Georgia Tech skydivers to compete in nationals

Falling out of a plane might keep a few Georgia Tech students from doing something even more dangerous.

Four of the members of Tech's skydiving club team said they took up the sport because it was safer than some of the other things they were doing: riding motorcycles, rock-climbing, base-jumping and driving fast cars.

"It's 60 seconds of freedom," Chris Sanders said.

Sanders, Greg Lennartz, Nathan Briggs and club president Travis O'Neal are a few of the club members who will compete in the 2009 National Collegiate Parachuting Championships near Houston from Tuesday through Saturday.

In a sport usually dominated by the military academies, Tech's team has high hopes, no pun intended, of making the podium in the 4-way formation event. Last year, the team brought home five medals in a variety of events.

Sanders, a mechanical-engineering major from Alpharetta, said he took up skydiving when his sister suggested it after their mom said she didn't want them to. He has made 130 jumps.

O'Neal, an aerospace-engineering major from Leesburg, took up skydiving while in the Navy. His first jump was over Hawaii's North Shore. Now a certified instructor and the club's president, O'Neal has made 974 jumps.

Briggs, a physics major from Stone Mountain, decided to try the sport after he had a dream that he was on an airplane, the door blew off and he was sucked out. He decided to try skydiving to see if the feeling was the same as in his dream. He has made more than 500 jumps. The feeling, he said, is the same.

Lennartz, an industrial-engineering major from Tampa, was Briggs' roommate and decided to try after hearing him brag about it for a year. He has made 135 jumps.

The team, which receives about $25,000 in annual funding from Tech's student association, has 22 members. They jump as often as possible in Thomaston, where the Skydive Atlanta group jumps. When they can take a break from school for hard-core training, they'll take weekend trips to wind tunnels in Florida or North Carolina.

The 4-way formation features four divers jumping from an altitude of 10,500 feet. While falling at speeds of around 120 mph, the divers must complete a pre-ordered set of formations in the proper sequence, in 35 seconds. A judge, wearing a video camera, falls above the group. Judges on the ground will watch the tape and award one point for every successful formation. Each round of jumps features a different set of formations.

The team will find out the formations the night before. They will then discuss what they need to do and who does what. Each person in the four-man team has a different position with different responsibilities. For example, Lennartz signals to the team when the formation is complete by making an arms-out motion. The team will then quickly move on to the next.

"All jumps are unique," O'Neal said. He added if they can score 15 points per round, they should place.

Among the other events in the competition include accuracy, where divers try to land on targets (Tech had three people place last year in the novice and intermediate levels), and vertical formations, which the members say is the most dangerous event because the speeds can range from 120-180 mph. The 60-mph difference, should divers collide, would be equal to a car crash.

The members stressed how safe the sport is as long as you follow the safety rules -- and that it can be the perfect end to a long week.

"It's a perfect rest button on the weekend," O'Neal said.