Skydiver Colby McNeil (Soc ex’12) makes a living jumping from planes.

Photo of skydivers falling from the sky holding handsIn videos, the 2015 world-record vertical skydive, executed above Chicago, seems effortless: 164 people jump out of six airplanes. A small group forms a center ring by holding hands, their heads pointed down. Others glide toward the ring, linking into outward-radiating loops. The result looks like a daisy flower.

After just a few seconds in formation, they all split to launch their parachutes.

“They’re holding hands at 200 miles per hour,” said Colby McNeil (Soc ex’12), who was part of the jump.

To pull it off, you need all the skydivers, many of whom travel from out of state, to show up, the planes to fly in the correct V-shape and each of the 164 people to find their designated place while falling. The entire feat lasts less than a minute.

“To successfully do it, just, oh my gosh, it’s an amazing feeling,” said McNeil, who studied at CU between 2007 and 2012.

Remarkably, he’s managed to make a full-time living of skydiving.

“Everyone can pick their favorite hobby,” he said. “I can make a living off of the thing I love most.”

McNeil was first drawn to the sport in 2009, when a friend invited him on a tandem jump, in which each participant tethers to an instructor. Even before his feet hit the ground, McNeil said, he was hooked.

Just weeks later, he took an accelerated freefall program, learning how to maneuver in the air and manage risks involved in jumping solo. Next he started spending two or three days a week practicing in a wind tunnel.

One genre of skydiving captivated him in particular: artistic free flying, which is “akin to pairs figure skating or double gymnastics, but in the sky.” Teams of three — two performing flyers and a photographer — execute choreographed sequences of gymnastic moves as they fall from about 13,000 feet.

McNeil joined a team called Oceanside FLO. It won four national championships and placed internationally. But despite sponsorships, McNeil found it challenging to make ends meet through free flying alone, and stopped competing after the 2017 season.

“It is very, very time consuming, as well as very expensive,” he said.

He’s since found a new balance. He trains budding skydivers at drop zones near San Diego, shoots videos of people skydiving and runs a small business packing and maintaining parachute equipment.