Just five months ago, wingsuit pilot Jeb Corliss thought he was moments away from death after crashing into South Africa’s Table Mountain at 120 miles per hour. Five months from now, the 36-year-old American will join 15 other athletes in the World Wingsuit League's first event. They will jump off a cliff, navigate turns as they drop 2,700 feet over roughly three quarters of a mile at speeds topping 100 miles per hour, check their custom-designed Recon goggles for elevation change and speed, and tweak the pitch and yaw of their squirrel-suited bodies in an attempt to finish with the fastest time.
“Imagine Formula One in the sky,” says Corliss. “Instead of a flat two-dimensional race amongst cars, you now have a three-dimensional race happening between cliff faces and walls, and the finish line is a cable car.”
Red Bull China will sponsor the mid-October event. It will take place near the city of Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, China, and be broadcast live online. We caught up with Corliss by phone, a day after his latest doctor’s visit in California, to find out more. —As told to Joe Spring
On the Race Format:
It is going to be the 16 best wingsuit pilots from all over the world. This isn’t just a race about speed, although in the end it will come to who goes the fastest. It’s not just that, because of turns. It’s about who can go the fastest and be the most precise. If you make a turn wide, you just lost a lot of time. There is so much strategy involved. We’re not jumping out of helicopters. We have a platform built for people. It’s going to be time trial, because it’s way too dangerous to have pilots next to each other—and it's not fair. We don’t want two people fighting for an inside slot and then making contact and then crashing. You crash here and you’re dead. For us, safety is the top priority, so a lot of the rules are set up so that pilots make good decisions above bad ones. If they get too close to something, they get disqualified. If they cross certain lines, they get disqualified. If they fly bad lines, they get disqualified. If they fly over the cable car, they get disqualified.
These are the fastest human beings without an engine. It’s dangerous enough by nature. You have these guys racing against each other at 200 kilometers an hour [124 mph] without anything but gravity. Each pilot will take about 30 to 40 seconds to navigate the course. It’s going to be a three-day race with eliminations. We’ll start with 16 pilots on the first day. The second day will be 10 pilots. The final day will be six pilots. The actual live event will be among the six fastest athletes. It will come down to the final three and the prize money will be significant. [The amount] is still being discussed, but it will be significant. It will be the first time these athletes will be able to earn money from something like this.
Competitions create innovation. Cars are where they are because of the races. Formula 1 has pushed driving to the next level. Surfing started out as kind of a soul sport where you went out and did it for yourself and everyone loved it. Eventually it became a sport where athletes could actually earn a living doing what they love. All of a sudden we have Kelly Slater going out there and earning a million dollars in surfing. That’s what we want to do with wingsuit flying. Yeah, it’s a beautiful, wonderful sport that you can go out there and do on your own. Guess what? That’s never going to change. If you don’t want to be a part of the competition and be a soul flyer, whatever you want to call it, this isn’t going to take away from that. Just like you can go surfing, if you want, anytime.
But, we’re going to give people an option to become actual professional athletes. These guys deserve it. I’m sorry, they’re doing one of the most dangerous sports on the planet, and they deserve to have an outlet to excel, earn a living, and do what they love. Just like a basketball player has that outlet to do what they love and enjoy it. As far as I’m concerned, the evolution of the sport will happen in competition. Let’s put it this way: Why would you make a suit go faster? Why would you make a suit improve? Well, because you’re competing with others. There’s motivation to get better.
People are like, It’s dangerous. Life is dangerous. Walking out your front door is dangerous. Crossing the street is dangerous. Skiing is dangerous. Driving motorcycles is dangerous. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I’m sorry, but most things worth doing in life are dangerous. That’s just the way it is. If you want to excel, grow, evolve, become something new, you have to takes risks. That is all there is to it. If the human species never took risks, we’d all be living in caves playing with fire. I mean, come on. That’s the one thing that always gets me. It’s like, Dude, have you been in a car? Have you driven down a freeway? Are you aware of the truly gnarly nature of what you are doing going 85 miles an hour on a road surrounded by a bunch of other metal boxes going 85 miles per hour? At any moment, at any time, one of them can hit you where you can die. You just don’t think about it. People don’t understand 1.7 million people die in car accidents worldwide. In the United States alone, 45,000 people die every single year in car accidents. You’re going to tell me that is not that bad? That just tells me that you don’t understand what risk is. You’re not thinking about it. You know what my job is? My job isn’t BASE jumping. My job isn’t flying wingsuits. My job is risk evaluation. That’s what I do. I go into a situation, I see what the risks are, and I decide, are the risks worth the reward?
On the Possibility of Death in a Race:
Well, what happens when someone dies in Formula One? What happens when someone dies in an air race? A lot of the ways that we are setting up this race is to help ensure that that doesn’t happen. In the end, the race course is probably a tenth of what some of these guys can do for fun. It’s about making a race that’s visually spectacular, but safe, because obviously we want to be able to continue. We know, and obviously everybody else knows, that if we have three people die in the competition, well then it’s over. That’s the end of the World Wingsuit League.
We have to be able to not only have a great show and a great competition, but be able to make sure that it is a safe one. There is no doubt that that is the number one priority and the goal. Let’s put it this way. We did a show with eight people jumping and me flying through a cave and no one got hurt. It was all heavy proximity flying and no one got hurt. No one. Zero. We have a very, very strong feeling that with the right rules and the right set up, we will be able to do a competition that will be very visually spectacular and very safe. I’ll be honest with you, when I was in China, in Beijing, getting in a car was 10 times scarier than jumping off of that mountain.
After the Race:
The best possible outcome is that it becomes an established race and travels around the world. I want it to become just like Formula One. I want to have locations like the Eiffel Tower, the Christ Statue, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I want to give people something to watch. I want the athletes to be able to make a living doing what they love, and I want to be able to create the future of sport—a whole new way for people to compete with each other. I want them to be more than just athletes. I want them to be superheroes.
These are humans that can fly. That something that’s amazing to see, the evolution of a species. To watch the human species go from a terrestrial walking around on the ground to a human squirrel, jumping out of trees and flying. It’s a whole different universe, a whole different world, and we’re entering a whole different way of competing with each other.
I like the idea of a competition that involves real consequences. It’s not just two made up teams with a ball trying to take the field. This is something far bigger than that. This is something with way more meaning than that. Anyone that watches it can understand it. Everyone has dreamt of flying. It’s something we’ve been able to see birds do and say, Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to do what those birds are doing? This is going to touch people in a way that I don’t think anything else ever has. If we’re able to create a safe, beautiful competition, I have a feeling that it’s going to sweep the world. That’s what we see and we hope, that we’re able to create an event, a race, a competition that is the future of human sport.
For more from Corliss, read "Inside the Crash and Recovery of Jeb Corliss."