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BASE jumping photos, FAQ and anecdotes.
The curious persons primer on BASE Jumping

last updated 8-2008
   

 


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What is BASE jumping?

BASE jumpers are parachutists who jump from fixed objects such as skyscrapers and cliffs.  BASE is an acronym that stands for Buildings, Antenna, Spans (bridges) and Earth (Cliffs), the four types of objects typically jumped. BASE jumping is separate from Skydiving, the legal mainstream sport of parachuting from aircraft. Because most BASE jumps take place well below 2000 feet, BASE jumpers have devised different types of parachute equipment, packing & deployment methods than is used in sport skydiving.

 

When was BASE jumping "invented"?

There are several very early accounts of parachute jumps made from fixed objects, some even predating the airplane. All of these were considered one-time stunts. Finally, in 1978 the modern incarnation of BASE jumping -- including the acronym "BASE" itself -- was effectively invented by the late skydiver, BASE jumper and filmmaker Carl Boenish along with his band of friendly jumpers including wife Jean Boenish. In 1978 they made, and extensively filmed the first true modern BASE jumps from Yosemite National Park's El Capitan peak. Unlike previous jumps by other people, Carl and his cohorts established fixed object parachuting as a recreation, not a one time stunt. In the early days of BASE jumping, jumpers used lightly or unmodified skydiving equipment. Today, they use specialized parachute systems made just for BASE jumping.

What places these jumps into the modern realm was their use of ram air parachutes and freefall tracking techniques that were key to making BASE jumping substantially safer. Body-steering freefall "tracking" methods let jumpers gain distance from the cliff before deploying their parachutes, and square "ram air" parachutes allowed control of the parachute -- object avoidance and landing site selection being two obvious benefits to using such techniques and equipment. In 1978 Carl's El Capitan jump footage appeared on TV shows like "That's Incredible", planting the seed in the minds of others, including my then 14 year old self, to one day try BASE jumping.

A few years later Carl and his band adapted the sequential skydiving license numbering system for recognizing BASE jumpers. Any jumper who made at least one jump from each type of object, spelling the acronym, received a "BASE number" denoting he or she was the first, fifth, 80th, etc., person to complete the cycle.

For a nice, short review of BASE jumping's origins as written by Nick Di Giovanni (BASE 194), go here: http://www.basicresearch.com/base_history.htm. (Nick also helped us on the film Stealing Altitude)

How low can they go?

 
 
  A BASE jumper makes a late night parachute jump from a 55 story Los Angeles high rise, circa early 1990's. Photographer's notes: I exposed the shot to capture the bright street lights by using a long exposure (around 2 or 3 secs) with a single flash at the head of the shutter opening, and I had the camera mounted on a tripod fixed over the edge. Photograph copyright John T. Starr.  

BASE jumpers have developed highly specialized parachute equipment and packing techniques designed to get a parachute open very fast. 

The unofficial record for lowest freefall BASE jump over hard ground is purportedly 110 feet, but there is no documentation I know of other than mention of it on BASEjumper.com. The record for assisted deployment is 63 feet, a jump made by Steve Ball on a video called "Fixed 2" by Jason Bell. A guy named Peter Gambs has made some dramatic low altitude BASE jumps using an air rocket deployed parachute, but I have not seen any published altitude numbers for his jumps. I have personally made freefalls from a 350 foot cliff (estimated), assisted ("direct bag") jumps from a 210 foot cliff (measured), and one static line jump from a 145 foot bridge over water (the Gerald Desmond bridge in Long Beach, which according to research, the deck is 150 above the water. I jumped from several feet below the deck)

One well documented case: In December 1999, BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner set a new record of 95 feet (29 meters) when he jumped from the right hand of the Christ statue in Rio De Janeiro.

Is BASE jumping legal?

No and yes. The short version is that there are some places in the USA that have specific "aerial delivery" laws that effectively prohibit some forms of aerial activity in certain areas -- the national parks system being one jurisdiction. The rangers at Yosemite National Park will haul you to jail, charge you witth illegal aerial delivery, then confiscate your parachute if you are caught jumping from sites such as El Capitan, Half Dome or Glacier Point. But in most other areas/situations, BASE jumpers, if caught, face only misdemeanor trespassing charges, and often a reckless endangerment charge since getting to most sites involves tresspassing and possibly endangering people below.

There are some places in the USA where BASE jumping is permitted. The longest running such exception is the annual Bridge Day event near Fayetteville, West Virginia. (http://www.wvbridgeday.com/) Every year they allow legal BASE jumping from the 876 foot New River Gorge Bridge. Each year the park service permits legal parachuting from the bridge during a six hour window on the third Saturday in October. During that time, several hundred BASE jumps take place.

 

Is BASE jumping more dangerous than skydiving?


Yes. Skydiving has many safety benefits over BASE jumping. Mainly it has the safety of higher altitudes which allow more time to deal with emergencies and more time to open a secondary parachute. Skydiving also removes the object-strike potential that is a constant threat in BASE jumping -- that is, the potential to fall into, fly into via your wing suit, or fly your open parachute back into, due to a variety of factors in and out of jumper control, the object you just leapt from (the cliff, building, antenna tower...). While it is true that a skydiver has the potential to strike the aircraft on exit, it is a rare event associated with accidental parachute deployments in or near the aircraft doorway, in the aircraft, or the result of improper aircraft attitude (emergency exits from crashing aircraft, or aircraft not flying level and slow for some other reason), or blatant jumper error.

Also, there are often enhanced landing dangers in BASE jumping, depending on the type of jump. Jumping from urban high-rises usually means landing in city streets, sidewalks, and parking lots, which introduces a number of landing hazards from moving vehicles, pedestrians, parked vehicles, street lights and power lines.

Jumping from cliffs and remote canyon bridges often means landing on narrow trails, rocky basins, brushy wilderness, trees, river beds, or in the rivers themselves. Antenna tower jumpers usually have much better landing options, but run the risk of flying their parachutes into the tower support wires if they jump in dangerous wind conditions, or don't watch where they are going.

For a very good overview of how dangerous BASE jumping is, read this excellent ESPN article titled "A Sport to Die For". I think it is one of the few articles to get it right, as ugly as "right" is in this sport.

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How often do BASE jumpers leap from skyscrapers?

 

Men In Black: outlaw BASE jumpers on a Los Angeles, California skyscraper, circa early 1990s. Photo (c) John Starr.

 

In my view, skyscraper jumps are the most rebellious, outrageous and alluring of all.

In the early 1990s I made two documentaries about BASE jumping, both films shot mostly in the Los Angeles area. During that time I filmed, photographed and witnessed many bandit (not permitted) skyscraper jumps. I spent countless nights roaming the very dusty interiors of high rise construction sites in what jumpers sometimes called "the great vertical playground" of downtown Los Angeles.

During its construction phase, the tallest building on the west coast of the USA, then known as the "Library Square" building (see in the background of the above photo) was a very popular site for outlaw BASE jumpers. I personally know two jumpers who logged 104 outlaw jumps from that building -- 53 to 51 I recall was the final score on that friendly rivalry.

I've met numerous other jumpers who all had a piece of that building, including foreign jumpers who flew in to the USA just to log a building jump. Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of jumps were made from it during its vulnerable construction phase. I even spoke to a Los Angeles Times archivist who witnessed some of these jumps. In the pre-dawn hours, from his nearby office window he sometimes saw BASE jumpers land and scurry away -- and sometimes, he noted with amusement, they would hang out and eat at a roach coach after the jump.

So why do I not hear about skyscraper jumps more often?
 

Two outlaw jumpers make a rare morning daylight morning parachute jump from highrise construction site in Los Angeles, circa early 1990's. Photo (c) John Starr.
 

These days, with legal sites and promotional jumps on the rise, sometimes you do hear about skyscraper jumps more often. But back then there was a saying; "the best jumps are the ones you never hear about." If you heard about it, it usually meant something went wrong. A jumper got seen, caught, injured, or killed.

Some jumpers sought publicity (John Vincent being one of the most notorious cases) but most jumpers played well beneath the radar. That meant jumping well after midnight, and not sending photos or video to the media. Self promotion was frowned upon, and daylight jumps were rare -- usually a one-time fare-thee-well to a building that was about to be completed and opened for business.

Daylight jumps from a new construction site were especially taboo in BASE circles, as it could "blow" the site long before its time. That is, alert authorities and maybe cause greater security to be placed in the building, preventing or complicating continued jumping.

So unless you were hanging out beneath a high rise under construction at about 3am, outlaw urban BASE jumping stayed in the shadows where it belonged.
 


  Under the cover of a foggy night: Outlaw BASE jumpers parachuting from Los Angeles skyscrapers under construction, circa early 1990s. Photos (c) John Starr.  
 
Can you see the parachute? Niether can most folks driving around downtown at 3 O'clock in the morning. Photo by John Starr. This modified image reveals the BASE jumper setting up for his landing in a parking lot. Photo by John Starr.  

 

How often do they get caught?

Not as often as you might think.

During th late 1980s and early 1990s outlaw BASE jumping in and around downtown Los Angeles seems to have peaked. This is largely because a spate of skyscrapers were built in downtown Los Angeles during that time. These porous construction sites offered easy access to the rooftops. There was no breaking and entering, and no elaborate "infiltration" schemes; it was a matter of mere tresspassing, and in a pre 9/11 world the offense was mere nuisance. For a small bribe, some construction site security guards even allowed the activity. Other guards, especially at the "Library Square" tower, were notoriously inflexible. Then there were the middle-of-the-road guards in other buildings.

What happens when they get caught?

 
 

A night guard lectures three BASE jumpers caught tresspassing in his skycraper under construction.
Photo by John Starr.
 

At best a tresspassing and wreckless endangerment charge might be filed against jumpers. During my four to five year involvement in BASE jumping, there were some arrests.

Shortly after successfully infiltrating and jumping a finished high rise on a Sunday afternoon, the jumpers got greedy. A week or so later they went back and tried again wearing the same fake repairmen uniforms, with their parachutes again concealed inside tool boxes. The guards were wise this time; they played along, trapped the jumpers in the service elevator, and had them arrested for criminal tresspassing. Those guys spent a long night and part of a day in jail.

One night we got caught by a sheepish guard who was conflicted about what to do. He liked us, but liked his job also. After much discussion he told us "Ok. It's 1:30:am. I want you guys out of my building by 3:00am -- now, how you get out of here is up to you." Wink, wink, nod, nod. Up to the top we went. The winds were blowing too much for safe jumping that night, so back down we came. We hung out with the guard, took some photos with him, and forged professional friendship. On subsequent nights, for a small fee, he would escort jumpers past the other guards in the building.

A chance spotting by police one night resulted in a arrest for a friend of mine who had been gliding to a landing when the police rounded the corner. And another friend was arrested as he was walking back to his car after landing one night. The police matched his shoes to shoe prints inside the dusty building.

Two guys I know were subjected to a rather spectacular arrest in Las Vegas after jumping from the Stratosphere in the middle of the night. During its 1990's construction phase it was heavily guarded by very BASE-wise security agents. After sneaking inside the tower, my friends were spotted and chased up to the top. They knew they were going to be arrested whether they jumped or not, so they chose to "get arrested for doing something" and jumped -- right over the many camera crews that had materialzed after the call for back up had gone out.

Most of the time, though, getting caught meant nothing more than a funny encounter.

During the filming of some rare outlaw daylight jumps in down town Los Angeles, two jumpers were collared by CHP officers upon landing. The film crew, myself and two remaining jumpers crouched and watched from the top as our friends were detained. Eventually two LAPD cars arrived. There was a discussion between the LAPD and CHP officers, and our friends, then the two jumpers were released and the police all drove away. We learned later that the CHP had held them for the LAPD. The LAPD had checked their records, scolded and released them after believing their lies that nobody else was in the building. If I remember correctly, about a hour later we filmed the remaining two jumpers leaping from the building, and we all got away. I think we even came back the next week and did it again.

Late one night I was caught while descending after taking photos of two jumpers. The guard questioned me, I told him I was a photography student and wanted citycape photos, but nobody would allow me onto the roof without a million dollar insurance policy -- which is true. They won't. So, I lied, I decided to "steel" my way onto the roof to get the photos. He let me go after making me promise I'd get out of his building and not come back.

Another night myself and one jumper were caught just after we got into the lower floor of a construction site. We flat-out told the guard what we were doing. He called us crazy, turned around, threw his hands in the air, and walked away mumbling about how he didn't see nothing and didn't want to.

The war between BASE jumpers and security guards raged for years. Though technically the stakes were high, it was hardly a war. Indeed, the "war" stories we tell involve a lot of laughter, and few tears. And some of them start "then there was the guard who could be bought with a fifth of Whisky".

 

How long can they fall?

On average, a normally clothed average-weighted BASE jumper freefalling from a 500 foot building will impact in about 6 seconds. In this scenario most jumpers I knew would take a "delay" of two or three seconds before opening the parachute.

According to BASEjumper.com the current unofficial record is a two minute freefall made by Yuri Kuznetsov in the summer of 2005. He used a wingsuit to achieve this incredible feat, I don't know where the jump was or how high the jump started.

The development of the wingsuit (originally intended for skydiving) in the 1990s brought a freefall revolution in BASE jumping. The wingsuit allows jumpers to make incredibly long freefall descents along sloping mountains and cliffs, soaring like birds of prey, falling at half the normal terminal velocity. For reference, consider this: prior to the wingsuit, jumpers making outlaw leaps off of Half Dome could freefall for just under ten seconds before opening very low, near impact, over the rocky, sloping talos. Today, an experienced wingsuit flyer leaping from Half Dome can soar over 50 seconds, maneuvering over the talos and down mountainside itself until reaching the valley below. NOTE: parachuting in Yosemite National Park is strictly illegal and heavily enforced.

 

What are the fatality rates for BASE jumpers?

According to online sources (noted below) between 1981 and 2008 there have been at least 123 recorded fatalities attributed to BASE jumping. What is not fully known is the ratio of successful jumps to fatal jumps, and total number of participants at a given time. See: http://www.splatula.com/bfl/ for a list of the known fatalities.

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About the author

 
 

My experience: I made two documentaries about BASE jumping, during that time I logged about 300 parachute jumps, 17 of which were outlaw BASE jumps, the remainder being legal skydives from a variety of aircraft (Twin Otters, Pilatus Porter, Cessna 172, 182, 190, 210, Lockheed Super Constellation, Douglas DC 3, Piper Cub, and a Beechcraft Bonanza --that was a tricky jump!)


Bailing out over my campsite in the Mojave
Desert, circa mid 1990s.
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    A late night self portrait made on a Los Angeles skyscraper, circa early 1990s. Photo by John Starr.