Changing Skydiving in a 'Big Way' - An Interview with Cullen Habel

Changing Skydiving in a 'Big Way' - An Interview with Cullen Habel

Published: April 6, 2016

Back in May 2015, 119 Skydivers linked in formation above the skies of Perris Valley, California to break the Australian Freefall Formation Record. One of those select few was the one and only Cullen Habel, an accomplished AFF instructor and Relative Work Tutor at SA Skydiving Adelaide. Cullen was one of the select few who was invited to attend the 9-day event in an attempt to set a new Australian record. Bigway Formations are not for the faint of heart. It requires a very precise skillset and immense team work, planning and organisation, not to mention all 119 people performing their job at the right time in the right place to make a record like this come together. During four days of attempts the skydivers jumped from seven different planes at once, at an exit height of 19,000 feet (about 5.8 kilometres). It is an intimidating, yet very rewarding discipline that provides some amazing skydiving visuals. Here is our interview with our own Adelaide Skydiving Instructor and bigway skydiver, Cullen Habel.

SASD: Hey Cullen, so we wanted to have a chat with you about your recent involvement in the Australian Big-Way World Record. Its an awesome achievement to be a part of. Just to get us started, what's your day job when your not busy skydiving in Adelaide and breaking records overseas?

CH: I teach Marketing and Research Methods in Universities. I don't have any single employer - I'm a contractor - although I do have a favourite University I do lecturing for. But I'm only as secure as the last course I ran - much like a skydiver is only as good as the last jump they did.

SASD: Where was the record held? Why there? How many Aussies were involved all up?

CH: We chose to make the attempt at Perris Valley, in California. Perris is the home of the P3 bigway training organisation with the legendary Dan BC heading it up. There's been a lot of talk about why the record wasn't done on Australian soil and it's a fair point. However there are some key factors that play a role in why. We used seven 20+ seater aircraft - three Skyvans and four twin otters, all equipped with oxygen. Currently Australia has not a single one of those aircraft. Seven pilots running tight formation flying at 20,000 feet. A rich pool of coaching, jump data processing and even accommodation. Finally there were dozens of world class skydivers ready to fill important slots when we needed them to. We will get records on Australian soil one day, but this was huge. We ran the record attempt with about 130 Aussies turning up as starters. By the time we actually nailed the record it ran with a total of 119 Australian jumpers, with other international "Australian Friends" filling in.

SASD: Did you feel support from home?

CH: The world's a small place now. I knew I had the support of my buddies back in Adelaide. I was on the ABC with Macca the Sunday before the record and the Sunrise morning show after and got plenty of positive feedback from that.

SASD: What first instigated you to want to become a part of this awesome achievement?

CH: Back in 2014 I had been back into skydiving in Adelaide for a year and a half. I'd done about 200 jumps since my return from a ten year break and was looking for something different. The Aussie Bigways starter camp was at Toogoolawah in July 2014 and I gestured some interest. From there it just snowballed. The Bigways community - like the skydiving community - just carries you along.

SASD: Can you tell us what sort of preparation had to go into making a record like this happen?

CH: The training camps had started in earnest about a year before, but the Bigways community had been building skills all around the country with training days and mentoring since the last attempt in 2012.

SASD: What sort of training did you have to do in the lead up to the record?

CH: I spend a lot of time teaching students wanting to learn how to skydive, so chasing them is helpful inbuilt skills development. But I went to about a half a dozen training camps throughout 2014/5 and spent a half an hour in the tunnel at Picton. No amount of training you do can ever be enough.

SASD: Did you ever have any doubts or fears about being on the record?

CH: Every day of the camps and the record was a battle within myself. I'd had a total 1000 flat jumps, with 500 over the past two years and I felt underprepared when I turned up. The weather in Perris wasn't our friend and I only got ten of an expect 24 jumps with P3. I was solid in the sky, but not talented. The P3 guys threw me a bone for the record and I cried with relief when I saw the team sheet. I was in the six way base, launching a chunk out of the Skyvan holding Dan BCs legstrap. While very important and physically brutal, I had a straightforward job to do and managed to do it seventeen times. Many great skydivers were given tougher slots and didn't get onto the record.

SASD: What was going through your head on jump run of the record breaking skydive?

CH: "Do this job, don't screw up. There are 120 people ($10,000 worth of jump tickets) relying on you to just do your own, simple, job one more time. This is the last jump of the attempt and it sure as hell won't be you that stops the team from getting it"

SASD: How did it feel once you were in the air and everyone was beginning to form up? What was going through your mind?

CH: In the start of the jump it was just the same as the previous sixteen. But as we got towards the completion everything went quiet. People stopped looking around and an eerie calm came over us all. As we broke the base Dan BC gave the huge thumbs up and a sense of bewilderment flooded me. "I think we've f****** done it!?"

SASD: What are three words that describe how you felt when you knew that the team had gotten the record?

CH: Grateful - Fate, my efforts, great coaching, good friends made this happen
Numbness - Physical and emotional exhaustion made it hard to concentrate
Bittersweet - Many great friends kneecapped for a simple error

SASD: Why do you think people go to such extraordinary lengths to make a record happen?

CH: It starts as a personal challenge but becomes something so much more. It's a chance to be a part of something huge, with some of the very best people you'll ever find. Sure, it's addictive but it's more than just the adrenaline. It's the chance to learn from the best, work alongside the best and succeed or fail on your performance alone. For me it was a chance to look my fears right in the face and see how I went. That's why I'm going to Perris again this May for a Bigway and 100 way camps. Next record attempt is May 2019, so who knows?

SASD: Thanks for taking the time Cullen, it is much appreciated and certainly an eye opening record of your skydive experience! See you skydiving in Adelaide sometime soon!! Yahoo!

CH: No worries, thanks for having me!

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» Kathy