The mere thrill of jumping out of a plane wasn't enough for Denver-based skydiver Nick Batsch, who took up the sport of canopy piloting (where the action is closer to the ground) ten years ago. Batsch just won his third United States Parachute Association (USPA) National Skydiving Championships of Canopy Piloting over the weekend at Skydive Spaceland, south of Houston, adding to a trophy pile that also includes his first-ever world championship title at the Canopy Piloting World Cup last month in Czech Republic and a new world distance record set earlier this year in Longmont.
We caught up with him to ask about what kind of cojones it takes to parachute into a canopy pilot course at speeds up to 100 miles per hour, just inches off the ground.
Westword: First things first... Can you explain where the sport of canopy piloting comes from, for Westword readers?
Nick Batsch: People get bored with what they're doing, no matter what it is, so they naturally go to the next extreme, thinking, "What can I do to have more fun and make this more exciting?" Canopy piloting comes from a group of skydivers who were getting bored with the larger, more conventional parachutes, and realized that smaller parachutes create more speed, which creates more lift and allows for more precision control at high speeds. They started to learn to turn to the ground to create more speed, then started to go flying across the ground. When they first started, 30, 40, or 50 feet was a big deal, but eventually as more people got into it and as the technology and new equipment have caught up we've been able to really push it. I recently set a new world distance record of 220 meters, about the length of two and half football fields.
How do you measure it?
In canopy piloting distance competitions we have a 10-meter wide, 1.5-meter gate -- that's 33.3 feet wide and about 5 feet tall -- and on the top of that gate there's a laser. When you go through that entrance that's the start of the course; the distance starts when you fly through the laser beam, and then you fly as far as you can, which can be 8-10 seconds of flight time, before touching the ground.
What does it feel like to be coming in that fast, that close to the ground?
It's a lot of fun but it can also be scary, depending on the wind conditions, because we're coming in at 80-90 miles an hour, sometimes closer to 100 miles per hour, just inches off the ground. It's a very technical sport without a lot of room for error.
Nick Batsch tops the podium at the 2011 USPA National Skydiving Championships of Canopy Piloting at Skydive Spaceland, south of Houston
Photo by Ori Kuper, courtesy J. Walcher Communications
I understand you've had quite a year.
This year's been great. I've spent a long time working hard to progress in this sport, and -- after getting 2nd place in Worlds for the last four years -- this year I ended up getting first, and it was at the largest world championships ever, with 101 competitors. I'm ecstatic: I've won the last five major events I've been in and I'm kind of overwhelmed by it, because usually it's the other guy who's winning all of them. I guess it's my time and it's pretty exciting that it's finally here. I also had great success at Nationals this week, and this is my third time taking the overall win, which nobody in the discipline has ever done before. I got first in Distance, first in Speed, 8th in Accuracy (where you have to land in a 5' x 5' square), and 1st Overall.
In some of these video clips I see people dipping their toes in the water as they come in. What's that all about?
We had our national championships in Texas instead of with the rest of the USPA Nationals events next month in Arizona because a lot of the places holding the big events don't have the facilities or the pond for our event -- we have to have the water there for safety. It can't save your life always -- if it's a steep enough angle, hitting water's as bad as hitting rock -- but a lot of the times it keeps us from having major injuries from a small mistake, especially in a competition when you're pushing the limits so hard trying to win. In the Accuracy event you can also pick up points for touching the water.
I understand you train here in Colorado, mostly at Mile-Hi Skydiving Center in Longmont. How can folks reading this get started in this sport if they want to give it a try?
The starting point is to go out and do a fun introductory skydive, which you can do tandem for about $200 or through an accelerated freefall (AFF) program for a little over $300, and see if you like it. From there you just keep jumping and jumping. I'm 10 years in and I now have over 4,700 skydives. It takes quite a long time to get to a world championship level, just like in any sport, and requires a lot of training, but we have collegiate competitions for all the college kids who are skydiving and a lot of competitions will have both open and advanced classes, where you can compete against people at your skill level. We've been trying to be more competitive and professional, get more people involved, and turn it into more of a sport. I've been fortunate to have some great sponsors -- NZ Aerosports, Mirage Systems, Liquid Sky Sports, Sky Systems -- and a great team named Alter Ego that I train and compete with.
What are your goals, now that you have both national and world championship titles?
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I've even been involved in some efforts to bring skydiving and canopy piloting into the Olympics. It's gotten to be a real competitive sport internationally and the progression over the last ten years has been insane. I'd love to see it in the Olympics. That's the dream.