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Sports on the Edge – Jeb Corliss: Sky King

Jeb Corliss: Sky King

BASE jumper takes flight one step further

“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.”

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