4-month-old son, Turner, as often as he'd like.

“I still see them a lot, though,” he said. “When I'm home, I'm with (Turner) non-stop.”

Shorb's parents, Shanna and Jerry Barnes and Jim and Wanda Shorb, live in the Powell area.

In addition to the History Channel “The Works” episode on Friday, The Boston Globe will feature Shorb in an in-depth article this fall.

The national attention is growing as wingsuit skydives gain popularity.

“It's the fastest-growing discipline in skydiving right now,” Shorb said.

In early November in California, Shorb will join 70 other skydivers for the largest wingsuit formation —a world record of 71. The largest wingsuit formation done yet in the United States was 48 in Florida, and Shorb was part of the 2007 record.

Shorb has spent the year training skydivers so they could qualify the wingsuit record. He is an organizer and plane captain for the world record event.

For more information, or to view videos of wingsuit skydiving, visit www.flockuniversity.org or www.sky2productions.com.