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Reservists Jump For the Cause

  • Published
  • By Major Andra Higgs
  • 4th Air Force Public Affairs
Above the shimmering horizon, sky divers jumped from nine aircraft into a perfect blue sky. 

The massing formation of 181 women resembled the start of a universe. Their 120-mph destination: Mother Earth, 17,000 feet below, a female formation skydiving world record and raising awareness and funds for breast cancer research. A message from heaven? A sign from on high? These women, caught in a current of determination, played a super-Nova sized role in the lives of families battling the disease and keeping alive a long-held tradition of being their sister's keeper. 

"I am still surprised at how cool it is to do such a big formation of all women," said Jennifer Wrynn, an Air Force Reserve major currently assigned as an instructor with United States Air Force Academy Wings of Blue Parachute Team. 

Jump for the Cause brought together 181 female sky divers from 31 countries joined together on September 21-27, 2009. They raised more than $900,000 for the fight against breast cancer, the most in the event's history. The week-long event was organized to raise funds for the City of Hope's breast cancer research center. Sponsored by Jump for the Cause, a sky diving nonprofit organization, the event was held at the Perris Valley Skydiving Center (, approximately 15 miles south of March Air Reserve Base. The event kicked off October - Breast Cancer Awareness Month. "What we're doing here is making more people aware of breast cancer," said Wrynn, also a USAFA T-41 instructor pilot. "If one person gets the disease, it affects 10 other people" 

Battling on the side of those impacted by the disease were 181 warriors of the sky. Accelerating to speeds beyond 120 mph, split-second decisions and positioning has to occur for a formation of this size. Locating the base of the formation and moving into a pre-assigned space requires sky divers to shift body positions to speed or slow their movement. "Mentally and physically, you have to perform at your best," said Wrynn. "As more people enter the formation, you can feel the tension and the force of the group from the other side as the surging tries to force apart your hold." 

The formation rehearses with practice jumps and by "dirt diving" where the formation is simulated on the ground by using sliding carts, similar to what a vehicle mechanic would use to roll under a car to accomplish repairs. The circular formation, with six legs - known as whackers - featured pink, yellow, white and blue jumpsuits. For Wrynn, finding her position also meant finding the woman in the pink jumpsuit wearing a helmet with a huge pair of pink lips on the back. When the formation comes apart, it looks like the Big Bang - multicolored, shooting stars flying in all directions in the across the sky. Ever wonder what manna raining down from heaven looks like? This could be close. "It gives you bragging rights to be in the formation, but it is only because you have a commitment to safety," she said. "There is no star here. Everyone has to fly their slots and no one person is successful unless we all accomplish what we set out to do." 

Part festival, part party, part family reunion, the women in attendance, whose occupations ranged from brick layer to brain surgeons, made a colorful and sizzling fashion statement matched only by the triple-digit California desert ground temperatures. No sepia-tone dresses with fall-away soufflé-like fabric off one shoulder, but the intense shades of pink, yellow, white and blue where punctuated by undershirts like the one worn by Wrynn with the inscription: "Fly Like A Girl". Less fashionable in military fatigues, but no less committed, Jeremy Fontes, a staff sergeant with the 452nd Maintenance Squadron, jumped for the cause after Airmen in his squadron, family members and friends donated to the event in his name. He reflected upon his mother having a "scare with breast cancer" years prior. "All I could think about when I came out of the door was I hope the parachute opens," he said. "It's a great cause to donate to. It was breathtaking. I told my mom and wife to work up the courage to come out and watch." 

Being selected to participate in Jump for the Cause had everything to do with a skydiver's reputation for skill, precision and excellence. A personal invitation for each of the 200 participants, selected from 31 countries, went out along with a requirement that each woman had to raise at least $3,500 for breast cancer research at the City of Hope. For Wrynn, considerable community support from family and friends ensured she reached that goal through fundraising events, raffles and donations. "I think she's crazy for jumping out of a perfectly good airplane," said Patrick Wrynn, jokingly referring to his wife, Jennifer's, efforts. A former Air Force U-2 pilot, he is now a commercial airline instructor pilot. The couple has two children, Avery, 6, and Tyler, 3. "I completely and totally join her in this great effort to raise money for this debilitating disease. What she's doing is incredible and I can't describe how happy I am that she's able to participate." 

Raymond Hagan, Air Force Reserve colonel and Fourth Air Force chaplain, urges a family based ministerial approach to supporting the disease. His wife, Libby, is currently recovering from a double mastectomy. "When I'm dealing with someone in my congregation, it's a ministry that's based on respecting their privacy in dealing with the disease - how much they want to share with others," said Hagan, a Lutheran minister in a Seattle suburb as a civilian. "When it's someone in your family who has the disease, it's, essentially, your disease too. It's during this time that we're reminded of the importance of people not being alone and for the patient to know there is someone who will always be there with them." 

According to the National Cancer Institute, 211,000 women will learn they have the disease each year. Approximately one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. According to the American Association of Cancer Research, trends for breast cancer among active-duty military personnel is, inexplicably, higher ( 

"A diagnosis of breast cancer puts you on the fast track to a whole new vocabulary and a search for reliable information," said Libby Hagan, wife of Col. Hagan. As a civilian, she is a Seattle-area speech pathologist. "For me, one of the most important things was to educate myself on the disease and treatment options and to feel I had found good and experienced doctors to take care of me. There are multiple options for treatment and trying to make decisions at a time of such emotional stress can be overwhelming. Once you have a plan in place, you can deal with one step at a time to get you through and then it becomes more manageable. Somewhere in the process you adjust to the "new normal", you see your future again and the thoughts of cancer occupy a smaller place in your mind." 

Back in the air, at 17,000 feet, the formation approaches its release point. Flying a V-formation, the nine aircraft resemble migrating geese with a "skyvan" - a little clam-shell looking contraption - leading the way for eight other Twin-Otter aircraft. From the air, the view south is toward San Diego, east is toward Palm Desert, west is toward the Pacific Ocean and north is toward March Air Reserve Base. The view straight down is toward the parceled land that is the Mecca of skydiving. The Perris, Calif., skydiving and wind-tunnel operations, is to the sport what Fenway Park is to baseball, what Augusta National is to golf, what Wimbledon is to tennis. Whether it's a celebrity filming a movie, advertising executives making commercials, recreational jumpers, seasoned pros attempting a world record or novice first-timers, "This is the place," said Michael Haire, Air Force Reserve colonel, assigned to Northern Command. The athletic, outside-linebacker sized parachutist was there leaping and supporting the Jump for the Cause event. "The best jumpers in the world come here. This is it." 

After a jump, preparation, loading and the takeoff-climb-out-to-jump altitude takes about two hours, including debrief. As the week drew to an end and fewer jumps remained in the attempt at the record, debriefs took on an increasing edginess among the women as under performers in the formation were called out, mostly for approaches that were "too steep" and for not using the "stadium technique." Fear, frustration and a cumulative angst put their feet to the fire. "You have to plan the jump and then jump the plan," said Sue Wasserman, a recently retired colonel from the Air National Guard. She formerly worked at March with AFRC's 4th Combat Camera Squadron. She now resides in Qatar and traveled halfway around the world to participate in this event. "It doesn't matter if you get 175 or 180 people in place, if the plan called for 181 and everyone didn't get the exact hold they briefed the judges on, then it's not a record." 

Video and still imagery indicated that a world record had been consistently within one or two missed grasps. As the debrief translations whipped around one room -in Russian, in Portuguese, in Spanish and a distinct Australian English - the women rallied around a universally familiar chant among sky divers. "Right here, right now - this skydive - my personal best," was the call raised by Kate Cooper-Jensen, a lead organizer with Jump for the Cause ( She is also one of the world's leading sky divers and considered a guru in the sport. She repeated the chant a second, third, fourth time, until, like a fire-and-brimstone preacher on a hot-summer day, the call and response from this congregation, 181 female sky divers, erupted into a screeching cheer of attack. Might as well stick around for the benediction. "The most important thing is timing -- it is just critical when you're using multiple aircraft," said Wrynn, a darting, athletic bundle of energy who has flown KC-135s in her career. "This experience is really about developing a whole new trust for people you work with to accomplish a goal." 

Central to a successful jump is packing the parachute - an apparatus of air brakes, angled high-tech nylon lines, panels and toggles designed for speed, steering and forward motion. Today's parachutes are a remarkable leap from the original 1480s concepts sketched by Leonardo da Vinci, considered by historians to be the "father of parachutes." The unchanged component, though, is that parachute and correctly packing one is a skydiver's lifeline. Federal Aviation Administration certification is required for all parachute packers. 

"My goal is to do something to beat the disease that beat my mother," said Mallory Lewis, co-founder of the event. She is the daughter of famed puppeteer Shari Lewis, the creator of Lamb Chop. Shari succumbed to breast cancer in 1998. "In principle, this is about making an impact on breast cancer and part of that is raising awareness for women to go get mammograms." For Lewis and Cooper-Jensen, the four events (1999, 2002, 2005 and 2009), have raised more than $2 million, $900,000 during September 21-27, 2009. By any fundraising standard, this is more than just a shard of hope. For the breast cancer researchers at the City of Hope, perhaps these 181 migrating women of flight were a little divine message from the heavens, a small mainline intervention. 

Located in northeast Los Angeles County, near the beginning of Route 66, City of Hope is 100 acres of lushly landscaped gardens with 2,000 varieties of roses. It is a nationally recognized leader in cancer research, with outposts throughout most regions of the country. With a motto of: "There is no profit in curing the body if in the process we destroy the soul", the City of Hope has been in the fight against the disease for nearly 100 years. "In this economy, this is a huge amount of money," said Lewis. Now carrying on the puppeteering tradition started by her mother, Lewis now spends a considerable amount of time performing shows with Lamb Chop. It also takes 18 months of planning for each Jump for the Cause event. 

Just after noon, the giant voice at the airfield directed all women to the put on their jumpsuits and report immediately under the big tent. It appeared the rumor circulating the grounds was correct. The record attempt was missed by one grip. They would have to try again. The tension was mounting. There was open speculation that someone would be replaced on the spot, in front of her peers. There would only be two, possibly three more attempts before the window of opportunity for the record was shut. The physical toll of making four, five jumps per day for a week was evident. 

Fully expecting to hear the chant - "Right here, right now - this skydive - my personal best. . ." - what the women got, instead, from their guru, was something completely different. "Part of being on the team is being in the right place at the right time," said Cooper-Jensen.  Then she detonated the bombshell. "We did it for the second time today!" With that, officials come onto a platform with still photos of both new world record jumps from earlier that day. The women began hugging, dancing and crying. There were whistling joy, pumping hands and waving flags. The 181 sky divers were wrapped in a huge pink cloth. If a storm cloud of anxiety had been forming above this group, there was no more rain left in those clouds. "We did it, we did it!" said Wrynn, cheering and embracing her fellow jumpers. 

Many of the same women have set the previous world record of 151, 131 and 119 at the 2005, 2002 and 1999 JFTC events, respectively. For anyone who believes in a dream, this one continues to get bigger. "What we've been able to put together are the best female sky divers in the world, to raise awareness and to have fun," said Lewis, acknowledging that the 2009 Jump for the Cause may be the last. "The dedication and passion these women bring to this event is inspiring - all nationalities and religious differences have been put aside to fight the common enemy - breast cancer." 

Will 181 be the swan song for these women, who, as a chorus, spontaneously burst into a celebratory singing of "We are the Champions?"  "One of the great secrets of my in life," said Lewis, "is to know when to leave the party."