572 skydivers smash record

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The Independent Online

A team of 572 skydivers, including the Pentagon's top general, today set a new world mass freefall record.

A team of 572 skydivers, including the Pentagon's top general, today set a new world mass freefall record.

Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was one of the record-breakers, jumping with a dozen VIP parachutists in Thailand in the second wave and landing on target in the Royal Fields, a clearing about the size of three football fields in the heart of Bangkok.

"It's great seeing Gen. Shelton do a nice, standup landing," said B.J. Worth, chief organizer of the Royal Sky Celebration-World Team '99 event. "He's a very good skydiver and is well within his qualifications to be landing here."

Worth, a three-time world champion and veteran stuntman of seven James Bond films, confirmed that Shelton was being counted among the 572 skydivers from 39 nations whose record would enter the books.

The event is among the most dramatic marking the birthday of Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, who turns 72 on Sunday, an auspicious year in the Buddhist tradition.

Several thousand people ringing the Royal Fields applauded as the skydivers, each trailing a three-meter (10-foot) ribbon in the royal color, yellow, touched down.

"It is a special day to be here in Thailand, needless to say," an exhilarated Shelton said, "and to be asked to join in this Guinness Book of World Records awas quickly surrounded by security people and hustled off the Royal Fields after coming down near the purple smoke flare marking the drop zone.

There had been fears the jump could turn to tragedy. The area is filled with palace and temple spires, telephone lines, trees and streets choked with the world-notorious traffic jams.

But only one skydiver was known to have been pushed off course in the light breeze, coming down in a street market a half-kilometer (quarter-mile) from the drop zone. A few landed on the edge of the Royal Fields. Officials reported no injuries.

Dozens of ambulances were on standby and four rescue boats patrolled the heavily polluted Chao Phraya river, running 150 meters (yards) from the Royal Fields, to aid any skydiver who ended up in trouble.

The biggest danger was of canopy collisions, or parachutes running into each other. The skydivers were dropped in intervals to minimize the risk. Worth described the jump conditions as "perfect."

In the end, their experience told. Each skydiver has an average of 4,000 jumps each and most represent their 39 countries in international competitions. About a quarter were women. The majority were Americans, French, British and Thai.

The jump from 7,200 feet (2,180 meters) broke the old record of 515 skydivers in a mass freefall set in 1989.

From December 12-14, 324 of the skydivers will attempt a more difficult task - to surpass the record for a freefall formation of 297 jumpers set by World Team '96 in Anapa, Russia, and come together in a vast, scythe-shaped formation for the minimum five seconds over a Thai air base at Ubon Ratchathani.

Shelton leaves Thailand later Thursday after reviewing a ceremonial parade with the king and will not participate.

Worth, 48, of Whitefish, Montana, organized the skydive that former President George Bush made at the age of 75 in 1997, his first time in a parachute since he being shot down as a Navy pilot in World War II. Shelton took part in that jump.