Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
No, it’s … Flying Squirrel Man????
That would be a big affirmative, Houston. But that blip on the radar screen over Lake Okeechobee in Clewiston, Fla., wasn’t a UFS — Unidentified Flying Squirrel — it was BASE jumper Jeb Corliss.
BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth, and those are the things that Corliss and others like him jump off with parachutes on their backs and thrill-seeking in their hearts. But now, if we can mix our movie metaphors, the 31-year-old Corliss is attempting to boldly (some might say foolhardily) go where no man or woman has ever gone before.
Wearing nothing but the wingsuit that makes him look just like a flying squirrel, but without the moose sidekick, Corliss wants to be the first person to jump from an aircraft at an altitude of a couple thousand feet and land without the aid of a parachute.
He’s not quite ready for that, yet. Corliss said he needs about six more months — oh, and $2 million — before he’s ready to make history. But on Tuesday, he gave the TODAY Show the first-ever demonstration on live television of how the wingsuit works, jumping from a plane flying at 14,000 feet and “flying” down to about 2,500 feet before deploying his parachute and landing.
It was a spectacular show that began when his partner, Luigi Cani, jumped first and deployed the smallest parachute a person can wear and still land safely. Trailing smoke from canisters attached to his heels, Cani provided a target for Corliss to aim for.
The plane did a 180-degree turn and Corliss, wearing a helmet and face shield that allowed him to talk viewers through the jump, leaped next, followed by a cameraman in another wingsuit.
“I’m finding my line. I see my angle,” Corliss reported, his special suit allowing him to close the distance between him and his target.
From the ground, TODAY’s Lester Holt said Corliss, with smoke trailing from his heels, “looked like a guided missile as he aimed for Luigi.”
From the air, Corliss closed in on his target, giving a running commentary and clearly enjoying every adrenaline-soaked second.
“I’m moving in on him,” he said. “Slowing down, slowing down, matching his glide angle, matching his speed. Putting on the brakes. Coming next to him. Five feet away, six feet away, I’m matching him perfectly. Touching him. We made contact — perfect.”
And that was the object of the jump — to test Corliss’ ability to home in on a target with absolute control and precision.
The wingsuit acts exactly like a flying squirrel’s skin, the fabric catching the air and allowing him to steer with arm and head movements and to speed up or slow down by controlling how much surface area he presents to the air. Instead of falling straight down, he glides, moving three feet horizontally for every foot he descends vertically. He says he can control his flight precisely enough to fly through a window.
Even though the suit slows his rate of descent substantially he’s still falling at about 100 feet per second — nearly 70 mph — and flying at around 110 mph. Landing at that speed would turn Corliss into runway kill.
This is where the $2 million comes in. Corliss is working on raising that much money to build a special, 20-foot-wide landing strip that would be built at about a 45-degree angle, like the landing hill for a ski jumper. From there to the ground it would be like riding the mother of all playground slides. If he feels he can’t hit the landing strip, he can veer away, deploy his parachute and land safely, he said.
He’s not giving out precise details; there’s a race on among BASE jumpers to be the first to land without a parachute and no one wants to give away critical details to his rivals.
Tuesday’s jump was more than just a demonstration for TODAY viewers. It was also one of many practice jumps Corliss is making prior to the record attempt. “We’re testing angles and trajectories,” he told Holt.
He’s been jumping in a wingsuit for about nine years, he said. Now, he’s perfecting his flight control to make his historic attempt.
“First, it’s preparation and training,” he told Holt after making a perfect tip-toe landing with his parachute. “It’s been years in the making. Now I’m learning precision with Luigi.”
Corliss has been in the headlines before. He has jumped off mountains, the Space Needle in Seattle, the Eiffel Tower, Angel Falls and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. In a recent wingsuit jump in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, he flew just under the arm of the giant statue of Christ on a mountain overlooking the city, then whizzed six feet over the heads of astonished tourists on the statue’s observation platform.
But he made his biggest headlines in 2006 when he attempted to jump off the Empire State Building in New York.
Wearing a “fat suit” to conceal his parachute, he took the elevator to the famous building’s observation deck, then stripped off his disguise and climbed over the security fence around the deck. Before he could jump, security guards grabbed him and handcuffed him to the barrier’s bars.
He was charged by police with reckless endangerment, but the charges were thrown out in court because neither the city nor the state of New York had a law that made it illegal to jump off buildings. The building’s owners then sued him, and he sued back for $30 million.
Corliss’ lawyer, Mark Jay Heller, told Holt that the suit charges that the owners of the Empire State Building are negligent because they don’t have a steel mesh canopy over the observation deck to prevent would-be suicides from jumping off. The building, he said, is an “attractive nuisance” — it attracts people who want to do themselves harm. As such, it has an obligation to protect people from themselves by making it impossible to climb over the barrier and leap.
“I’m not the issue,” Corliss said. “I care about my safety and the safety of other human beings. Suicides don’t.”
Over the history of the building, 30 people have taken their own lives by leaping from the 86th-floor observation deck.
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