Jeb Corliss has flown within a 30-foot crack in a cliff on live TV, shot through a waterfall with a wingsuit, and garnered 29 million YouTube views for a video of his flight through a slot canyon in Switzerland. The 39-year-old has also seen a friend torn apart from flying into a bridge railing, broken his back by hitting a rock wall, and broken both his legs crashing into South Africa’s Table Mountain. “I am the guy who knows 100 percent that this sport is going to kill me,” says Corliss. “That makes me take it very seriously.”
How do you persist in the face of so many people dying?
That’s nothing new. Since I’ve been in this sport, I’ve watched on average six people die a year. I didn’t get into it thinking I was collecting stamps. I knew it was dangerous, and I’ve continued doing it after getting seriously injured. I never pretended it was safe, because it’s not.
You mentioned the injuries. What are the worst ones?
Well, I’ve had so many. My first was jumping off a 220-foot bridge in Northern California. I landed hard and folded my left foot in half so that my toes touched my ankle. Then in South Africa, in 1999, I jumped off Howick Falls and got a 90-degree off-heading opening that took me into the waterfall. I broke my back in three places. I was lying in the water below and I couldn’t move, and the blood of my wounds attracted freshwater crabs that ate me alive. It was a mind-altering experience.
What’s the appeal of wingsuit flying, where you use a suit to create glide once you’re in the air, versus BASE jumping, where you essentially jump and pull your chute?
Regular BASE is super-terrifying, because you’re always close to the wall. The problem with wingsuit flying is that it’s just not scary. It gives you this false feeling that you have total control. It’s very peaceful, even when you’re doing it really close to a cliff. It’s like that dream of flying when you’re a kid.
Wingsuit pilots are now racing in competitions. Is that the future of the sport?
Yes. It’s growing massively in China. Last year we had TV viewerships in the hundreds of millions — at least in Asia. Now we’re hoping to bring that to the United States. In the next five years, you’re going to see wingsuit pilots making real athlete-style money.
Will new designs make suits safer and perform better?
Honestly, we’re getting incredible performance out of wingsuits right now. So the next revolution will have to be in materials, like those dimples on golf balls that make them fly 20 percent farther.
What’s your next stunt?
We found a section of the Great Wall of China that’s on top of a 400-foot hill. The wall is about 30 feet tall, and there’s a 30-foot tower on top of that. We’re going to suspend a floating target from the tower. I’ll fly right down the Great Wall, hit that target with my head, and then deploy my chute. If everything goes perfect, I’ll be fine.
How do you go through with something like this when you may be killed on live TV?
If you walk into an octagon for an MMA fight thinking, “This guy is going to be friendly,” then he’s going to break your legs. That’s how I look at wingsuit flying. It’s about getting into that ring and out of that ring in one piece. I look at every jump like it’s out to kill me.