Bodies sliced by a suspension bridge deck, spines smashed and rectums torn from hitting the water, and flesh pulverized against the face of a cliff.
These are just a few of the gruesome fates of the men and women in Matt Higgins’ gripping new book on the world of wingsuit jumpers and the race to land without a parachute, Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight.
The book, published by Penguin, tracks two stories simultaneously. The first is the history of attempts by humans to fly, which Higgins notes is a pursuit that has deep historical roots, from the Greek myth of Icarus to Leonardo’s own designs during the Renaissance.
The modern history of the flight, however, gets its start with Jacques-Sébastien Lenormand and his parachute in 1783. Lenormand managed to jump publicly from an observatory and survive. Attempts over the next century, Higgins notes, had mixed results, and jumps were often as deadly as they were successful.
In the first half of the 20th century, there were two major developments. The first was the growth of the skyscraper, which due to its height gave jumpers not only a thrill worth seeking but also enough distance to pull the chute and slow down before hitting the ground. One of the icons of this era, Higgins writes, was Frederick R. Law, who after jumping from the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, wowed the city when he jumped from the 31st floor of the Bankers Trust Building and landed in front of bankers on the Sub-Treasury Building.
The second major development was that of mechanical flight. After the plane, diving—and any money or attention that could be made from it—headed to skydiving feats that combined the excitement of new technology with the age-old excitement of a human potentially dying a gruesome death.
One of those iconic divers was Clen Sohn from Lansing, Michigan, who was one of the first wingsuit users all the way back in 1935. Sohn gained notoriety worldwide for his mid-air acrobatics, and was even sponsored by Chevrolet. His dips, dives, and somersaults in the air caught the attention of all the major papers.
Wingsuits, however, would not take off until the turn of the century.
“There’s only two things that will prevent me from BASE jumping. Quadriplegia or death!”
In 1978, a third major inflection point occurred. A cinematographer named Carl Boenish filmed four skydivers jumping off the face of El Capitan, a giant vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park. The video became a hit, and it led Boenish to pioneer a new type of diving—BASE. BASE, which stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges), and Earth (cliffs), became skydiving’s dangerous cousin.
While skydiving was, and still is, widely popular due to a belief in its safety, BASE jumping is not only not widespread, but is disliked by skydiving groups for giving the industry a bad name (Higgins reports that the U.S. Parachute Association even went so far in the past as to ban divers who did BASE jumps).
BASE jumping offered a new level of difficulty, as well as risk of death (thus why skydiving did not want to be associated with it). The heights are sometimes on the line between safe and suicidal, they present difficult terrain (waterfalls, mountains, 5th Avenue), and are often illegal launching points.
When that wasn’t enough for these thrill-seekers, the sport evolved even further, into the world of wingsuit flying, which allowed the daring to experience something as close to real human flight as ever in history. They soared along the faces of mountains, over deserts, and out along city streets.
They also died.
“There is that kind of voyeuristic quality. These feats are hugely popular on YouTube, and as a kind of entertainment it’s thrilling,” admits Higgins in an interview with The Daily Beast. “If the stakes were not so high, would people really care? I don’t think so. It’s beautiful, the flying is beautiful and it appeals on that level too, but the danger, there’s no doubt, for many people the danger really enhances the appeal.”
In a way that shocked me, the book is perversely entertaining when Higgins reveals the fates of many of the men and women he writes about with such admiration.
In a truly heart-pounding recap by Higgins, Sohn plummets to his death in front of thousands at the Paris Air Show in 1937 when his lines get tangled, just after declaring, “I feel as safe as you would in your grandmother’s kitchen.”
There is a Final Destination quality to these stories. Regardless of how talented or athletic or smart the people are, death seems to be the reckoning that will eventually come. When Higgins begins to tell a tale of an attempted jump, the reader has no way of knowing whether that person will be cheered or mourned.
One story he shares is that of a doctor who tells his fellow jumpers at dinner that he is going to propose to his girlfriend, and is deciding between paying off student loans and getting a Jaguar. His friends never learn his decision, as the next morning he died hitting the face of a cliff multiple times on the way to the earth.
Or there is the time one of them was sliced up by miscalculating and hitting the Royal Gorge Bridge. Or the flier who jumped from the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai and slammed into an air conditioning unit on a roof.
The question these fatalities give rise to is, of course, why? Or, it leads people to declare these people insane. That belief might be reaffirmed by the quote in the book from one of the most famous divers, Jeb Corliss, who tells a friend, “There’s only two things that will prevent me from BASE jumping. Quadriplegia or death!”
Higgins does a good job of looking at this from the divers’ perspectives. They are often superior athletes who have done years of training.
“These guys aren’t cavalier about BASE jumping and they absolutely will tell you it’s not for everybody. It’s only for those people who have to do it,” Higgins claims.
He looks at the science of why some seek out thrills that could take away one’s life.
“I think it’s a dissatisfaction with life,” he explains. “I think people are born to do these type of things, they need these thrills to be fulfilled in life.”
While you or I might be fine with backcountry skiing, surfing, or even skydiving to get a thrill, it’s not enough for some. “There are those people who need to push further and life just doesn’t offer them enough so they need to do things like BASE jump,” he says.
The second story, which really picks up steam in the latter half of the book, is the race to land without a parachute.
The tale revolves around two men. There is Jeb Corliss, BASE jumping’s wealthy rock star who was almost named X-Ray Mujahideen by his parents, and there is Gary Connery, the underdog scraping together a living as a film stunt man.
Flight, writes Higgins, is “the highest expression of man.” And for wingsuit divers, the only way flight can be “real” is if one can land without a parachute.
Corliss features in most of the jaw-dropping feats in the book, as the author traveled with him while a reporter covering action sports. He is notorious for his attention-getting stunts, as well as a Steve Jobs-meets-Sci-Fi Channel aesthetic of all-black outfit with a wingsuit. He is determined to use his fame and money as a reality TV host to achieve the Holy Grail. His determination is so overwhelming that apparently while going into surgery after smashing his body nearly to bits, he tells the doctor, “I know I can land it.”
Connery was a ne’er-do-well who fled the British military because of his authority issues and whose self-funding of his passion for diving left him a virtual unknown in the expensive and online-video-driven world of BASE jumping fame. Connery, whose very livelihood depends on him risking his life in a way that nobody knows who he is, wants to land without a parachute so that, finally, the world will know his name.
While I don’t want to spoil you discovering the winner of the race, I will say that Higgins manages to keep the reader hooked all the way through to the final page.
The unknown is always fascinating (or terrifying), and there are few things as unknown for the general public as jumping off a mountain in the Alps and using a flying squirrel suit to zoom along the face of a cliff. In a truly intoxicating read that was hard to put down, Matt Higgins has managed to make real a world about as far removed from daily life as it gets.
Bird Dream: Adventures at The Extremes of Human Flight is published by Penguin, $27.95