Adam Elkin

MIT skydivers make history

Nine alumni stage reunion at 13,500 feet.

Dec 19, 2018

If you happened to be in the Chicago area last August 2, you may have seen something surprising in the sky: nine MIT alumni jumping from an airplane, linked together in the shape of a T. It’s not something you see every day. In fact, it was a first: the previous record for the largest all-MIT skydiving formation was four.

The effort was the mastermind of Steven Lefkowitz ’00 and JaNette (Kelly) Lefkowitz ’00. The couple, who met at MIT, have been skydiving for more than a decade, and not just for sport—they have made careers of it. Both are on a competitive skydiving team, competing nationally and internationally. JaNette won the 2016 world championships, and they both placed in the 2018 national championships, winning two gold medals and a silver medal, as well as a medal for top overall competitors.

Their plan to break the MIT skydiving record stemmed from a Facebook conversation in March 2018. With the approach of Skydive Chicago’s Summerfest, the largest skydiving event in the country, JaNette asked a group of MIT alumni in the close-knit skydiving community if they might be interested in a group jump.

Front (l to r): Banks Hunter ’15, Steven Lefkowitz ’00, JaNette (Kelly) Lefkowitz ’00, Rob Radez ’06. Back (l to r): Maggie Reagan ’16, Eric Van Albert ’14, Swati Varshney PhD ’16, Dan Schultz ’07, and Mark Hilstad SM ’02.
Adam Elkin

The feat took some planning. “To skydive outside of a tandem with other people, you need to go through a six-hour course and complete specific skills over a minimum of 25 jumps. In order to pull off the technical challenge of this jump, everyone had to have much more additional skydiving training, and everyone involved had over 100 jumps,” says Steven, who clocked in the most with nearly 12,000 jumps. In addition, he says, every part of the dive must be carefully choreographed.

“We plan who will go in each position and practice on the ground,” says Steven. “We also go to a mock-up of the plane’s door to arrange and talk through our exit process, focusing on how to leave the plane together most efficiently. We talk through strategies for success, including details as minute as where every person should be looking as they join the formation.” He also notes that it’s particularly challenging to continuously adjust fall rate to ensure that all the skydivers are falling at the exact same speed through the sky once they join the formation.

JaNette and Steven were joined by Mark Hilstad, SM ’02, Banks Hunter ’15, Rob Radez ’06, Maggie Reagan ’16, Dan Schultz ’07, Eric Van Albert ’14, and Swati Varshney, PhD ’16. While falling at more than 120 miles per hour, the nine participants successfully joined up in the sky to form a capital letter T—for Tech, of course.

Following that record-breaking jump, Hunter, Steven Lefkowitz, Reagan, Van Albert, and Varshney teamed up for a five-person all-MIT record vertical formation, referring to the orientation of the skydivers’ bodies as they fall through the air. The Lefkowitzes say this is even more challenging than falling belly to earth.

“Believe it or not, I’m not a huge thrill seeker, but there are so many other reasons to love skydiving,” says Steven. “It is an extremely fun sport that challenges the limits of your agility, coordination, speed, and total focus in an awesome weightless environment. Not to mention the view is always beautiful and the skydiving community is full of great people. The fact that I get to do this as my career is a gift for which I’m grateful every day.”