December 2003, feature

The Inside Story of Jay Stokes' Fourth World Record
24-Hours, 534 Jumps

by Bill Purdin

His canopy came down fast, spiraling out of the overcast and stormy sky; he was wet, tired, determined, and in a big hurry as he landed at a run, throwing off one rig and pulling on another one. It was 1:00 a.m. and he still had at least another 125 night jumps to make before dawn. He ran off into the dark toward the waiting plane without a word. The plane roared off. The rain was falling hard, making puddles in his footsteps.

When the California sun broke away from the valleys and mountainsides surrounding Elsinore Skydiving many hours later, Jay Stokes would make the final skydive in his marathon 24-hour "most jumps" attempt. The entry in the log read "534," but those three numbers on a piece of paper represent far more than just a world record.

Known as "Jay," Willard Lee Stokes was born on September 7, 1956, at Eglin Air Force Base, near Tampa, Florida. He came from a fairly traditional family with three brothers and three sisters. He was the youngest. His Air Force Dad and his mother divorced when he was 10. His nickname, "Jay," just came along and stuck. He doesn't really know why people call him Jay, but he likes it better than Willard.

Jay drifted along through high school and then joined the U.S. Army in 1974 and remained in the service for 24 years, including 21 years in Special Forces, the "Green Berets" retiring in 1998 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. While in the service he attained the following ratings: Static Line Jumpmaster, MFF Instructor, Videographer, Tandem Master, Video Instructor, Tandem Examiner, HALO/SCUBA mission qualification, MFF School Safety and Training Officer, Oxygen Technician among others.

His civilian USPA ratings include: PRO, Coach Course Director, Static Line Instructor/Examiner, AFF Instructor/Examiner and Course Director, IAD Instructor/Examiner, Tandem Instructor/Examiner and Course Director, Tandem Examiner for all U.S.A.-made tandem systems, FAA Master Rigger, Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner, and private pilot.

So, Jay Stokes knows what he's doing when it comes to jumping out of airplanes.

But, sitting in the waiting area of Elsinore Skydiving prior to a jump, a reporter looking around for Jay Stokes saw an unassuming, gentle-faced skydiver, with surprisingly youthful blonde hair, chatting quietly with other skydivers. The reporter and the skydiver exchanged a look of inquiry. "Are you Jay Stokes?" the reporter asked. Somehow the knowledge had passed between them. It was really a rhetorical question. The reporter already knew. Watching Jay go through his day of instruction, two weeks prior to his world record attempt, one could see some very revealing things. Soft spoken, Stokes worked with each student diligently and quietly. The debriefs were private and nurturing. He always seemed to have plenty of time, never rushed. Watching him at the mock-ups, he seemed to have all day to go over and over each skydive, with each student. Never impatient, never derogatory, always encouraging, he clearly enjoyed every student, every jump. And it was also very clear that here was an instructor who truly led by example. He was positive, routinely and consistently safety-conscious, careful about everything, inclusive, patient, forgiving, vigilant, and clearly enjoying the entire process, even though he had done it hundreds and hundreds of times before.

Watching him, he seemed completely focused on the job and the individuals at hand,with no thought for his coming ordeal and the sacrifice and personal cost it would exact. With the shadow of a 24-hour physical challenge full of the dangers of skydiving at the edge of the sport, Jay Stokes seemed not to have a care in the world, as he worked with AFF candidates in the warm sun in the shadow of the Santa Ana Mountains.

And then, around November 10, into a much different, much higher gear.

In his world record attempt, the plan was to jump once every two and a half minutes for 24-hours. He would wear "quick ejector hardware" that would allow his assistants to snap off one parachute and snap on another in a matter of seconds. The snaps attach to the V-rings of the leg straps and chest strap, similar to tandem gear. He planned to use only two planes, both turbine Porters, flying three-hour shifts. He mentioned that the "phenomenal" Porters could descend so fast that they would be on the ground waiting for him before he could land and change rigs. He was anticipating no fatigue issues until around jump #400 (approximately 2:00 a.m., six hours into the effort). "Adrenaline keeps you going and you are pretty much in perpetual motion." It was actually around 4:00 a.m. when the fatigue kicked in, and it was raining cats and dogs.

The jumps were scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m. on November 11, Veterans Day 2003. And they did; right on time. Punctuality is something Jay admires.

Twenty-two jumps per hour for 24 hours, non-stop: most people, when they first hear about it, shake their heads. "Say that again," they say. It is mind boggling for the everyday whuffo, but experienced skydivers, who know what skydiving is all about, find it amazing and astounding.

Jay Stokes, and his four world records, are amazing, but he wouldn't let the conversation advance one syllable without mentioning the first holder of the world record, Michael Zang, who was the first person to break 500 jumps.

The current holder of the Skydivers Over Sixty (SOS) world record for most jumps, Roy Fox, 62, spoke of Jay Stokes in an intereview. He has known Jay since first hearing of his1995 record. "I met him early in 1996" said Roy. "My 55th birthday was coming up and I was thinking of doing 55 jumps in one day. Jay said, [You could do 55 jumps before lunch.' I said, 'You're crazy.' He was more than right. I actually did 228 jumps that day. It would not have been possible without Jay's inspiration and help. He worked as hard on my attempt as he did on his world record. On my 61st birthday I made 386 jumps, which is the current SOS record. Jay Stokes is one of those selfless people who, once they make up their minds, there's just no stopping them. His inspiration was the force that drove my success."

In 1997 Jay said, "I'll never do it again." In 1999, when asked about another possible record attempt in the future, he said, "I don't plan on it." And then in 2003 he said to a reporter, "I truly believe 600 is possible, but it won't be me." But, learning from experience, he added with a shy smile, "I never say never anymore."

Jay's world records have received worldwide coverage on CNN, ABC, NBC, ESPN, USA Today, and local newspapers throughout the regions where his jumps have taken place. He has raised, in four world records, over $30,000 for his charities: the Special Olympics and cerebral palsy. He has a personal interest. His son, Nicky Stokes, 23, was born with cerebral palsy. His early interest in the Special Olympics and the idea of bringing attention to the disease and to the wonderful things the victims can and do achieve, is one of the reasons that Jay jumps. In addition to that, he feels that skydiving gives its participants such a sense of freedom and self-confidence that he hopes to encourage others to channel that experience in their communities for charities that they support, in order to "spread the joy." "People who love skydiving know what this sport is all about, but so many don't really know us, or they just think we are crazy to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. This sort of effort for charity, and the contribution we can all make for a better world, will demonstrate what a great community of athletes skydivers are, and maybe raise awareness of our sport and of the great causes we all support."

The scope of the event is interesting: overall budget this year was around $105,000. This includes quite a list of logistical concerns: aircraft (2) and pilots (4), plus fuel, lodging, and transportation. Judges (3), including lodging and transportation; video support to document every jump, insurance, equipment, food for volunteers, packers (40 in six-person shifts), time-keepers (6), riggers, de-riggers, air boss, overall controller, security, clean up, water truck and driver, and two person medical crew on duty. Additionally, other expenses occur: program tapes, advertising, fundraising packages, telephone services, Web site, tally board, accounting, radio communications, strobe lights and night skydiving lights, heat, airfield lease and runway lights, generators, and official uniforms for workers. The event takes over six months of preparation and arrangements, before jump one is achieved, and over 115 people working long hours to make it all happen. As Jay says, "All I do is jump out and pull." Right Jay, that's all you do.

The physical challenge is the hidden secret of the world record. This event is far more than just "jump out and pull." Jay's physical condition is obvious. But getting there and staying there takes a Herculean effort. Six days a week running (five miles) and biking (ten miles) for aerobics is only the beginning. Four days a week weight training for legs and upper body. A strict diet (Jay's a vegetarian) with careful calibrated calorie and protein intake is essential. And in the six months before the event all of this takes on a greater meaning and requires much greater discipline and dedication. One month out from the event, Jay begins a tapering off so that his physical fitness and mental fitness peaks during the event itself.

The anatomy of one jump. He lands as near as possible to the idling plane, chest strap undone. Two people run up and take his rig right off his back even as he is still moving toward the plane. Two others put the next rig on him. All of this takes about eight seconds, or less. He runs to the aircraft and jumps in as the plane taxis away. An on-board jumpmaster checks his rig connection points as they all put on seatbelts. There is an oxygen console on board (he uses this to avoid dangerous carbon monoxide poisoning during the repeated exposure to aircraft fumes throughout the event), plus Max Muscle liquid food and GoFast energy drink for sustenance. A specially outfitted jumpsuit allows for personal needs and prevents any time consuming stops. The pilot gets Jay to "the release point" in 90 to 100 seconds. He checks the spot and goes. He exits at exactly 2100 feet AGL so he has time to present to the relative wind and deploy the main. Once open he unstows the brakes and undoes his chest strap, grabs the front riser (left or right), pulls down on a modified toggle line and spirals the canopy to about 200 feet. At that point he lets up on the toggle, sets up for final approach, all of which has taken about a minute from exit. The pilot, after exit, immediately nosedives the plane, almost in a crash dive, beats Jay to the ground, and is waiting there ready to go again. And again. And again.

The maximum possible jumps is 25 per hour; Jay averaged 22.25 for the 24-hours of the event.

Jay Stokes has nothing to prove to anyone. He's a father, a husband, a Special Forces veteran, he has12,100 skydives including 4,500 AFFs, 2,500 tandems, 800 as a tandem passenger, 650 video jumps, 500 plus coach jumps, 500 AFF evaluation jumps, a whole bunch of RW, CRW, and accuracy skydives and 12 malfunctions, many induced by AFF and tandem candidates trying too hard, and not to mention, is four times a world record holder. In the pantheon of modern skydiving, there may be no one who is doing more for the sport and training than Jay. So, why does he do these "most jump" marathons, putting himself at such risk under such exhausting conditions? "During the event I always think about what it is for, the charities, the children, the hope for the future, and that gives me strength and determination. And, I just will not stop until I run out of time."

His attitude, his devotion to great causes, his shy and modest manner, his love of life and dedication to skydiving are inspirational to everyone who meets him. His canopy opened 534 times on Veterans Day 2003, but he opened his heart even more. And he's planning to do it again. You can count on it.

Reclame: ...

Bill Purdin (D-2555) lives in Marblehead, skydives in Pepperell and Orange, Massachusetts, is a USPA Coach and S&TA, and a frequent contributor to Parachutist.

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