QUEST FOR THE NIGHT HOOP DIVE
By John Miller
In 1990, a few jumpers from Perris, California, decided to get a team together and compete in the next U.S. Nationals. While practicing for the Nationals and trying to get better - we needed a lot of work - we decided to try a hoop dive. We jumped together regularly and thought we were competent jumpers. We were no sky gods but how hard could it be? We tried a regular hula hoop first and it just wasn't strong enough. So we got a sturdier hoop, filled with sand for ballast, and it worked great.
Now for the jump: What a cluster f#@#. We couldn't hold the hoop still, we couldn't get through it and we couldn't make the round on the other side. As we continued to practice for the Nationals, we would occasionally try another hoop dive. We finally got relatively successful, but by no means could we get it every time. After a few tries we decided to concentrate on practicing our competition jumps. We got some great help from local instructors and the Golden Knights.
After the Nationals we took what we had learned and applied it to the hoop dives. The hoop holders were a big key. They didn't have to be the quickest or fastest skydivers, but they had to be solid and steady. They also had to be able to take hits and maintain a heading and a certain fall rate. The hoop holders, Randy Scott and I, took quite a beating the first summer. People hit us, the hoop and each other. We had someone lose their shoe once, one ended up hanging from the hoop and another even took it out of our hands.
The skydivers going through the hoop also learned that smoothness, not speed is essential. One team member even noted that the hoop appears to get smaller the closer you get to it, rather than look bigger as you would expect. On the ground you can pass the hoop over your head and know you will fit through there with room to spare. In the air you can't believe you will ever fit and it looks smaller the closer you get. Getting through the hoop was quite a challenge. You can't dive through it; you have to be horizontal and moving quickly. Your feet need to be on the same level as your head while keeping forward motion at the same time. This is where big way practice came in handy. Those skills of "sheep dogging", stair stepping and horizontal (with no vertical) movement is very important.
The exit: Randy decided the best way for him to hold the hoop on exit was in his left hand with the hoop over his left shoulder. He was in the rear float slot. The cameraman was in the middle and I was front floater. We tried it a few times with the cameraman on the step of the Otter, and both Randy and I held the hoop between us, (not legal for the award, however). But the exit timing was so critical it usually took us longer to get everything stable than to just have Randy hold it on exit with me flying over to him and grabbing it. It also worked best if he and I both held it in our left hand. This put us at staggered angles opposite each other which made us more stable, easier to keep our heading and we could withstand more stress on our little formation. The grip on the hoop has to be very firm but you can't be stiff. You need to be flexible enough to withstand the hoop oscillations, your wrists and elbows moving without losing the grip. The ted a little on the backward slant. Hold the hoop at 4 and 7 o'clock. We thought it would be steadier at 3 and 9 but it turns out the jumpers going through the hoop tend to want to be level with you and that grip is too high.
The hoop divers have a tough assignment: They have to go through the hoop flat and with momentum. The first one through the hoop needs to be quick, reliable and be ready to be the base of the eight-way. Debbie Turner was our first through. She once was even through the hoop before I got there. She then set up as base for the eight-way and had to hold the heading of the round formation as the other jumpers came through the hoop. As the other jumpers came through and docked on Debbie they formed a horseshoe formation and ALL kept an eye on the hoop to maintain distance, vertical separation and heading. This is critical for a night hoop dive!
It is not how fast you are or how good you can dive. The important thing is being able to get to your slot - stair stepped directly behind and a little higher, shoe level - of the jumper in front of you. Being close the guy in front of you is MORE important than being fast. If you can be inches from them and go through directly behind them there is no faster way. This also relies on no errors made by the jumper in front of you.
Going through the hoop is its own challenge: You must go through flat and with enough momentum to carry you through. If you are too high you will catch your heels or back pack on the hoop. If you are too low you can catch your chest mount altimeter. We did both. Because you need momentum to go through the hoop, once the first person is set up and the line starts moving don't stop. As each person comes down the stair steps and gains forward momentum, and when you get to the altitude you need to be, relative to the hoop, your legs must be straight so they don't get caught on the top of the hoop. Usually when you put your legs straight out they go up in relation to the rest of the body. To counteract that, bring your elbows in and your hands under your shoulders and the shoulders a little rounded. This will keep the feet and torso level and continue your forward motion. It might seem like a good idea to put your arms in the Superman position. This is counterproductird speed and will slow you down. We even had one person going through the hoop in the Superman position stop and back out of it. Once through the hoop continue to the formation. Dock in a "U" formation and the last person through closes it. We found this to be the fastest. We got the (daytime) SCSA in October 1991.
We competed one more year and practiced the hoop dive more and more. It was a lot more fun now that we could do it regularly. Bill Saksa suggested we do a night hoop dive. This encouraged us to practice ever harder. We got to where we could turn 4 points on the eight-way after going through the hoop, so we decided to go for it. See Perris Hoop Dives, March '93 video.
On the night dive: A new set of challenges came into play. How can we see the hoop? Where will the base be and how can we find it? This is why it is so important to be directly behind, dogging the person in front of you. You can't see the hoop. You can't see the base and it might not be where it is supposed to be. Mike Dimenichi came up with our solution. He wrapped the hoop in small Christmas tree lights and powered them with a 9 volt battery. Debbie Turner, as base, wrapped herself with the same lights under the harness. Now we could see the hoop much better and see Debbie when she set up a base. This really helped.
The jump worked. The biggest challenge was to keep the hoop on heading. No lake or drop zone to see but the moon was the biggest help. We did not hold heading, or the formation slid - we ended up 90 degrees to the formation, rather than in line, but the swoopers made the eight, going on a 9-way. And we got it on the first try! Thanks to Craig Ratliff shooting video we got great shots of the formation so it truly would be a record.
Our NSCSA qualifying hoop dive was in October 1993 and we were the last numbers under 100.
We learned a lot about skydiving in those two years and that was what made us successful. The lessons learned were:
1. Hold the hoop at 4 and 7 o'clock, at staggered angles and the hoop slightly tilted.
2. Base maintains distance, vertical separation and heading with the hoop holders.
3. Hoop swoopers stay on the heels of the person in front of them.
4. Skydive through the hoop flat, arms in, hands under the shoulders and shoulders rounded.
5. At night, lights are a real help; Mike Dimenichi rigged the hoop lights to switch from red to green. Go and no go.
Check the Night Hoop Dive over Elsinore video.
Hoop jumps are really fun. A lot more difficult than one would think. It includes skills you would also use in big formations; relative work, sequential and no contact - plus night skills. But it takes lots of practice. If you don't get it the first time, don't give up. If you plan on doing a night hoop dive, be really good during the day first. Good Luck.