On September 8, 2006, Jay Stokes was the passenger of an airplane, but he was not seated in comfort. Instead, he was held next to the open door by a volunteer, breathing fumes as the aircraft steeply rose to 2100 feet. Then, equipped with a special skydiving rig designed for speed, he jumped.
Jay Stokes accomplished this trip 640 times that day when he broke the world record for most jumps in a day for his fifth time. Stokes began a grueling physical regimen of bicycling and weight training long before the jump, but he said honing his mental determination was most vital to breaking the record.
“You can be in decent shape or good shape, but you have to be mentally in great shape, and that’s really what gets you through,” Stokes said. “Anybody can stay awake for 24 hours, and there’s only a certain amount of exercise when you’re there, so the fact of the matter is you really just need the right mental attitude and a decent amount of physical fitness.”
His first record-breaking jumps in 1995 were the beginning steps to gaining the confidence and mental concentration he needed to almost double his record 11 years later from 331 to 640.
“What helps me is that I’ve already done it a couple of times, so I know what’s going to happen and when it happens,” Stokes said. “The first time I did it, I had a little bit of an anxiety attack, you know, ‘why am I here, what am I doing,’ but because I knew what had happened and why, I was able to not worry about that, and I was able to move through that without any anxiety or anguish.”
Stokes takes a genuine interest in people and has a friendly manner about him that earns him many friends as he teaches and works alongside others in the skydiving industry. These allies became part of a volunteer force of 125 people that was instrumental in breaking the world record as well.
“Some of it’s because I’ve always had my goal whenever I’m working with people on a coach rating or instructional rating to try and establish a relationship with them,” Stokes said. “In other words, I want to be your friend. It works out really good, but I don’t take it for granted either. They know I would be there to help them any way, shape or form that I could if they needed me to be.”
With their help, Stokes was able to complete a jump every two minutes and 15 seconds that day in September. Stokes used quick ejector hardware that permitted him to loosen his chest strap swiftly as he spiraled down through the air, then two volunteers grabbed his harness as he landed, allowing him to spend only eight seconds on the ground equipping new gear.
“It is quick, but again you have all these people who are helping you,” Stokes said. “They’re making it happen. I do joke around a bit about having the easiest job getting out of airplanes. The other people are making it work, though. Say the two people who are grabbing the harness as I’m coming out of it, they’re the ones that allow me to take eight seconds on the ground, get another rig on and go.”
Stokes began his skydiving career in Fort Brag, NC soon after he joined the Army, though at first Stokes said he didn’t realize jumping would play such a large role in his life.
“I never thought that way at all when I was a young man,” Stokes said. “It’s really weird. Got to Fort Bragg and started skydiving there and it just became a bigger and bigger thing for me. I went to jump school the same year I came out of high school and never really looked back.”
The first time Stokes broke the world record was nearly 21 years later as a Green Beret teaching safety at the Military Freefall School. He was again stationed at Fort Bragg, but would soon move with the school to Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
“I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and I talked to the drop zone owner who had been an old military guy too,” Stokes said. “I said, ‘do you think we can break it,” and he says, ‘yeah of course we could.’ With his ideas and with a little bit of sponsorship, we ended up doing 331 jumps in 24 hours.”
That record was broken late that year by Cheryl Stearns, who still holds the women’s record for most jumps in a 24-hour period. After that, Stokes broke the record twice more, once in 1997 with 384 jumps and once in 1999 with 476.
“I really thought 500 was doable, and a guy out in Texas actually broke the record,” Stokes said. “He did 500, and I said, ‘Well, I can’t let that go.’ It’s kind of an ego thing in that respect, but then we say, ‘What charities do we want to donate money to,’ cause that’s what’s going to happen, we’re going to donate money to charity.”
With the help of 120 volunteers, Stokes broke the record again in 2003 with 534 jumps. Although it was a massive achievement, Stokes was still ambitious and passionate about his sport and wished to continue breaking the records he had set.
“The reason we did it is because, I don’t know how else to put it, I get bored, and I challenge myself to do other things,” Stokes said. “It’s just kind of a weird thing with me. I want to do better, you know, be better, whatever you want to call it, so the goal was to do 600 jumps.”
Stokes surpassed his goal and hit 640 jumps instead, which remains the record to this day. Stokes made one more attempt in 2014, but was shut down due to the weather.
Although the record attempt was unsuccessful, many pledges and donations were still contributed to charity. Stokes said he donated the money from 2006 to two of his favorite charities, the Special Olympics and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
“I’ve got a son that competed in the Special Olympics since he was about five years old,” Stokes said. “He has cerebral palsy, so he competes. That’s one of my favorite charities of all time. The other one was the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. They take care of surviving family members of like the Navy SEAL who just died in Syria. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation establishes a little bit of support for them, giving them fiscal support a bit more than the military does.”
When he is not jumping out of airplanes and breaking world records, Stokes operates in his capacity as President of the United States Parachute Association, which controls skydiving safety regulations and now has more than 38,000 members.
He is also the chief trainer at Certification Unlimited and is subcontracted by Tactical Air Support to train Navy members in static line and military freefall, which Stokes said is more involved.
“In the military, ultimately we’re trying to get them to a point where they jump with combat equipment, oxygen, high altitude, so they’re going in for a military mission environment, where in skydiving we’re just jumping out of planes and having fun,” Stokes said.
Stokes has done 24,500 jumps so far and still averages approximately 800 jumps per year, and he hopes to continue skydiving even into his eighties.
He said part of his love for skydiving comes from working with people and empowering them to learn and grow, but nothing can beat the excitement of the jump.
“I don’t care who you are or how many jumps you got, if you’re not feeling something coming out of an airplane, then you’re dead,” Stokes said. “It’s the excitement, the adrenaline and all the stuff that goes with it that makes it, in my opinion, the most fun that I can have out of everything else I do. It’s not work. I found a job that I really love, so I’ve never worked a day in my life.”