Jump. Fly. Land.
Jeb Corliss says if the birds can do it, so can he.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, November 2010
(Page 2 of 3)
In person, Corliss doesn’t come across as crazy. Passionate, yes. Driven. Dedicated to sucking the most out of life, and resistant to the rules that keep most of us inside an airplane until it lands. He is deep-voiced and loud, a kinetic presence. No odd loner, he has a girlfriend and a mother who support his passion. He grew up all over the world and was home-schooled after the sixth grade by art-dealer parents. At an early age he grew fond of snakes and danger; even now his other passion besides BASE jumping and wing suit flying is hanging around wild predators. Skydiving bored him. “It’s pointless,” he says. In his early 20s he turned to BASE jumping, which “begins where skydiving ends.” Skydiving is a regulated sport: A parachute must be deployed by 2,000 feet, and divers must jump with two chutes. A BASE jumper’s fall is so short, often from heights starting below 2,000 feet, that there’s no time for an emergency chute; they carry just one. Corliss was BASE jumping in Italy in 1998 when he saw his first wing suit flight. “I watched a guy jump off and fly away and it looked like a long glide. It was instant: I thought, This has the potential to change the world of flying for humans without airplanes.” He called Pecnik and bought his first suit, flew it 10 times out of an airplane, and headed to South Africa. BASE jumping friends said they knew of “an amazing cliff” there that overlooked a series of descending ledges. Ordinarily, jumpers open a parachute, land on a second ledge too big to clear in flight, then jump again. “But if you had a wing suit,” Corliss says, “you could jump and then fly over the second ledge.”
A Russian friend of Corliss’ jumped and soared right over the second ledge. “He made it, and it was like seeing the impossible! I mean a year before, it couldn’t have been done, and at that moment I learned that the impossible doesn’t exist.” Then Corliss leapt, his first BASE jump with a wing suit. He soon realized he didn’t have enough lift to make it over the second ledge, and he was too low to open his parachute. Luckily, perpendicular to the ledges was “this giant crack that dropped downward.” He banked left and dove into that gorge and was suddenly proxy flying like a spacecraft in Star Wars, a man with no aircraft coursing through a crack in the Earth. “Dude, that flight was oh-my-God crazy and I was like instantly, wow!” No sooner had he popped his chute than he was analyzing his flight, which had tracked above a long slope, followed by a quick break to one side when he realized he needed to change his path. With that level of control, he thought: Man, I could land one of these things.
In 2003, he began to explore every conceivable option. He looked at nets, but unless he could land on his back, the possibility of breaking his neck seemed too high. He looked at plowing out a long runway on a snowy mountain slope. “I could set down with ease, but I’d be traveling at 100 miles an hour, and once down I’d have no control. Too much friction. Too high a probability of tumbling. Too many variables that I couldn’t control.” The problem remained a high approach speed with few options, and only a fraction of a second to decide whether to land. “You have to deploy a parachute at 200 feet in order to use it, but above 200 feet you’re too high to know if you’re lined up right. You don’t have the depth perception, and you’re traveling faster than your mind can make decisions, so you really don’t know until you’re five feet above the landing zone, but then it’s way too late for anything. A pilot’s basic training is go-arounds, but there aren’t any go-arounds in a wing suit landing. I was stumped.”
By then Corliss was a professional BASE jumper, earning money for everything from video footage of proxy flying to hosting a show on the Discovery Channel. In 2007, a TV crew in Brazil asked him to jump from a helicopter and fly by the hand of Rio de Janiero’s 130-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue, itself atop a 2,300-foot peak. He’d have to fly just beneath the arm and then clear the fence surrounding the statue’s base. He wasn’t sure he could do it for the same reason he fretted about a landing someday: Would he be traveling too fast to hit the requisite marks? “There are just too many decisions for a human to make in a hundredth of a second,” he says. In a series of practice flights he flew closer and closer to the arm until he had an epiphany: The statue gave him three-dimensional reference points during his rapid descent. By the third run he knew he could do it, and the next day he made eight flights, which he shows me on a video. In it, he’s a bullet screaming just under the arm and barely six feet over the fence. After that, he knew two things: “I knew how accurate I could be, that I could hit a six- by six-foot window easily,” he says. “And I had to build something like that statue that would show me where I was in space.”
Taking some of Roy Haggard’s advice, Corliss came up with a plan of attack, which he’s reluctant to describe in too much detail. He would build a landing ramp made of tightly stretched fabric attached to a 40- to 60-story building, beginning at a 45-degree angle—a 1:1 glide ratio. (Haggard thinks that’s too steep.) The building and ramp would provide that 3D reference to which he could line up as he hurtled downward. The angle would give him control options, because he could vary his rate of descent up to a 3:1 glide ratio. And because the approach end of the ramp would be between 400 and 600 feet high, he would have the time and altitude to act on any doubts, peel away, and pop his chute. He had his go-around. “Look,” Corliss says, pulling up a video of the world record ski jump. “He’s flying 239 meters with an air time of seven seconds, and this shows that you can be in free fall at a high speed and safely set down and do it over and over again.” Corliss selects another video of motorcycle racers crashing in protective suits—their bodies skidding and tumbling at high speed across pavement—and then walking away. “Once you set down, there’s a lot of friction and it can melt you in your suit, but these crashes show that with the right protective gear with a rigid neck brace in conjunction with a wing suit, well, you can deal with the friction.”
TO PAY FOR IT ALL, he needs sponsors, and that means crowds and television. “A cliff somewhere?” he asks. “There’s no money in that!” So he came up with Vegas, baby, home of the outlandish and the big gamble, and plenty of tall buildings. “We could have 500,000 spectators and suddenly that $3 million price tag doesn’t seem so big. I mean, imagine summiting Everest for the first time in front of a huge crowd!”
For Haggard, it’s plausible, but beyond his comfort level. “What Jeb is trying to do is conceptually possible with the proper engineering applied, and as long as he listens to the data. Safety is relative; just flying in an aircraft has a statistical probability of failure.” There’s no good comparison, Haggard says, even with the space shuttle, which has a lot more flare and lands on a horizontal runway. “Jeb’s current approach mimics a ski jumper’s,” he says. Haggard, whose current company’s policies don’t allow him to work with Corliss, has doubts about Vegas. “If he wants to exit an aircraft and land without a chute, there are easier options,” like a wing suit with a higher glide ratio. “The ramp or mountain is his glide slope,” says Maughmer, the Penn State aerodynamicist. “He’s got to kiss it perfectly and he’ll have a lot of speed to bleed off.” Maughmer laughs. “If you need the short answer, yeah, this is possible. I would say it’d take about, I don’t know, a fifth or slightly more of gin. But you could do it.”
Corliss has a very specific goal, and it’s not only to land without a chute, but to land at high speed and to do it in a wing suit that has no additional appendages. “I’m not interested in anything with a rigid wing, and I don’t want anything with a 7:1 glide ratio.” If some other flier beats him, he says, it will be on that snow-covered mountain “by someone who doesn’t worry about the consequences. But to me that act has a 1-in-10 chance of success, and that’s too risky. I want to do it over and over again and walk away each time.”