By Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Barreling to Earth from an airplane thousands of feet up in the air is a feat all its own. Now try landing a parachute a quarter the size of a standard chute at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. Then add in a pond, a course and you have a competition.
Matthew Shull is no stranger to this concept. As a canopy pilot also known as a swooper, the 3rd Space Operations Squadron captain maneuvers high performance parachutes with the goal of flying through a course just inches above the Earth. He then drags his foot across a pond in a controlled manner gaining points in three separate categories: speed, distance and accuracy.
“Flying parachutes will probably never get old to me; the feeling of flying, being out in the open in the wind, above the ground with nothing around you other than some nylon and string,” said Shull.
According to the International Air Sports Federation, canopy piloting comprises tasks aimed at testing a parachutist’s ability to control a canopy and fly accurately.
Recently, Shull received more esteem in the sport as he placed third during the 2nd Annual Sun Path Canopy Piloting Open Oct. 8-12 at Raeford, North Carolina.
“It feels great,” the Vernon, New Jersey, native said. “I’ve never had a podium finish at a major event before this. I have gotten a lot of respect from the skydiving community for doing this well against some of the best pilots in the world.”
More admirable is what Shull has planned for his winnings.
“I will be passing on the $1,000 I earned for this event to the Wounded Warrior Project just because,” he said. “I wasn’t using the money. It’s just to be a good Samaritan. I feel a lot of respect for military members who have have been put in harm’s way. If I can give back, I should. Besides the military’s paying me already.”
Shull’s passion for canopy piloting is apparent to Greg Windmiller, Army Golden Knights Parachute team member.
“Matt is a very impressive canopy pilot,” Windmiller said. “He has dedicated a lot of time and his own funding into competing, which says a lot about his dedication.”
They’ve competed against each other numerous times as well as represented the country during a competition in 2011 in the Czech Republic.
“The men and women in the Air Force should be proud to have him representing their service,” Windmiller said. “He is also without a doubt one of the best ambassadors I have seen from the Armed Forces in years.”
Prior to the competition, Shull attended a smaller New Jersey competition in September to get in some swoop training, a skydiving discipline. He also practiced in Canon City, Colorado, though the differences in altitude and various factors made the training less advantageous. Overall, he conducted less than 20 practice jumps in September before the competition.
“I’ve gotten better at knowing what specific training I need to work on to perform better during the competition,” Shull said.
The officer has been competing for more than seven years in swooping. During those years, Shull has consistently held his own in a sport dominated by sponsored factory teams and professional swoopers who are paid to jump and receive the best and latest equipment. It was only after buying a new prototype high performance parachute that he was able to close the gap.
“I love flying and doing new things with the sport, but swooping is what I’m best at,” Shull said. “I’m not sure how many more competitions I will do. I like the competition environment and pushing myself to do better, I also like the people and the camaraderie that come with being in such an elite sub category.”
As canopy piloting continues to grow with more than 12 events in the United States this year and many more international competitions, Shull will always be passionate about the sport. He is slated to compete in the Florida Canopy Piloting League in February.