BASE-Jumping the Shark
The quest for ever bigger and more dangerous televised wingsuit stunts is going to boost the sport's already high body count
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For the past few months, Jeb Corliss was making practice flights for his latest stunt, tentatively called the Human Arrow. The plan was this: On September 18, sometime between 9 and 11 p.m. EST on NBC, Corliss would dive from a helicopter wearing a wingsuit, accelerate to 120 miles per hour, and, if all went as planned, use the GoPro camera mounted on his helmet to hit an apple-size dot on a target positioned 60 feet above the Great Wall of China.
The flight would have been the latest feat in a career of such stunts for Corliss, whose 2011 “Grinding the Crack” video, in which he dives at a balloon-holding accomplice on a mountainside in Switzerland, has been viewed more than 29.6 million times on YouTube.
Though the Chinese authorities pulled approval for the flight before it could occur*, these kinds of high-risk events have become an essential part of reaching audiences for television networks like Discovery and NBC, sponsors like GoPro and Red Bull, and, yes, media companies like Outside.
“The first thing people put on is their wingsuit, and the second is a helmet camera to shoot video of their jump,” says Ian Mitchard, a 34-year-old wingsuit pilot from Moab, Utah, who has nearly 500 flights under his belt. “Things have gotten more dangerous as the sport has become commercialized.”
In 2003, one of the most jaw-dropping wingsuit videos ever made featured Loïc Jean-Albert flying as little as 15 feet off the ground. It was originally released on DVD, before YouTube even existed. Flash forward to this summer, when Uli Emanuele, a relatively unknown 29-year-old from Italy, threaded a nine-foot-wide breach in a rock spire in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. His 150-second video, another GoPro-sponsored jump, racked up more than four million views in the first month. These days, video clips of terrain flying—skimming perilously close to the ground, without room to maneuver if something goes wrong—are the best way to attract attention. And the closer the better.
“New people are getting into it, and that’s what they think the sport is,” says Steph Davis, a 42-year-old professional climber and wingsuit pilot from Moab, Utah. “I’ve been wingsuit BASE jumping for eight years, and flying with no margin for error is not smart.”
Visions of making it as a pro exert a powerful pull, but Corliss is one of only a few pilots who have the luxury of flying full-time. “People are chasing a dream,” Mitchard says. “The financial rewards are not that great.”
The costs, however, can be. Although a wingsuit pilot has yet to die on live TV, the sport has seen a tragic two years. Since 2013, more than 50 pilots have died while flying. In May, Dean Potter, 43, and Graham Hunt, 29, were killed in California’s Yosemite Valley. In July, Jhonathan Florez, a 32-year-old Colombian who held the record for the longest wingsuit flight, crashed into a mountain in Switzerland. If the most experienced pilots are dying, what happens when novices try complex flights?
“On a long enough timeline, wingsuit BASE jumping will kill you,” says Matt Gerdes, co-owner of Squirrel, a wingsuit manufacturer in Seattle. But he and other pilots I talked to take a libertarian approach: they think that wingsuiters will chase risky flights whether people are watching or not—and that that’s OK. “If people want to kill themselves doing it, they should be able to,” Gerdes says.
And, sooner or later, you can bet viewers will be tuned in when they do.
*This article originally appeared in the October issue. Though the flight was still on at press time, a Corliss representative told Outside that Chinese officials nixed the jump shortly before the article was posted online. The online version was revised to reflect that information.