While millions of Americans were shopping, traveling or recovering from Thanksgiving dinner on Black Friday last year, a team of nearly 100 women took to the Arizona sky, jumped out of five airplanes – falling at 160 miles per hour for just 80 seconds – and attempted to set a vertical skydiving world record.
Dubbed Project 19 – to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote – the skydivers first hit their mark when they achieved a 72-way formation, breaking their previous record of 65 in 2016. Then they shattered that record with a successful 80-way jump on the same day, before attempting a 97-way formation.
The team came from 22 countries, with an average of 10 years each in the sport and a total of 150,000 jumps, according to organizer Melanie Curtis who serves as executive director of the Women’s Skydiving Network (WSN), which sponsored Project 19.
“Some women on the record perform Hollywood stunts, train the U.S. military on parachuting and are world-champion athletes," she said. "There is an ER nurse, architect, AI engineer, mortgage banker and neuroscience professor among us.”
And still, with all of that, Curtis said that Project 19 was one of “the most challenging endeavors of our lives.” A veteran coach with 12,000 jumps and 26 years skydiving, she recently spoke with Know Your Value about the motivation behind the massive undertaking. She hopes the team will inspire the next generation of girls to live courageously and show the world that when women come together, incredible feats can be accomplished.
Know Your Value: Tell us about the inspiration behind this momentous event.
Curtis: The most important aspect of Project 19 wasn’t just to build a new skydiving world record but to achieve a greater mission of supporting and celebrating women’s rights around the globe.
Fully sponsored by the Women’s Skydiving Network (WSN) foundation, the original inspiration behind Project 19 was to build a 100-way vertical (head-down), all-woman formation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
While it’s a huge milestone in women’s rights, we also can’t deny its complex history. In language, the 19th Amendment secured the right to vote for all women, but in reality, it only secured it for white women. Voters of color were still gratuitously excluded, struggling to access their constitutional right to vote. We still see these efforts to keep people from the polls today and cannot take any progress for granted.
The pandemic put our mission on hold in 2020. We reconvened in November 2022 and beat the all-women 65-way world record set in 2016 with records of 72 and then 80, both accomplished on Nov. 25, 2022.
Know Your Value: Describe the skills required for this jump. What was at stake?
Curtis: To achieve the record formation, we had to strategically fly to predetermined slots and hold hands – falling at 160 miles per hour for only 80 seconds – in a head-to-earth orientation with critical balance and skill.
We each trained for years independently and at various skills camps, including the world’s largest wind tunnel at CLYMB Abu Dhabi.
What was at stake? A once-in-a-lifetime experience in service to something so much greater with the undeniable possibility to make a huge difference in so many lives. What’s even more incredible? WE DID IT. The ripples of impact are already entirely evident, with so much more to come.
Know Your Value: In the last moments before the record-setting jump, how did you prepare mentally and emotionally?
Curtis: In the time leading up to any record attempt, it is an exercise to manage your fear and calm the nervous energy trying to fill your mind and muscles. This is actually a key part of training for world records. The mental and emotional skills are equally as critical as the physical skills required to enter an environment like vertical big-way skydiving.
Over the years, I have learned how to breathe, visualize, manage my mindset, interrupt negative thoughts and fears before they spiral, and replace negative thoughts with honest, positive ones. We need to practice how to shift away from these fears in order to reach a flow state.
Exiting an aircraft at 19,000 feet with 100 other people in the sky coming together at high rates of speed is no joke. It is essential to build the skills to be able to perform under this pressure.
Now at that moment right before the exit, I felt calm. I felt focused and clear. I felt ready. I trusted the skills I’ve earned over decades and thousands of jumps to kick in when I hit the wind. They did. Every time.
What I think is most inspiring about that, though, is that it is all available to anyone who wants to do the work to get there. When Project 19 was announced in 2019, some of my teammates couldn’t even fly head-down yet. They took inspiration from our shared mission and they used it to fuel their drive to get here. They are world-record holders now.
Know Your Value: Women often struggle with the fear of failure. How has skydiving helped you overcome this?
Curtis: When I first jumped out of an airplane at 18 years old, I had no idea about the impact that one decision would have on my entire life. Even though skydiving and aviation are in my family, before you’ve jumped out of an airplane, it is completely normal to think you can’t do it.
When I landed from my first jump, my psyche was fundamentally altered. It wasn’t this fluffy, overly positive “I can do anything” feeling. It was this deep understanding that when fear is telling me I can’t do something, I have to at least question whether or not it’s true because, so often, it’s wrong.
Being willing to question fear – and being willing to take action despite feeling it – is why I am a new record holder with our Project 19 team. Having experiences that disprove our fear helps us build confidence and competence. So lean in. Do the things you want to do. Breathe and take it one simple step at a time.
Know Your Value: What do you want others to learn from this accomplishment?
Curtis: Our ultimate goal is to inspire women and girls to live bold, brave lives of their own design in skydiving and beyond. We want women and girls to see us achieving our dreams and use it as fuel to go after theirs. We want our record to be felt as resistance against any effort to limit the rights of women. We’re going to show up. We’re going to speak up. We’re going to take up space. We’re going to vote. We invite every woman out there to join us.
Know Your Value: How do you see women evolving and leading the future of extreme sports?
Curtis: Lack of representation and equality impact nearly every aspect of women’s lives, and the sport of skydiving is no exception. Currently, 14 percent of skydivers are female, according to the United States Parachute Association (USPA). One of the main goals of the WSN is to increase the representation of women in skydiving, and so far, we’re trending in the right direction.
We undeniably made history and changed the course of our sport with this world record. The owner of Skydive Arizona, one of the premier drop zones in the world where Project 19 was held, and longtime leader in our sport, told us: “Project 19 was the greatest skydiving event I have ever seen in my entire life. What the team did here has taken our sport to its new evolution.”
Given that skydiving is such a heavily male-dominated space, allyship and support from men matters. When we’re talking about making skydiving accessible and socially safe for women, we also need men to help shift the culture with us. We see progress here too, which is super encouraging.
As for another women’s vertical world record … it’s percolating! In no way does it feel like Project 19 is over. It feels like we are just beginning. So much more is being born right now. Our minds are more open than they ever have been because of what we just did. Now is the time to imagine … what else can we do?