Jeb Corliss: Sky King
"I'm not a superhuman, says Jeb Corliss. "Exactly as scared as you would be standing on the edge of a 1000-foot building, that's how scared I am. The difference is, I want to jump off that building. That's my dream. The difference is, my dreams are other people's nightmares, but they're mine. I love them. I live them. Everyone has a gift. It just so happens that mine is dealing with gut wrenching horror."
Corliss, 33, is an agitated, animated Californian who is probably the most famous BASE jumper on earth. After latching onto the idea as a suicidal teenager, half-hoping he wouldn't survive, Corliss' first jump was in 1997. Since then he has hucked himself off of pretty much every major outcropping and edifice on earth (including the Eiffel Tower and Malaysia's Petronas Towers) over some 1200 jumps, including two that went very, very wrong. In 1999, he was blown into an African waterfall, broke several ribs and his back in three places and spent a month prone in a hospital bed. In 2003, his friend and fellow jumper Dwain Weston died in front of his eyes while the two were attempting to become the first duo to fly simultaneously over and under the world's highest suspension bridge in Colorado. Weston crashed into the bridge and was killed instantly.
The two men were wearing wing-suits, an evolution of BASE jumping that now preoccupies most of the sport's top athletes, Corliss included. It is also a critical element of his current goal: to become the first person to leap from a plane and land without a parachute.
"To really do something we've never done before is getting almost impossible," Corliss says. "To land something at basically terminal velocity and walk away? That's human achievement. It's every bit as important as climbing Everest the first time, but you can do it on the ground, in Vegas, with 500,000 spectators there watching it live."
The attempt is currently stalled due to fund-raising hurdles; Corliss needs to drum up $3 million to pay for the contraption he's dreamed up to facilitate the landing, which will be built by some former NASA engineers and is most often imagined as a sort of slide built at an angle that he will match as he flies in, then impact and use good old friction to slow him down. (Corliss is keeping the actual design secret for now.)
In the meantime, he's brushing up on his wing-suit flying, since a critical element of the feat is his ability to control the descent precisely. To practice, he's been over in Europe "proximity flying." Basically, proximity flyers leap from cliffs until they reach terminal velocity, which causes the wings to inflate and turn the wingsuit-wearer into an human airfoil. At this point, flyers began to soar — yes, like birds — at 150 miles-per-hour while just feet above cliffs, boulders, forests, whatever.
Only a handful of humans are good (or crazy) enough to do it. And Robert Pecnik, owner of Phoenix-Fly, the company that makes the suits favored by Corliss and others, says few are better at it than Hans Lange, a 44-year-old Norwegian who achieved brief American fame (and a Today Show spot) last year when a jump went bad after his chute misfired and he plunged into a tree and broke his leg — all while filming himself nearly dying with a helmet cam.
Lange says the appeal of proxi flying, and of the wingsuit, "boils down to the primal dream of flying" and "broadens the menu" of what he and his BASE jumping buddies can do. "It has shifted the focus from a kind of macho test of your guts — do you dare to jump or not? — to a more technical thing where the flight is the essential part."
No one would argue that the sport isn't dangerous — at least 17 jumpers have been killed since the sport, um, took off in the late 1990s — but Holmefjord and Corliss both speak of the meticulous preparation that goes into a jump. "I rarely meet people who are as anal about risk analysis as BASE jumpers," says Holmefjord.
James Boole, who works with Pecnik at Phoenix-Fly, says that there's been little study of the statistical risk in wing-suit flying, but that at one popular site in Norway there is approximately 1 fatality for every 2000 jumps. "The stats do show that jumping a wing-suit is more dangerous than normal BASE," he says.
"If I don't feel absolutely confident about surviving a jump, I don't do it," says Lange. "Yet I have experienced situations where the margins turned out to be smaller than I had intended."
Corliss knows exactly what he means. He was proximity flying the Matterhorn for the first time just this spring, trying to buzz the famous mountain as closely as possible when he got a little too close — probably "three feet" from the rock, he guesses.
"There was a split second where I pretty much thought, 'That's it. I'm gonna hit the cliff.' I tensed up and got ready to impact and — phew, I made it." Here, he exhales. "It was so scary, dude. I hadn't scared myself that bad in a long time."