Fear junkie pushes the limits
Up in the sky: a black dot, like a speck of pepper on a white tablecloth, hurtling through the air. I was plummeting at more than 150 km/h myself, the jet roar of wind blasting by, but the speck was closing in on me like a missile. I yanked the ripcord of my parachute and then watched as the object became a human body with wings. The body had a man’s face, and as he streaked by, not even 10 metres away, I could practically see the tonsils inside his screaming mouth: ! The tawny grasslands of southern California rushed upward to pancake him. Then, and only seconds before impact, did his canopy blossom above him.
On the ground, dozens of parachutists were milling about the hangars of the Perris Valley Skydiving Centre. The birdman, renowned BASE jumper Jeb Corliss, was easy to spot: tall, with a shaved head, he was dressed like a flying squirrel. A heartfelt “Dude!” was all I could initially manage. My tandem jump partner, Jim Wallace – a world-record-holding sky diver himself – was only slightly more composed. “I can’t believe how much control you had,” he said. Corliss just shrugged. “I told you I was going to fly close,” he said.
Among BASE jumpers – people who leap from buildings, antennas, spans and earth – Corliss is both the reigning superhero and the leading villain. Superhero because he has logged more than 1 000 jumps on five continents, launching from the Matterhorn and the Golden Gate Bridge and dropping 600 metres into a sinkhole cave in China. And villain because Corliss, the former host of the television show Stunt Junkies, unfailingly attracts attention – most notoriously in 2006 when he was arrested for trying to leap from the Empire State Building. In a sport whose practitioners prefer to keep a low profile because the safety of what they do is always under fire, attracting the media spotlight is an unpardonable sin.
Corliss says attention is unavoidable for someone whose “whole purpose in this world is to do what people think can’t be done”. More accurately: things that people think shouldn’t be done because they are absurd and dangerous. “The average person looks at skydivers like they’re crazy,” Corliss says. “The average skydiver looks at BASE jumpers like they’re crazy. And the average BASE jumper looks at me like I’m crazy.”
Which brings us to the morning flyby, and Corliss’s vision for his most audacious feat ever. The flying squirrel get-up was a wingsuit, a wearable plane whose wings are nylon panels fanning out below the arms and between the legs.
The pilot, rather than simply plummeting, can steer and achieve a glide ratio of up to 3 metres forward for every 1 metre down. Wingsuits are used by a tiny but growing cadre of pilots worldwide. (Back in June 2004, PoPular Mechanics reported on South African wingsuiters).
To land, wingsuiters always deploy a parachute. Corliss’s immodest proposal: skip the parachute. Cut the umbilical and achieve one of mankind’s most ancient and enticing dreams – unpowered human flight, no external contraption required.
He calls it the Wingsuit Landing Project. Fly, land and live to tell the tale. Doing so will require a vertically inclined landing strip – picture how Olympic ski jumpers touch down on mountainsides – and to build it, he has consulted with an engineering firm that does work for Nasa. The budget is $3 million (about R23 million), which Corliss hopes to raise from corporations willing to sponsor the feat. Or the fiasco. “I’m going to be landing at 100 miles per hour on my face,” Corliss says. It’s truly terrifying, but that’s just how he likes it. “Some people are gifted singers, dancers, whatever. My gift is fear.”
A month before our near mid-air collision, the door to a two-storey townhouse just a few blocks from the ocean in California’s Venice Beach opened to reveal a figure clad in head-to-toe black. Corliss led me into a darkened living room and seated me on one of two black couches. Plates decorated with skulls sat on a nearby counter. In the corner stood a tall crystal statue of Icarus, the flying legend who fatally plummeted. Inspiration? Warning?
Corliss has been a fear junkie virtually since birth. Gigi Corliss, Jeb’s mother, says that when her son was “still wearing a diaper and sucking his thumb” he used to point up at the high dive at a local pool. She let a swim instructor take Jeb up to the top on the theory that the toddler would become scared, want to come down and stop begging to go up. Instead, Gigi says, Jeb “wiggled out of his arms, squealed, ‘Wee, wee, wee!’ all the way down, doggy-paddled back to the side of the pool and said, ‘Again.’”
Aquatic frolics notwithstanding, Corliss was a miserable child. His parents were art dealers, and the family spent much of each year scouring countries such as India and Afghanistan for works to buy. When they weren’t overseas, they lived in New Mexico, where Corliss attended six different elementary schools. Always the new kid, ostracised and bullied, he discovered that to harness fear – your own, that of others – was to gain power. He brought tarantulas, scorpions and rattlesnakes home as pets. He started battling the bullies so savagely that some of them wound up in the hospital. His depression worsened.
BASE jumping would seem an unlikely saviour, but it gave Corliss purpose and happiness. He discovered the sport in his early 20s, and when he had logged only six relatively easy leaps, Corliss got the idea to try an advanced one from a 100-metre antenna. BASE jumping is perilous because the margin of error is slim. Open the chute a half-second too late – splat, you’re dead. Open it with your body off-angle, and you might career into the object you’ve just jumped from – splat. When Corliss told his BASE mentors about the antenna, they told him he wasn’t ready. His mom begged him not to try. His friends said they didn’t want to watch him commit suicide. So Corliss climbed to the top of the antenna by himself. At night. Standing there in the moonlight he even told himself, “I am not going to do this.” And then he jumped.
The chute opened horrifyingly late. He smacked the ground, hard. But he realised he was still alive. “I’m lying on the ground, my entire body is shaking, every hair is standing on end,” Corliss recalls. “I can feel the air touching my skin, hear insects crawling in the grass.” Bruised but otherwise unhurt, Corliss felt born again and had the template for his career: confront fear, ignore all doubters, and do exactly what you want to do.
As you might expect, this uncompromising approach has resulted in both triumph and disaster. Typical Corliss tale: not long after the antenna escapade, Corliss and a French BASE jumper named François were eating dinner in Italy and got the idea of jumping off Angel Falls. They paid the bill, drove to Paris and boarded a plane to Venezuela. Less than 36 hours later they were squeezed into a Cessna on a flight-seeing trip over the famous cascade. Corliss reached forward into the cockpit and waved $100 in front of the pilot, whose eyes grew large. Corliss opened the plane door, shouted “See ya!” and he and François jumped out.
They had sneaked their BASE rigs aboard. After landing near the falls, they repacked their chutes and successfully took the plunge off the top of the 975-metre cataract. Then they spent the next two days blundering through the rain forest. They had no food. It rained torrentially, and the pair took shelter in caves with gooey, multicoloured insects until they reached civilisation.
You would think that kind of misadventure would cause Corliss to rethink his career choice. But he never has. “BASE jumping for me was kind of like an exorcism,” he says. “It was horrifying, but I had to go through it to come out on the other side a happy person.”
This begins to make sense if you discard the conventional wisdom that all practitioners of extreme sports must have sensation-seeking personality disorders – that they’re addicted to the flood of pleasure-inducing hormones and neurochemicals released by death-cheating stunts. Corliss claims that the terror before a jump and the elation afterward were appealing only early in his career and are now his least favourite part. He doesn’t like intoxication, abhors drugs and alcohol. “I’m very control-based,” Corliss says. “And with those things you lose control and become a slave.”
Corliss, it seems, is less of an adrenaline junkie than he is a control freak. Precision is the essence of his work. To succeed he must be obsessive about every minute detail – chute packing, weather conditions, body position – and Corliss relishes meticulous planning. Perhaps, and this is just armchair psychology, it is a coping mechanism from his chaotic childhood. Say what you want about the sanity of Corliss’s pursuits, they do offer the ultimate form of control – that over one’s own life or death. Or at least the illusion.
Precision flying is the key to the Wingsuit Landing Project. Mont Hubbard, a professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the University of California at Davis, confirms that if Corliss’s flight angle matches that of the landing slope, and friction is kept to a minimum, the impact force on touchdown will be almost nil. If he is 6 degrees off – hitting the 45-degree ramp at 51 degrees – the force on his body would be the same as if he had been dropped from a metre in the air on to fl at ground. So far, so good. But the maths quickly starts to work against Corliss, and misalignments of 11, 16 and 23 degrees result in equivalent fall heights of roughly 4, 10 and 15 metres.
People have survived far worse, plummeting chuteless from planes in emergencies and living to tell the tale. In 2007 window washer Alcides Moreno plunged from the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper and lived. But Dr Christopher Kepler notes in his grimly entrancing paper “Orthopaedic Injuries Associated With Fall From Floor Forty-Seven” that cases such as the window washer’s are very much the exception. Falls from even four or five storeys (about 12 to 15 metres) are fatal half the time, and survival rates drop rapidly when you plunge from anything higher than that.
Considering the risk of injury upon landing – to say nothing about what would happen if Corliss went into a 150-km/h tumble on the landing strip – the experts assessing Corliss’s plans are sceptical. “Theoretically, if he got everything just right and his flight path was perfect and there was no wind, he could do it, but the probability is low,” says Albert I King, chairman of the biomedical engineering department at Wayne State University, which studies human survivability in car
crashes. “I say, don’t do it.” Former Hollywood stuntman turned aerospace technologist Roy Haggard has consulted with Corliss on the landing ramp’s design, and even he has concerns. Corliss plans to use a sequence of weather-type balloons to provide visual cues to the top of the landing ramp (see previous page), but Haggard questions whether the balloons would be stable enough to provide precision guidance. “That’s like trying to shoot a sniper rifle using balloons for sights,” he says.
To be fair, most of Corliss’s BASE jumping exploits – double backflip through the centre of the Eiffel Tower, anyone? – would never have been greenlit by the risk-assessment crowd. The real Achilles’ heel of the Wingsuit Landing Project, arguably, is not safety but cost. Haggard says the landing ramp could be easily engineered and built; the problem is that it would cost at least R20 million, quite possibly a prohibitive amount to raise even from reality-television producers eager to broadcast the spectacle.
The most obvious alternative would be to simply build a landing strip on a suitably steep mountainside – or skip the strip altogether and land on snow. Corliss, however, says it would be difficult to ensure that the landing surface would be uniformly smooth as needed for safety; worse, he would have no option to bail out and deploy the chute if his approach was off. Only a ramp would give him complete control.
But other would-be record breakers have cooked up different methods that might enable them to land without a chute. A wingsuit manufacturer in South Africa is developing a design that would allow a chuteless pilot to land on his feet, no landing strip required. Jii-Wings’ Integrated Glide And Landing System (IGALS) calls for a larger than normal wingsuit, capable of a 4:1 glide ratio that the pilot can drop below just before landing, a position that allows him to execute an aeronautical manoeuvre known as a flare, lifting upward and shedding speed dramatically just before reaching the ground. “I think for one to say one has landed a wingsuit without a parachute, it should be the design of the suit, and not the environment in which one lands, that enables the landing,” designer Maria von Egidy says.
The IGALS approach, though, has not yet been tested with people jumping from planes. Even if it proves viable, Corliss sees it as a variation on something that has already been done, namely, landing in a hang-glider. Being original (or “forcing evolution”, as he describes it) is vital to Corliss. “What makes human beings so special is that we don’t evolve through morphing our bodies, we evolve through our minds,” Corliss says. “We create technologies that allow us to do things like breathe underwater, fly in the sky and land on the ground.”
A couple of days after my first visit, I stopped by Corliss’s house again, just as he was returning from the first meeting with his parole officer. At the time of the attempted leap from the Empire State Building, BASE jumping wasn’t illegal in New York City, so the only charge prosecutors could get to stick was a conviction for misdemeanour reckless endangerment – for struggling with the security guards who tried to stop him. He was sentenced in January 2009 to three years’ probation and 100 hours of community service (which he has finished).
Fear and physical agony never clipped the birdman’s wings, but the legal system just might. Since BASE jumping is strongly discouraged in the US, international travel is essential. But the probation officer told Corliss he would need to get a letter from the judge okaying any travel.
Corliss was upbeat, though. He was sure the judge would give him the green light to continue earning his livelihood through projects such as the wingsuit landing or a television programme about swimming with predators. “I’ve been diving with sharks for 16 years,” Corliss says. “Name a big, nasty species that everyone’s petrified of, and I’ve played with them. I’ve tickled them. I’ve hugged them.”
Corliss’s speech is as over-the-top as his stunts; taking his statements at face value can be difficult. He must have read the scepticism on my face because he fiddled with his iPhone for a minute and then shoved it at me. “Here, look, this is me petting a 4-metre great white shark.”
The picture on the screen showed exactly what he said it did.
I sighed and said the only thing one could. “Dude, you’re nuts.”
He smiled enigmatically. “Am I?” The day before had been his birthday; for him, more than almost anyone else, reaching it was a noteworthy achievement. He was 33.
Testing the limits of flight is an age-old human urge. Here are five fearless pilots with superlative achievements in air adventure. By Jeremy Repanich
1 Longest powered paraglide
May 15, 2009, to September 5, 2009
Dangling from a parachute with a 202 cm3 engine and a carbon-fibre propeller on his back, Ben Jordan glided more than 10 000 kilometres across Canada at 40 to 50 km/h, stopping every few hours to refuel. On his 114-day journey from the Pacific Coast to Newfoundland, he travelled over vast expanses of uninhabited land that most paragliders wouldn’t attempt to cross. “There’s a reason no one has ever done this,” he says. “You don’t want to fl y this thing 60 kilometres from civilisation.”
2 Highest building BASE jump
January 6, 2010
Though Omar Alhegelan has skydived more than 16 000 times and BASE-jumped from places such as Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, fear still courses through him before every jump – and Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, was no exception. As he stood on the precipice, 670 metres above the ground, “I felt a little shake in my knees,” he says. “But I welcome that fear.” To those watching, Alhegelan’s fear was unapparent: he gracefully backflipped off the tower, plummeted for 10 seconds and deployed his chute, gently floating to the ground.
3 First jet pack crossing of the English Channel
September 26, 2008
People have traversed the channel by boat, plane, Chunnel and backstroke, but Yves Rossy chose a less obvious method: jet pack. Rossy jumped from a plane over the coast of France and unfolded a 2,4-metre carbon-fibre wing strapped to his back; four jets on the wing thrust him to England, where he used a parachute to land.
4 Highest skydive
August 16, 1960
On the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, in a helium balloon and a pressure suit, Joe Kittinger readied himself. “I said a little prayer,” he says. “Then I jumped.” He plummeted at 988 km/h, five times the speed of a skydiver. He set records for the highest skydive (31 333 metres) and the longest free fall (4 minutes 36 seconds).
5 Longest hang-glide
June 19, 2002
To fly his hangglider 705 kilometres over Texas, Mike Barber needed skill, endurance – and good weather. “Thermal paragliders are solar-powered,” he says. “The sun heats the ground, which creates thermals.” Barber used the warm pockets of air so effectively that once he was able to stay aloft for 11 hours without stopping.
How it works: The ultimate face-plant
Anyone can fly like a bird and land without a parachute – once. But Jeb Corliss has no desire to become a human pancake. “A wingsuit landing is successful only if you can do it 10 times out of 10 without being injured,” Corliss says. “I’m talking no broken toes, no broken anything.” Corliss is guarded about his plan – he doesn’t want rivals to steal his ideas – but he has let some details slip. Here’s an educated guess at how he might pull off the stunt.
A construction team builds Corliss’s R22-million, 600-metre landing ramp, which is temporarily attached to the side of a still-to-be-determined Las Vegas structure. The ramp may be made of tensile fabric like the roof of the Denver International Airport; cables anchor the ramp and keep its surface taut.
Corliss jumps from a helicopter high over the Las Vegas Strip. His customised wingsuit has lightweight, ripstop nylon panels from the undersides of his arms to his torso and between his legs. Air inlets on the wing’s leading edge allow it to inflate and stay rigidly pressurised for flight. Glide ratios of 3 metres forward for every metre down are possible, but Corliss flies 1 to 1, which enables him to pull up and change his angle of approach.
Stay on target
Hitting the ramp wrong would be like crashing a car into a barrier without a seatbelt or airbags. Corliss aims for a tiny approach window that’s about 6 metres square at the top of the landing strip, so flight path accuracy is critical. His “trajectory control system” could include using tethered weather balloons at progressively lower altitudes as visual aids, allowing him to precisely tweak direction and angle.
If Corliss’s approach is at all off, he veers away from the line of balloons and deploys his chute. Two hundred metres above the ground is scarily low for the average skydiver to pull the ripcord, but no problem for an experienced BASE jumper like Corliss, who has deployed his chute at a third of that height.
Or land lightly
Corliss aims to land like an Olympic ski jumper, matching the angle of the slope as closely as possible. But while ski jumpers fly at about 100 km/h, Corliss is going 50 per cent faster, and he’ll land on his rib cage, not his legs. The ramp’s fabric can absorb some of the impact and friction, but it can’t be too forgiving or Corliss will bounce off. To survive unharmed, Corliss touches down on the 45-degree landing ramp with a flight angle no steeper than about 50 degrees.
Put on the brakes
He isn’t home free yet. Lacking wheeled landing gear, Corliss slides down the ramp, which may have a lubricated surface to facilitate glide. One expert recommended a suit with ceramic tiles to dissipate friction-generated heat. Approaching the ground, the decline of the ramp eases off, as does Corliss’s speed. At the bottom of the ramp he stands up and walks away.
* Video: Jeb Corliss BASE jumping the Matterhorn in Switzerland within three metres of the jagged cliff-face