By Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Parachutes are generally considered a last ditch effort to leave a failing plane. For one Airman, they are a ticket to ride and compete in a beloved sport.
Fortunately for Capt. Matthew Shull, he has successfully jumped out of a perfectly good airplane more than 2,500 times. The 3rd Space Operation Squadron Defense Satellite Communications System orbital analyst section chief participates in an extreme skydiving sport called canopy piloting, also known as swooping.
“It’s a lot of fun. It is just an amazing experience to jump out of an airplane,” said Shull. “Flying a high-performance parachute gives you the rush.”
According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, or the International Air Sports Federation, canopy piloting involves a series of tasks designed to test a parachutist’s ability to control his canopy and fly accurately. Shull has participated in about 15 national, international and regional swooping competitions.
Canopy piloting competition consists of nine rounds in three events — speed, distance and accuracy. The objective is to dive high performance parachutes as fast as possible at the ground then pull up, in order to fly through a course set in the middle of a pond.
Top competitors can achieve speeds upwards of 90 mph depending on the conditions and wind, awarding points to the competitors based on how far, fast and accurately they land. For safety reasons, participants compete over a stretch of water because of the high speeds and actions involved.
Originally, the Vernon, N.J., native started skydiving in 2003. He was scheduled to join the U.S. Air Force Academy’s team but it fell through. He took it upon himself to pursue the sport on his own and went to a local drop zone in his hometown to learn.
“One time I saw a professional canopy pilot performing, it just caught my attention,” Shull said. “I decided to vector my discipline in skydiving toward swooping.”
Shull started swooping just as the sport was getting off the ground. The development of smaller and faster canopies paved the way for the sport in mid-1990s.
“When I first learned, it was trial and error a lot of times,” he said. “It was more dangerous [then] because I didn’t have the same level of instruction that there is now. It is better now.”
Shull started canopy piloting in 2005 and competing in 2008.
“For these events, I try to practice as much as I can,” he said. “Lately, I’ve been jumping at a drop zone in Canon City.”
He builds swoop courses, which includes setting up gates or markers that show him where to pass. Since there are no ponds for him to practice, it is quite difficult for him to navigate the course.
“To practice, I do low altitude jumps; I get out at about 5,000 feet above the ground and jump out,” Shull said. “I don’t do any free fall. I pull the shoot and all I do is fly my parachute.”
As soon as he leaves the plane, he is already preparing to land.
“If I was a little off, then I correct for the next jump,” he said. “I have to adjust for wind conditions and other factors. I do that as many times as I can. As soon I land, I pack up and go again.”
He usually jumps anywhere from four to eight times on a practice day; sometimes 10. He usually dives with the parachute and aims to generate enough speed to pass through the courses. He has to make sure he is at the right altitude and right time by using digital telemetry that tells him the pressure and altitude.
Though Shull has accumulated more than 2,500 jumps, he had his share of injuries. A couple of years ago in nationals, he broke his ankle.
“Every now and then, you’ll skip off the pond,” he said. “It’s usually just minor injuries. My foot got caught on a ditch on the ground and rolled my ankle. Sometimes you just get complacent.”
But for the love of the competition, Shull continues to swoop.
“He eats, sleeps and breathes this stuff,” said Capt. Dario Plazas, National Reconnaissance Office Operations Squadron. “In fact he does his own modifications on his canopy at night and then flies the mods on the weekends. Matt’s typically a really quiet guy until you get him to talk about jumping, then you can’t shut the guy up.”
Shull encouraged Plazas to get into the sport when they both went to technical school. Plazas did seven jumps and figured it was a good time to stop. However, Shull kept jumping.
“I understand why. It’s beautiful, amazing, adrenaline pumping and at the same time gives you a little bit of perspective as to how precious life is,” Plazas said. “I think it’s great that he’s got a passion in life and that it provides for some really cool stories.”
Shull said he got into competing because he wanted to be the best at canopy piloting and assess his skills compared to others.
So if asked “why jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”
“Because I love this sport,” Shull said.