How an Air Force Pararescue team set a high-altitude skydive record

"You're talking about altitudes that if you lose your oxygen, you're going to be unconscious within seconds."
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A team of four Air Force Pararescuemen and a 73-year-old civilian astronaut set a skydiving altitude record for a group jump. Photo courtesy Jim Petrolia.

Jimmy Petrolia has had his fair share of memorable moments miles above the ground, in both Air Force pararescue and as a record-setting skydiver.

But the silence — and even serenity — of the moment is what he’ll remember most about his recent world record jump alongside three other Pararescuemen and a 73-year-old astronaut.

“When you leave an aircraft, for most of us in the military who have done a lot of high altitude work, when you jump from a C-130 or C-17, it’s really noisy,” Petrolia told Task & Purpose. “You’ve got lots of prop blast and wind noise. This was just — it was quiet. It was almost, like, euphoric.”

Jumping as Team Alpha 5, Petrolia and four other jumpers rode a custom-made hot air balloon to 38,000 feet over Roswell, New Mexico, then jumped together as the sun rose. A certifier from the Guinness Book of World Records was on hand for what the team says is the highest-ever multi-person HALO jump in which the jumpers held formations as they fell.

The team dedicated the September 28 jump to highlighting the work of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a non-profit that provides scholarships, financial support, and other services to families of fallen special operators.

Though the four PJs all had or are in the latter stages of their careers in the Air Force, Petrolia said the SOWF — which works across all military services — fit the goal of the jumps with Connor on board. “He has friends that are Navy SEALS, he’s got Special Forces friends,” Petrolia said. “He was concerned with working with all the services.”

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The team of five spent over a week in New Mexico preparing for the jump, building up to the final altitude of 38,000.

“We needed some data to be able to calculate how much oxygen we’re going to need and how long it was going to take to get up there and where the balloon is going to go after we got out,” said Petrolia. “We did a stair-step approach. There was some flights to 18, 20, 25. And then the big one at 30.”

Petrolia’s favorite, he said, was that final practice jump from 30,000 feet where the team got to experience extreme height without the pressure of the final record jump.

The sun was just rising as the jumpers piled out of the balloon and “everything just seemed to slow down and it was one of the times you can stop and smell the roses.”

Air Force Pararescuemen are trained as military free fall (MFF) jumpers, the military version of skydiving, a skill practiced primarily by special operations teams in every military branch. Though MFF equipment and regulations allow military parachutists to fly as high as 35,000 feet for an exit, such a jump would be exceedingly rare for an operational unit in training or during a real-world mission.

A typical team of PJs, Navy Seals, Army Special Forces, or other HALO-trained units might jump dozens of times each year below 13,000 feet, but a jumper might go a whole career with just a handful of jumps over 20,000. High-altitude exits require cumbersome and complicated oxygen masks, and even higher altitudes may require both the jumpers and the aircrew of their plane — who face the same low oxygen levels when the doors open for the jump — to pre-breath oxygen before they even take off.

This is exactly what Team Alpha 5 faced for their high-altitude jumps, so they breathed pure oxygen on the ground for up to 90 minutes before launching. That meant a 3 a.m. start time each morning so they could launch before sunrise to take advantage of calm winds.

The practice jumps also allowed the team to rehearse the relatively intricate footwork required to safely jump together. As they rose, each jumper would carefully climb out of the custom-built balloon basket to a small platform on the exterior, carefully jostling into position “to get out of the balloon platform and be safe and not rip any gear off of your teammates or bust the seal on their mask,” said Petrolia. “You’re talking about altitudes that if you lose your oxygen, you’re going to be unconscious within seconds. And then you got injury and/or, death associated with that.”

The final ascent took about an hour, quicker than the team expected. The balloon was a massive, 150-foot high custom platform designed to raise over 12,000 lbs, but the team collectively weighed less than 2,000.

“It literally was a rocket ship,” said Petrolia, who said it rose as fast as 1,000 feet per minute, which is as fast or even more so than some small civilian planes that many skydivers use.

Rocket ships, ironically, are at the root of how Team Alpha 5 came together.

Along with Petrolia, the PJs on board were Brandon Daugherty, Rob Dieguez, and Chris Lais. Lais, like Petrolia, is retired while Daughtery is a Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force Reserve and Dieguez remains on active duty.

The genesis of the Alpha 5 jump began with Daughtery and Lais who, as senior PJs with the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base (now Space Force Base), helped stand up an astronaut rescue program at the unit as commercial space programs like Space X began launching civilian astronauts in the late 2010s.

One of those astronauts who trained at Patrick was Larry Connor, a 73-year-old real estate entrepreneur and lifelong adventure seeker. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, Connor dove on a specially designed submersible to 35,856 feet into the Mariana Trench, then flew to the International Space Station for 17 days on the Axiom Mission 1, the first fully private mission to the orbiting space station.

It was the Axiom mission that brought Connor together with the PJs who would make up the Alpha 5 team. Though Connor had experience skydiving, it had been 30 years since his last jump, Petrolia said.

High above Roswell, the team tumbled off the balloon together and linked arms, falling in formation, reaching a terminal speed of 189 miles per hour, nearly twice as fast as a normal skydive.

“Every movement you make is amplified,” said Petrolia. “Everybody had to be very cautious about what they did at that altitude until they were stable.”

Still after all the logistics, training, and technical concerns, the final jump held a moment of magic.

“When you’re standing there with your teammates on the edge, literally with one foot on this step and one hand on the railing, and we are just hanging above 38,000, and you look down and there’s nothing underneath you. You could just hear a pin drop,” Petrolia said. “And then you just take off. It was pretty mind-blowing.”

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