Photo by Robert Burroughs
Nick DiGiovanni: "You don’t make many jumps in downtown San Diego without flying your canopy over a police car at least once."
Fences surrounding construction sites are rickety, and there's always something noisy on the other side. I roll into a shadow, willing the clamor to subside. A security guard stands 20 yards away watching the girls walk by on Broadway. He doesn't hear me. A real Pinkerton man.
DiGiovanni BASE jumping at the Hyatt under construction downtown (1)
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Mike and Peter, my two partners, join me.
"Jesus, that was elegant," Mike says.
"Where’s the guard?" Peter asks, looking all ways at once.
“He’s between us and the stairwell,” I observe. “We’d better wait till he moves.”
Glancing up, I take in the embryonic 34-story building. A tremendous mass of I-beam and steel decking. It rises into the darkness, masked in the heavy but pleasing fragrance of wet cement. It is cold, but excitement makes me shiver.
I carefully scan the face of the building looking for cables, hoses, or scaffolding. Obstacles put up since our last visit. Things that could kill us. Looking around the base of the structure, I note the usual rebar and fences, piles of construction materials and equipment, the street, the power lines, the beauty, the danger. It isn’t the most inviting place to make a parachute jump, but altitude is where you find it.
“Here he comes,” Peter says, turning to bolt.
“Get down, he’ll hear us.”
With no time to find better cover, we freeze in various positions, leaning or squatting behind a small stack of wallboard. He comes within a few feet and stops to light a cigarette. My biggest fear is eased; he isn't a guard with a gun. We hold our breath until he turns and slowly walks off. I wonder how he didn’t sense our presence. You can’t, I suppose, buy intuitiveness for five bucks an hour.
“That’s it," Mike says, laughing, “the midnight rounds.” He shakes his head at us. “Man, ain’t we the guard magnets.” We watch our man resume his girl-watching at the fence.
“He’s not going anywhere, let’s do it."
We softly pick our way around stacks of materials, making for the open first floor. Now is the time of greatest exposure.
Three with backpacks moving through light and shadow are easy to see, unless your mind is elsewhere. Our objective is the darkened safety of the unfinished stairwell.
Mike and Peter arrive first and take the steps two at a time before disappearing around the first landing. I take one more look over my shoulder, steal a deep breath, and silently and deliberately climb into the night sky.
Finishing the jump at the Hyatt
Photo by Robert Burroughs
We stop on the fifth floor. Here the concrete has already been poured, the plumbers and electricians have been through, and glass is making its way up the exterior of the building. We know our climb will overtake the plumbing and electrical work, past the glass and concrete, until we reach the top, where there will be nothing but raw steel.
Landing on Harbor Drive. High tension electrical lines and the San Diego Trolley’s power lines crisscross the area.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
We split in three directions for a look-see. I walk to the edge of the building facing directly into the fifth floor of the YMCA. Most of the young Christian men behind the still-lighted windows appear to be old Christian men.
Stopping a few feet from the glass, I check the street and the sidewalk before pressing my nose against the glass to look directly below. All is quiet. The guard hasn’t moved. The city should be paying this guy; all he is guarding is the street. Nobody would make off with Broadway this night.
Since 1980, 18 BASE jumpers have lost their lives, including Carl Boenish, who died in 1984 jumping a new cliff site in Norway.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
We meet back at the stairwell. Everyone just smiles at everyone else.
We were in.
The remainder of the ascent is accompanied by the usual nervous giggles and the blackest of humor.
“Damn," Peter points out, “I wish it were Friday. I’ve got work at seven in the morning.”
“Don’t sweat it," Mike replies. “You’ll be dead in half an hour anyway.”
We muffle our laughter and try to stay quiet, though we know the natural clamor and din from the still-settling structure will cover our footsteps. Even if we were detected, it would be unusual for someone actually to come up after us.
My eyes gradually adjust to the interior of the building, but that’s not enough to keep me safe. A high-rise under construction is a dangerous place in the daylight; at night it’s treacherous. I move cautiously, always keeping more than one point of contact, because stairs end without warning here. The decking underfoot can be missing or loose. The last dark doorway you walk through can be an empty elevator shaft.
Rounding the 25th floor, we find a construction worker has left us a motivating message. Scribbled crudely on the drywall, it reads, YOU’RE ALMOST THERE!
Now the stairwell is no longer enclosed. Concrete flooring gives way to corrugated steel decking. A safety cable surrounds the perimeter of the 26th floor to keep unmindful construction workers from backing themselves into oblivion. Something they call “going in the hole.” We stop to check the wind.
San Diego’s penchant for flying Old Glory off almost every downtown building helps us evaluate conditions. As water currents are important to the men of the sea, air currents are important to the boys of the sky. Although calm on the ground, the winds up here are starting to cook.
To my right, the Coronado bridge stretches across the bay. Lights are burning late on North Island. The country is riding out the recession, but you can’t tell from here. Holes that would become buildings are everywhere.
The San Diego skyline doesn’t measure up in terms of height because of the city-imposed 500-foot limit, yet it does sport some innovative architecture. I look around, flashing on other nights and other jumps.
Touted as relief from the standard glass box, Symphony Towers is dismal and cold looking. During construction it hosted better than 100 jumps. We had kicked around the idea of asking them to let us jump from the roof during the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but we’ve found from experience it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.
The Emerald-Shapery Center, by contrast, is light and airy. An award-winning building that saw more than the usual number of jumps. I’m sure the designers never thought of all the ways their work might be appreciated. Landings in a certain parking lot there netted photos of the jumpers with a gavel of justice painted on an adjacent wall about to conk them on the head.
Over by the convention center stand the new twin towers of Harbor One. I had the pleasure of being the first to jump from both towers, a distinction that forever makes me Harbor One Number One. The guards there were a little more observant, and even doing it alone, I still had to try three different nights before I got in.
While standing on the rounded brow of the 40th floor of Harbor One, and because it was stilk early evening, I looked straight down on the convention center and could see that the rooftop tennis courts were all in use. The players would certainly hear my canopy crack open, I reasoned, so they might as well see me too.
Tennis players need a first-hand look at real sport anyway. I whistled loudly enough to make them look up from their little balls and launched myself into freefall.
Farther down the street, toward the harbor, stood the steel skeleton that has since become the new Hyatt hotel. We’ve done the Hyatt so many times that the guards at Seaport Village call us by our first names. It wasn’t always that way; our first confrontation came at gunpoint.
I asked him to put the gun away; nothing really bad is happening here. He approached so close that I could see his bottom lip quivering uncontrollably.
“Hey, how ’bout just letting us go?”
“You just broke the law.”
“You did an illegal stunt.”
“You made that up."
They summoned the San Diego police but it took them over an hour to show up, and before they did, everybody started liking everybody else. The guards cut us loose with only a request that we stop landing on Seaport Village property. So now, even though the parking lots are safer, we always land in the street.
While most people only feel wind, it is imperative that we see it. The wind rolls off the bay and remains steady until hitting the downtown skyline. Then it spills over and around the buildings like water rushing down a rocky stream. This detour causes it to speed up and create wake turbulence, a major threat to our safety.
Strong enough, wake turbulence can stymie our nonrigid air foils, causing the lift they provide to suddenly desert us. Hitting a good wakie up high scares you; down low you might not get the wing flying again in time. We avoid these conditions and live to fly another day; walking back down is easy.
Our parachutes are rectangular, ram-air-inflated wings of almost magical capacity. They are strong, lightweight, and reliable. Yet I always remind mvself it’s only string, rag, and savvy that keep me from being a paragraph in the morning paper.
Normally, sport parachuting — skydiving, as it’s more commonly called — is done out of airplanes over large, open drop zones, which are mostly free of obstructions that create wake turbulence. They are larger and more forgiving landing areas.
Flying a ram-air parachute through the concrete canyons of downtown takes all the skill you have. This competence is developed only after many jumps Folks who do this type of jumping are very experienced. Many are instructors, parachute riggers, or competition skydivers. There is no death wish here. Dead, you can’t jump anymore.
Our equipment wasn’t originally designed for the urban environment, much less for building jumping. We’ve had to spend considerable time and expense modifying it and, in some cases, designing whole new systems.
The canopy flight in the night sky above downtown is fun and a test of your ability, but it only serves to make the act of jumping off a building repeatable. The real reason we are here, the thing that keeps us coming back, the Holy Grail of fixed object jumping...is freefall.
“Feels pretty good to me,” Peter offers, meaning the wind speed and direction are in our favor. We agree and re-enter the stairwell for the remainder of the climb. The wind blowing through the steel skeleton of the building cools us as we go.
At floor 31, the stairs suddenly end. The last three floors will be scaled on the workmen’s wooden ladders.
We are on top.
Catching our breath in the breeze, awash in lights from a sleeping city center, we examine the launch point, bracing ourselves against the steel safety cable. The landing area — so far below and, at the same time, so close. Inviting yet repelling. If you’re a man, you experience the last fully masculine thing left in the world, a tingling scrotum.
History shows that the first successful parachute drops ever made were from fixed objects. The parachute actually predates the airplane and even the hot-air balloon by almost 200 years. The idea can be traced through Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches and back further to Chinese acrobats, who, legend says, entertained royalty with small parachutes 4000 years ago.
Strong evidence suggests that 1617 Venice witnessed a jump by Foust Veranzo. He stood on the parapet of a local tower and prepared to use it for something better than pouring boiling oil on the enemy. Claiming a new way of escaping the mini towering infernos common to old Europe, he was about to put up or shut up.
His apparatus consisted of a square wooden frame covered with a single top surface of canvas. Four ropes, one from each corner, ran in equal lengths to leather straps he clasped in his hands. The four lines were pulled taut by two assistants who held the open parachute between them.
They all moved back to get the necessary run at it. Foust had correctly placed some importance on avoiding the tower wall on his way down. Looking over his shoulder, he checked to see if his assistants were in position.
"Siamo il centro percento!" “We are 100 percent!" they chimed. Foust sprinted for the edge and leaped. The crowd held its breath as Foust hung suspended. Foust wasn’t breathing much either. He was about to get his first lesson in fixed-object jumping. Thou shalt not smack the object just leaped from.
The fact that Foust was killed pointed more to a flaw in his aerodynamic understanding and a confused medical profession than to his lack of foresight and courage.
Later, in 1783, the soon-to-be-famous Montgolfier Brothers were about to invent the hot-air balloon. They reasoned that a parachute might come in handy during their experiments. After many failures at dropping small animals off French rooftops, they finally succeeded in parachuting some barnyard animals into the town square. When you saw one of the Montgolfier Brothers walking down the street, you rounded up your chickens.
In February of 1912, just two months before the sinking of the HMS Titanic, the best-recorded early fixed-object jump took place in New York Harbor. Fredrick Rodman Law was trying to gain publicity for his ailing steeplejack business by parachuting from the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
After landing more or less intact in the park below, he was given $1500 by a newsreel company in payment for filming the jump. Suddenly, Law wasn't in the steeplejack business anymore. He went on to jump from the Banker's Trust Building on Wall Street and into the East River off the Brooklyn Bridge. Eventually, Law moved to California and made a career as one of the first movie stuntmen.
If any other successful fixed-object jumps were made during this period, they've been lost in the glare of early aviation. When the world went airplane crazy, fixed-object jumping was left behind. Fourteen years ago, in Yosemite Valley, the circle closed.
By the summer of 1978, skydiving was a recognized aeronautical activity. Drop zones could be found near any major city. The John Wayne paratrooper days of jumping were over. Gone were the crash landings, the jump boots, the heavy military surplus gear, and the whole myth of needing to be macho or crazy in order to jump. More importantly, round parachutes were replaced by square parachutes. Squares could be controlled and flown; with the rounds, the jumper was a hapless passenger.
At the same time, the art of flying one's body through the air was established. These new techniques and equipment prolonged people’s jumping careers. In the old days, jumpers had hundreds of jumps; now they had thousands.
After a thousand jumps, leaving an airplane in flight is still fun, but where can you go from there? Four skydivers perched themselves on the lip of Yosemite’s 3000-foot El Capitan trying to find out. They were about to turn the stuff of most people’s nightmares into a sport.
Kent Lane, an intrepid and imaginative California skydiver, inched as close to the rounded brow of El Cap as he dared. The months of planning, the endless reconnaissance trips to the top, the mathematics and mechanics all said it was possible. Kent was about to find out for sure. He smiled back at his companions, took a deep breath, and trotted off the lip.
He fell prone, face to earth, picking up air speed. Beneath and behind him, the granite wall began to blur. He moved his arms to his sides and, like a diving falcon, moved horizontally away from the big wall. After ten seconds of the most exciting freefall he ever experienced, Kent opened his parachute and glided safely into the meadow. The three on top just looked at each other for a bit. They knew something significant just occurred.
Kent, no stranger to freefall, was ecstatic. He realized that what made the jump so different was his proximity to a stationary object. Falling adjacent to the big granite wall was something he’d never forget. It was a vision of speed.
On airplane jumps, even though freefall speeds reach 120 to 180 miles per hour, there is nothing by which to gauge that speed. People in the air with you appear to be floating. Occasionally, you’ll pass an open canopy or punch through a cloud that offers a fleeting glimpse into real speed, but Kent was just dosed with a full ten seconds of gut-wrenching awareness of pure velocity.
Skydivers from all over the world began flocking to El Cap. The National Park Service together with skydiving’s governing body, the United States Parachute Association (USPA), tried to handle the influx of jumpers with a program for legal cliff jumping. Three short weeks later, the activity was banned by the National Park Service.
Carl Boenish, a major catalyst for the sport, observed, “First cliff jumping was unregulated because it was unthinkable, then it was regulated because it was feared, then it was banned because it was misunderstood."
The real problem may have been that the leap from El Cap came billed as a skydive without the airplane. It wasn’t; it was something different, but nobody really knew how different.
Legal or not, the genie was out of the lamp. Fixed-object jumping offered the fresh challenge many jumpers were looking for. A Texan named Phil Smith had just returned home after jumping El Capitan. It was an experience he called the best jump of his skydiving career. But Yosemite was a long way from Texas, and he looked around his native Houston for objects to match his skill. He suddenly realized the potential in something he had seen hundreds of times on his way to work. The 1100-foot KUHT-TV antenna tower. This marked a dividing line between skydiving and fixed-object jumping.
As odd as it may sound, skydiving has a very conservative nature. When the USPA first embraced fixed-object jumping in Yosemite, it was mainly because the jump altitude was more than that needed for legal airplane jumps. At El Cap there was time to deploy a reserve parachute if the main canopy should fail.
Phil realized if fixed-object jumpers were willing to shave off the safety margins, it would open up many objects previously thought too low to jump. On this leap from the antenna tower, Phil would be 1000 feet lower than skydivers are permitted to exit an airplane. He was pioneering ultra-low parachuting and doing it before anybody really knew how.
In the predawn darkness, Phil Smith gazed up the steel ladder that became a vanishing point above his head. More than once during the two-hour climb, he wondered just what the hell he was doing. Finally, his muscles aching, he surmounted the last section and stood 1100 feet above an open field. He braced himself against the 40-knot winds that blew through the open tower and reasoned that if he jumped from the downwind side of the tower, he would be carried away from it and, more importantly, its cheese-cutting guy wires.
The jump went perfectly, and others followed Phil's lead. Fixed-object jumping began to pick up steam as skydivers found beauty and simplicity in the new sport.
“It appeals to my sense of things human powered,” said Carl’s wife, Jean Boenish. "We can practice our sport without carbon-spewing airplanes.” It also freed jumpers from high prices, politics, and the routine of commercial drop zone operations.
“I like knowing I can jump anytime I want,” said San Diego jumper Ralph Mittman. “I don’t need anybody’s permission or support."
The USPA, however, got up in arms when fixed-object jumping began making headlines. They complained about having fought long and hard to shed the daredevil image that plagued skydiving for so many years. This new type of jumping was a step backward, they said; you are hurting the sport.
It was too late. Fixed-object jumpers had the bit in their teeth, and nothing was going to stop them. It was a bitter split with many old friendships lost, but new ones formed.
After cliffs and antenna towers, bridges were the next objects conquered. The 1000-foot Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado and the 874-foot New River Bridge in West Virginia both saw frequent jumps. As fixed-object jumpers explored the envelope, they went lower and lower. It caused Carl Boenish to remark, “The whole world is jumpable, and the ground’s the limit!"
Small pockets of fixed-object jumpers formed around the country, and with experience gained, it became apparent that what they were doing wasn't skydiving, it was something else, a new sport that just happened to share the same type of equipment. When Phil Smith set his sights on jumping the Texas Commerce Building that was under construction in Houston, Carl Boenish began to see a pattern in the jumps they were making. With a dictionary in hand, the small group set out to find a name for their new sport. After much searching they found it: BASE, n. [O.Fr. base, L. basis] The bottom of anything, considered its support; that on which a thing stands or rests.
The word BASE not only denotes something stationary, it is also an acronym that represents the objects being jumped. The ^stands for buildings; the A stands for antenna towers; the S is for spans (bridges); and the is for earth (cliffs).
“I didn’t like the second definition that meant evil or vile,” said Jean Boenish, “but as soon as the rest of the guys heard BASE, it was a done deal." The sport of fixed-object jumping would, from that moment on, be called BASE jumping.
Carl began issuing BASE awards. A jumper who made at least one jump in each object category would receive a sequential BASE number. Phil Smith, who had already jumped a cliff, a tower, and a bridge, stepped off the 72nd floor of the unfinished Texas Commerce Building at precisely 8:15 on the morning of January 18, 1981, and became BASE-1.
Now there are BASE jumpers in Europe, Japan, Australia. South Africa, and West Germany. There is an organization called the United States BASE Association that tries to keep a handle on the sport and two national magazines devoted entirely to BASE jumping. More importantly, there’s a growing BASE equipment industry. We no longer need to endanger ourselves using equipment developed for another sport.
The crown jewel event in BASE jumping is a convention held once a year in Fayetteville, West Virginia. On the third Saturday in October, the local chamber of commerce hosts what they call Bridge Day. It's a celebration of the completion of the 874-foot New River Gorge Bridge. On this one day, BASE jumping from the bridge is legal and encouraged. Three to four hundred BASE jumpers come from all over the world, and the event draws 250,000 spectators.
Although other legal sites are beginning to spring up here and there, BASE jumping generally involves a bit of trespassing to get to a suitable launch site. However, BASE jumpers don’t see themselves as criminals.
“We’re just sportsmen," says Mark Hewitt, the most experienced BASE jumper in the world, “and this is our sport.” Others will tell you, BASE jumpers don’t steal or vandalize, we’re just borrowing a little altitude.
This progress came at a price. Since 1980, 18 BASE jumpers have lost their lives, including Carl Boenish, who died in 1984 jumping a new cliff site in Norway. From each death and every accident, we learned and went on. There were no books and no experts. We made improvements in gear and technique by trying them. Free from regulations of any kind, BASE jumpers who were also parachute riggers could conceive, design, and fabricate a new idea in the afternoon and fly it off a downtown building that night. Because of this anything-is-possible attitude, jumping from as low as 250 feet is not only possible, it’s routine: and the gear has improved to the point where you have to go out of your way to kill yourself.
Most non-jumpers see the chief danger in jumping as: Suppose the parachute doesn’t open? This is a perception born of Hollywood writers. A parachute is like a wheel; there isn’t much you can do to make it better. We have licked all the low-altitude deployment problems except one — failure of the equipment to perform due to human error. That’s what makes this more a test of skill than a roll of the dice.
Of course, there are random and unforeseen problems. Suspension lines entangle or fail, and canopy fabric can give way. A stitch-by-stitch inspection before every jump, together with careful packing (and good karma), will help avoid these problems. Luckily, most malfunctions aren’t the coffin-corner variety. A coffin-corner malfunction is one where there is nothing you can do to fix it, you’re going really fast, and you die.
The most common problem is something called an off-heading opening. The parachute turns as it deploys off your back and opens facing toward the object instead of away from it. The dreaded one-eighty. Because ram-air parachutes need air speed to stay inflated, they begin to move forward in whatever direction they happen to be facing right after opening. Do nothing to correct this, and it's the big smack.
One way to avoid malfunctions is to deploy the parachute while in stable freefall. Stability in freefall is not easy to master. Turning, tumbling, or, God forbid, flailing boost the odds for a one-eighty, or worse. Launching from a fixed object is gymnastic rather than aerodynamic. When you leave an aircraft in flight, you have air speed to work with; you ride the wind. BASE jumpers start with zero air speed There is no relative wind to ride and therefore no way to correct a bad launch. Corrective control only comes with speed, and that speed is still three to four seconds away.
Attention to details is always important, especially in San Diego. Here jumpers carry no reserve parachutes. The city’s buildings are so low there is no time to use a reserve canopy and it is just dead weight. When making these low jumps, we accept the coffin-corner possibilities. However, even on jumps where the altitude is there for a reserve, many BASE jumpers still don’t carry them.
Like rock climbers who go without ropes or protection, jumpers know there are things that can kill them, but this is how they approach the sport. Even if you carry a reserve, and no matter how careful you are, like fighter pilots or policemen, every once in a while someone gets selected.
While Peter and Mark check for activity on the other side of the building, I gaze down into the big gulp. There are several advantages to jumping at night. The winds are calmer. The streets are clear of traffic, and the landing areas are free from parked cars. Ninety-nine percent of the time, no one sees you.
The empty parking lot at the foot of the building offers the biggest landing area, but it is too close. Landing there would mean bleeding off lots of altitude right after opening. It would also mean flying up and down Broadway before turning final approach. The chances of being seen are too great.
A better landing area is across Broadway, to the right. Kettner Boulevard is narrow and bordered with trees and power lines, but it is dark and deserted.
Regrouped, we survey the scene like golfers studying a long drive to the green knowing they must get there in one. Mike tosses a piece of tissue paper and we intently watch it descend. It keeps moving farther away from the building, an indication that wind direction is constant.
There are plenty of obstacles down there, a lot of pointy-tipped things that can hurt you. Retaining walls, chain-link fences, signs, light standards and dumpsters, all the miscellaneous claptrap you don’t see in the artist’s conception. These are easy to avoid when everything is going right and almost impossible to avoid when everything is going wrong.
One major concern is the wires. Both high tension electrical lines and the San Diego Trolley’s power lines crisscross the area. I fix their positions in my mind while Peter makes sizzling noises in my ear. To our left, only a few buildings away, is another consideration, the Metropolitan Correctional Center. A short walk, even in chains.
Despite the hour, individuals are still milling in the streets. There are basically two types of people down there. The kind who won’t call the police and the kind who are the police.
A steady stream of patrol cars makes its way to and from the jail. From our perch, we have the advantage on them, but you don’t make many jumps in downtown San Diego without flying your canopy over a police car at least once. I’m glad they don’t sport moon roofs.
One night I landed in a parking lot next to someone I thought was a street person. I always like to think the shock of seeing a BASE jumper descending out of the night sky is enough to make them get haircuts, jobs, and become useful citizens again. In this case, it was a police officer.
“Where’d you come from?” he asked.
“Up there." I pointed. He looked just in time to see a friend in freefall. He watched him open and land without a word.
“Okay if we go now, sir?” I asked.
“Jesus Christ! I guess so. Jesus Christ!"
That has happened a few times with policemen and guards as well. We’ve found most police officers, except the ones who have gone around the bend, are capable of seeing BASE jumping for what it is. In Los Angeles, the police come around and park whenever they recognize a jumper’s car in the street. They watch, and as long as no one complains, it's no big deal.
Of course, arrest is always possible. Few experienced BASE jumpers have yet to be arrested. There is no law that specifically says parachuting off a building is illegal. It’s a trespassing case that nets you a fine and leaves the judge shaking his head. The first few times anyway.
Street people, on the other hand, pose no threat at all. In fact, they are our impromptu audience. On final approach, what appears to be an uninhabited parking lot comes alive with cheering and applause for your landing. Then they’re gone, and so fast it’s spooky.
Once, on our way into a building, we passed a young girl sitting outside a closed tattoo parlor. I said hello, but her eyes were dead, and she looked right through me. I was last off that night, and she must’ve figured out what was going on when she saw the first two land. She ran to me, jumping up and down.
“I saw you! Oh, man, I saw you! Wow, oh wow!” Her eyes had life, and she kissed me, probably the most dangerous thing I did that night.
Backing off from the edge, we begin to gear up. Even though BASE jumping is done mostly in small groups, it’s an intensely personal experience. When you start putting on your rig. you go into auto-mode, the adrenaline starts to pump, and your awareness level begins to expand. And time slows down.
“You guys mind if I go first?” I’m nursing a broken heel and can’t run very well. The first one off has less chance of being seen or chased.
“Sure, have a good one!” Mike says.
“Hum it!” Peter adds.
I reach back and pull my 45-inch-diameter pilot chute from its stow pouch. This is a small parachute that I’ll hold in my right hand during freefall. It’s connected by a bridle line to a Velcro flap that holds the container on my back closed. After three seconds of freefall, I’ll pitch the pilot chute directly into the air stream. It will inflate, extend the bridle, rip open the Velcro flap, and pull my parachute to line stretch. Then the parachute itself will inflate.
I carefully S-fold the excess bridle line and the pilot chute into my right hand. If the pilot chute becomes entangled with the bridle or otherwise doesn’t inflate, I’ll be dead. I strain to concentrate on what I am doing. It is difficult because the impending jump has me buzzing. It doesn't matter how many BASE jumps you’ve made, it’s always the same feeling.
In addition to my BASE rig, I wear a helmet and knee and elbows pads. Body armor is cheap protection from the road rash that’s likely in a not-so-graceful landing. The trick is to wear enough to do the job but not enough to make you look like Robo Jumper. All that equipment is hard to get off in a hurry and makes it difficult to blend in if you should need to flee.
The helmet is new for me. I’d rather go without it, but I wear it because of my friend Dick Pedley. Dick was jumping a building in Century City a little over a year ago and suffered an off-heading opening he didn’t correct in time. It slammed him into the building, and he came off the structure unconscious and it killed him. It isn’t known if a helmet would have made a difference, but as long as you’re awake, there’s a chance.
I carefully gear-check myself, running my hands over the equipment. Leg straps, chest strap, bridle free and clear. I ask Mike to look me over. We do the same all-round, until everyone is pronounced 100 percent. It is time.
The last obstacle is the steel safety cable (they should really call them danger cables). They’re easy, at least physically, to climb over. I balance myself on the edge of the building with my heels resting on an I-beam flange over a view Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. At this point, you can relax and enjoy it with the calm that comes from knowing you’re going.
Growing up in New York City, I lived in a six-story building and spent many hours peering down from our roof. I couldn’t help wondering what going over the edge would be like. It’s safe to say, I’m probably the only guy from the old neighborhood who found out.
I'm not thinking about being six seconds from impact if something goes wrong. I am concentrating on not making any mistakes. The idea is, don’t look at the dogs, work the lock. One last check for activity in the streets shows all is looking good. I again fix the major landing obstacles in my mind. Coming out of a turn after a bad opening. there’s no time to look and decide; you have to know where they are.
I turn to say something clever to Mike and Peter. "Remember," I deadpan, “wherever you go, that’s where you're at!” It’s lame but all I can come up with. The look of impending BASE jump is in their eyes; it’s the only time and place people look at you like that. I begin a mental countdown. My whole body is alive and trying to tell me things. Three...two...one...go.
I drop my grips on the safety cable and balance for a moment; I’m not gone yet, but I can’t turn back either. It's a delicious moment, and you try to make it last a bit. I push off into freefall. I yield my body to a fluid that, even with an open parachute, won’t stop me from descending.
Three seconds of freefall may not sound like much, but in my expanded state of awareness, it’s more like three minutes. I bend my knees slightly and push off with both feet hard enough to get some separation from the building but not hard enough to make me lose my balance. I stay suspended in midair for a split second before gravity takes over and the big ride begins.
The first second of freefall makes me weightless. My limbs automatically adjust for optimum body position. Not too head-high, not too head-low. Perfect and total control. Any fear or doubt has vanished because I enjoy it too much, and there is nothing I could do to stop it anyway. Somewhere in the quiet above me I hear a soft “Ye-haa!"
During the next second of freefall, I begin to accelerate. The silence gives way to a shrill whistle of rushing air. It was a solid launch; I feel anchored and stable. The full pull of gravity makes this the best roller coaster ever. And it doesn’t stop just as it’s getting good. The acceleration is better than the fastest car you can buy, zero to 60 in three seconds.
In the third second of freefall, the phenomenon called ground rush begins. Objects directly below begin speeding closer; objects in my peripheral vision rush away. I sneak a peek over my shoulder. The windows on the building are whipping by, and the need for stealth is almost overcome by a need to shout for joy. I stretch the last second a bit, getting all there is, and throw the pilot chute.
I look straight down at the rising sidewalk as I unpack. All the careful folds and tucks I spent an hour doing on the floor of my living room are coming undone in the air above me. For the next second and a half, it is out of my hands.
The harness suddenly tightens around my relaxed body, and opening shock pulls me upright. The canopy opens straight and soft. I reach up, release the brakes, and my canopy accelerates toward the landing area.
I turn right and head down Broadway. Over the intersection I turn left and head down Kettner. The cool wind feels wonderful on my overheated body. Flying past the old SD6&E generating station across from the Santa Fe depot, I catch a small wakie, a few bumps, no sweat. I start some shallow turns to bleed off altitude. I could have gone straight and landed farther down the street, but less time in the air means less chance of being spotted.
At 50 feet I check for traffic behind me. It is clear. I get off the brakes and go to full flight. At 10 feet I pull both steering lines down and flare the canopy for landing. I touch down easily in the center of the street and quickly pull my canopy out of the air. Grinning the big grin and looking back up, I whisper a quiet "Thank you, building.”
I dash for the cover of a nearby tree, bundling up my canopy as I go. My heart is racing and my breath comes in deep drags. I look up in time to see Mike launch. His canopy opens 90 degrees to the right, but he quickly straightens it out and swoops out of the night sky, laughing.
We both watch for Peter. It’s funny, but BASE jumping is scarier to watch than it is to do. Are we really going that fast, that close to the ground? Peter lands with a thud from a mistimed flare but shakes It off, and we all pile into the car. Cheated death again.
The next morning I awake to realize the rent is due, I’m behind in my work, and the cat has missed the box again. But my name isn’t in the morning paper, and it is shaping up to be a pretty good day. While the normal man sleeps, the BASE man leaps.