Kyle Lobpries exits the plane backwards. He leans back and looks at the inverted horizon, the Skydive bowing before the earth. He drifts until he is perpendicular to the planet.
A quick shrug of the shoulders and a kneelock send him hurtling toward land as fast as he can.
As a result of this technique, Lobpries has risen to the top of the sport of speed skydiving. Speed skydiving, invented in Florida in 1999, gained international recognition in the early 2000s. Extreme thrill seekers compete against each other and the laws of physics.
In a vacuum, all objects fall at the same rate. A feather or a fuel tanker will accelerate 9.8 metres per second squared towards the earth without air resistance. By the time free-falling objects reach terminal velocity, their acceleration is zero.
The terminal velocity of an amateur skydive who exits a plane feet first and faces the earth with her belly is around 120 mph.
Lobpries set a new speed record of 318.74 m.p.h. in October at the USPA Nationals in Arizona. His previous world record was 316.23 mph. Maxine Tate, another American competitor, increased her speed from 275.8 to 285.27 m.p.h. Those speeds beat NASCAR, IndyCar, and Formula 1 drivers, who have never topped 260 mph in official competition.
Sport for people who have jumped out of planes so many times that the simple act of parachute-wearing and staring down a 13,000-foot drop is no longer thrilling.
“We don’t have jet boosters,” Lobpries said. “Theoretically, I could reach a maximum speed. I could write it as an equation. But if my shoelace comes undone, my angle is off by one degree, or I’m tired, I won’t reach that top speed. The human element is what makes the competition so exciting.”
Lobpries began skydiving as a freshman at Texas A&M. He did two tandem jumps and was hooked. He joined the Marine Corps and became a helicopter pilot. In 2010, while stationed at Camp Pendleton, he began spending his weekends bungee jumping.
Seules with wings can fly longer and have more surface area than normal jumpers. In 2016, Lobpries flew nearly 19 miles in a wingsuit after exiting an aeroplane, breaking the world record. When he first heard about speed skydiving, he knew he had to try it.
Tate’s “second life” culminated in speed skydiving. She used to be a finance director for a London media company. Then, in her early 30s, she vacationed on New Zealand’s North Island. She saw a skydive from a bus window on her way home from a hike and decided to try it. She got her licence in 2 months. After two years, she quit her job to focus on skydiving.
For example, she’s done canopy piloting, which tests a pilot’s ability to fly a parachute at high speeds and low altitudes through an intricately designed course.
Speed skydiving is a thrilling sport with many challenges. It hasn’t caught up with technology. Tate and Lobpries tape down their zippers and shoelaces to avoid tiny tormentors. Lobpries recalls a snag in a zipper that ripped out a patch of chest hair and left him raw and bruised. Lobpries, who normally wears a big helmet, shrinks it for competitions to reduce drag.
It’s important to keep a tight grip on your body to reduce drag. A slight neck crane can cause “the wobbles,” where the body shakes and air resistance reduces speed.
“You can increase velocity by decreasing drag as you get tighter and tighter and longer and longer,” Tate says. “The goal is to get true vertical. That’s what keeps the pedal pressed. You end up balancing speed and control.”
Judges duct tape two GPS monitors called FlySights to the skydivers before the competition to measure their speed. They jump from 13,000-14,000 feet and are monitored continuously for 7,400 feet, ending at 5,600 feet. The diver with the highest three-second average after eight jumps wins.
But competitors can’t see how fast they are flying. “Imagine driving down the interstate at 70 mph with the windows open,” Tate said. “Could you tell 70 from 75? Consider that we are travelling at four times the speed of a car.
The most difficult part of the jump is the deceleration. Flysights alerts the divers when they cross the lower boundary.
Divers try to slow down by curving their bodies back to horizontal in five seconds. A gust of wind or a slight movement can cause them to “cork,” turning their bodies 90 degrees. It can feel like a car crash.
But Tate, Lobpries, and others are willing to suffer and risk. It’s part of being a pioneer in a still-pure sport. While other adventure sports have seen huge technological advancements in their gear, from fitness trackers to microfiber fabrics, speed skydiving is still in its infancy. Lobpries and Tate envisioned a future with aerodynamic helmets, custom jumpsuit fabrics, and low-profile GPS trackers.