Everyone has dreams of flying—but not everyone actually jumps out of perfectly good airplanes.
Personally, I shudder at the thought of free-falling from 20,000 feet and I know I’m not alone, so when I think of hobbies, skydiving would definitely be on my “NOT-to-do list.”
Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. – Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 346.
I’d never really been exposed to the culture of skydiving until last October, when I came across a beautiful nine-pointed star free-fall formation that consist of 217 divers who completed the world record. I watched the short video in bewilderment, stunned at the human capacity to create such a beautiful formation, 15,000 feet in the air.
Its beauty and precision reminded me of this line from the Baha’i teachings:
… the birds of the spirit seek only to fly in the high heavens and to sing out their songs with wondrous art. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 175.
I had to learn more about how this amazing jump took shape. I found Shireen Khavari, one of the skydivers who planned and took part in that world record jump, and she humbly agreed to an interview.
Although not your most traditional art form, I like to consider this kind of skydiving as “extreme art.” Not only does it take rigorous mental and physical training and collaboration, but as I’ve learned, it also requires a keen eye for beauty and perfection.
[Shadi] How long have you been skydiving, and how did you first get into the sport?
[Shireen] I started skydiving in 1985, when I was 18 years old. I have always had dreams of flying, like flying my body in the sky, not in a plane. When I went to UMASS they had a parachute club, so I figured I’d give it a try! Back then we started on static line with round parachutes, after about 5 jumps once I felt my first free fall, I was hooked, and I’ve been flying ever since!
[Shadi] Where do you skydive?
[Shireen] Well my home drop zone is now Skydive New England in Lebanon, ME, but I’m hardly ever there anymore because I do most of my jumping away at events around the country and the world, and I do my team training in Raeford, North Carolina. They have a wind tunnel there that holds eight people, and our team is exactly that size, so if the weather is not good enough to jump we can practice in the wind tunnel.
[Shadi] Is this what you do full time?
[Shireen] Ha! No, I have a day job. All this skydiving is for fun on the weekends or on vacations.
[Shadi] How do you design your dive alone and with people? What does it involve? Can you walk us through the steps?
[Shireen] I never skydive solo, that’s boring! We do formations. There are two types of jumping I do, Team Training and Big Way.
For Team Training we have an all-women’s team of eight women. There is a specific “dive pool” made up of eight choreographed dives that are already designed for each competing team to practice and use when it comes time to compete. Our multi-world champion coach engineers the dives for the fastest and cleanest way to build the formations. The object is to build as many of these formations during the free fall time, and each formation we build is a point. The team with the most points wins!
For Big Way jumping there are events around the country, where there are sometimes 100-200 skydivers in one jump. Those jumps take a lot of planning and engineering, and require highly skilled professionals to organize them. With that large a group, we tend to stick to one formation. But the latest trend is to try to do multiple formations in one dive. So last October we completed a world record, that consisted of a nine-pointed star, made up of 217 divers!
[Shadi] How did you plan for that dive as a team? What does the process look like?
[Shireen] So on something so big like the 217-way record, the organizers have already come up with the plan. It’s intricate and systematic in its build. But, it’s not perfect, sometimes you don’t know how a new formation is going to react in the sky. After every jump, we all split up into our sectors to debrief. On that nine-pointed star jump we had nine sectors, and each one had a captain. We all look at the video together, and the captain will constructively critique people’s performance. The captain can’t see everything because the video doesn’t show it all. So participants consult with the captain and give suggestions for a better build, then the captain shares that with the main organizers as each sector will be impacted by each minor change. It’s a real team effort, because if just one person isn’t doing their job and flying at their maximum potential, there is no record.
[Shadi] How do you prepare? What are the risks involved?
[Shireen] The bigger the group of people the greater the risk. The risks are crashing into each other in free fall, or opening our parachutes too close to each other and crashing into each other under canopy. With a jump so large there is a very staged and planned break-off procedure. We come together in formation, and at certain altitudes we start turning and tracking away to separate from each other. This part is planned as intricately as the jump itself. It’s rare to have accidents, but it’s possible and can be deadly if we collide. We’re a team so we look out for each other and work hard to be safe.
[Shadi] How you prepare yourself physically for a jump?
[Shireen] Big Way training can be physically taxing and exhausting. When we make the big way jumps, because there are so many people and logistics, we don’t make a lot of jumps, maybe 4-5 a day at most. But when we are training in smaller teams, we are trying to get as many jumps as possible, which could be 10-12 a day. One must be in good physical shape to handle it. Although the skydiving itself isn’t as physically demanding as many sports, it does take strength and stamina. You need to be strong to hang on to the plane when exiting, you need to be strong spinning each other around in formations, and you need to move fast. Stretching, strengthening and cardio work are all important in your training so you don’t get beat up!
[Shadi] How do you prepare yourself emotionally and spiritually for a jump?
[Shireen] I begin with a little meditation at the start of the day, or in the plane on the way up to altitude, to calm my inner self, set my intentions and put myself in the right frame of mind. Those are all good ways to start the day, and a Baha’i prayer for protection doesn’t hurt, either!
[Shadi] Is there an aspect of the Baha’i Faith that encourages you and inspires you to skydive?
[Shireen] Skydiving is a sport—and an art form—where everyone, no matter what national, spiritual, economic or racial background you come from is included in a big family. It’s amazing how people from such different backgrounds, sometimes strangers, can all come together and do an activity that is so inclusive and relies so much on mutual trust. There is no opportunity and reason to be divisive and prejudiced in skydiving—it’s the opposite, accepting, inclusive and unified.
[Shadi] What virtues or inner qualities do you feel are most important when diving?
[Shireen] Teamwork, consultation, kindness, awareness, helping one another, teaching, learning and of course unity.
[Shadi] Any tips for those interested in skydiving—and any tips for those, like me, who are terrified of heights?
[Shireen] Everybody thinks that a fear of heights is something that would stop you from jumping, but that’s not that case. You are so high up that you don’t feel connected to the ground and in imminent danger if you fall. Heck, even I don’t like standing on the edge of a cliff!
Free fall does not feel like falling, it feels like flying. We get the sense of falling when there is something in our visual field that we are falling PAST, so that gives us the feeling of the speed of falling. Or if we are too close to the ground like with a bungee jump, you get that feeling of the ground rushing up to you, again a visual feedback thing. When you jump from 13,000 feet, and you already are moving at a certain speed with the plane, and then as you jump out you continue to move, it’s not acceleration from a dead stop, like in a roller coaster. Once you leave the plane, there are no buildings or mountains that you see rushing by you, all you see is the air around you, and the person with you is falling at the same rate, so it just seems like you are floating and flying, you don’t get that roller coaster feeling at all.
So it’s worth trying for a feeling like no other in this world! It’s easy and safe nowadays, there’s no long class, just make a tandem jump, and get the sensation of flying, you’ll never forget it! Not everybody is meant to do it, or to learn the sport, but it’s really great to have the experience once in your life! Hey, it’s more dangerous driving your car to the drop zone than it is to actually jump!
[Shadi] How can people find out more about you and your work?
[Shireen] You can find me on Facebook! Thanks for your interest!