This story appears in the July 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In 1997 Patrick de Gayardon donned a webbed nylon suit and leaped, it’s believed, from Norway’s Kjerag mountain. The rush of air inflated the suit’s three wings, allowing him to glide. This first modern wingsuit transformed BASE jumping: named for launch points building, antenna, span (bridge), and earth.
Previously, BASE jumpers descended vertically with parachutes. In wingsuits pilots can perform daring horizontal stunts such as flying through rings of fire and narrow rock formations.
But wingsuit pilots are much more likely to die. The first recorded fatality from a wingsuit BASE jump was in 2002; it has since become one of the world’s most lethal sports. “You feel you have absolute control over what you’re doing—that’s what’s become such a killer,” says Jeb Corliss, who has been jumping for nearly 20 years. “We are not birds. We are not flying. We are falling toward the ground at incredible speed, and if you do something wrong, you can die.”
Last year was the deadliest on record for BASE jumpers: Twenty-four of the estimated 37 killed were wearing wingsuits. Few jumpers are trained in the added dangers of wingsuits—for instance, how to judge the distance from a cliff face while hurtling toward it at 150 miles an hour. In 2017 a company called Next Level introduced the first curriculum for progressing from skydiving to BASE jumping to wingsuit flying. “We can’t save the people who want to take maximum shortcuts and get maximum praise from their peers after sharing a video of themselves,” says Matt Gerdes, the co-founder of Squirrel wingsuits. “But at least now they can’t say that they didn’t have a choice.”
Read the full interview with Jeb Corliss here.