Steamboat Springs Joe Pete LoRusso recently returned from Lake Elsinore, Calif., where he teamed up with 59 other people — none of them younger than 60 — to set a new world record.
LoRusso, 62, and all 59 of his mates jumped out of three airplanes at an altitude of 16,000 feet and skillfully flew their bodies in position to link up in a precise snowflake pattern, then carefully broke apart before releasing their parachutes. Less than 30 minutes after they returned to terra firma, the U.S. Parachute Association used photographic evidence to confirm they indeed had established a new world record for 60 skydivers 60 years old and older linking together.
“It’s very cool to set a world record, especially in your 60s,” LoRusso said.
He has been skydiving for 30 years and remains in the sport for the pure rush it provides.
“The adrenaline was revving a little higher than usual after they announced we’d broken the record,” he said.
LoRusso was part of a similar effort in 2011, when many of the same skydivers set a new world standard of 55 jumpers older than 60 linking up.
Skydivers from as far away as Australia, Italy and Great Britain showed up at Lake Elsinore this year to try out for the 60 spots on the world record team. Part of what made this month’s effort so special, LoRusso said, is that the oldest members of the team go back to the origins of the relatively young sport of skydiving. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the modernization of parachute equipment made it practical to leave static line jumps behind and enjoy a free fall before manually pulling the ripcord.
“We had two guys who were 81 and 82, and seven or eight who were in their 70s, and four women,” LoRusso said. “That’s the group — we’re really the godfathers of skydiving.”
LoRusso said the essential skill for skydivers interested in forming elaborate formations is the subtle technique of flying before the parachute opens.
“Everyone falls at about 125 miles per hour, and it’s really like flying your body,” he said.
Subtle motions of feet and hands can cause skydivers to slow or change directions. But it’s not easy.
“Everything is so fragile because you’re floating on air,” LoRusso explained. “You know what it’s like to drive a car on ice. This is like driving a car at 125 miles per hour on an icy surface.”
To link up, skydivers must be under complete control as they approach their teammates and nestle into formation. One little bump can cause two skydivers to bounce 20 or 30 feet away from each other, and there’s little time to start fresh.
The formation carefully is rehearsed on dry land before a world record attempt is made. And each skydiver must grab onto a specific ankle or wrist of the correct teammate, or the record attempt is voided by official observers who study aerial photos before a record is certified.
“If I’m supposed to grab your right wrist, and I grab your left, it won’t count,” LoRusso said.
During the record attempt, LoRusso was one of eight skydivers trusted to exit the plane first and quickly link up to form the nucleus of what would become a larger crystalline pattern of free-falling humans. Other skydivers who exited from other planes deliberately flew toward the center ring at angles of about 45 degrees.
They had 70 to 80 seconds to pull off their feat, and by the time their altimeters said they were at 5,000 feet, LoRusso and the other seven in the center ring began kicking their feet to signal the outer ring to start peeling off. About 5.5 seconds later, at 4,000 feet, it was time for the middle ring to pull back.
“There’s the whole life-and-death thing at that point,” LoRusso confessed.
As the skydivers broke up the formation, each individual’s job was to turn 180 degrees and fly steadily away from the formation for 10 to 15 seconds until, at 2,500 feet, they were dispersed enough to pull the ripcord safely without fear of tangling with one another.
“By the time that you open the parachute, there’s nobody around,” Lo Russo said.
What’s next for Steamboat’s world record-holding skydiver?
“Next year, we’re going to get a fourth airplane so we can go for 80.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com