For as long as he can remember, Jeb Corliss has dreamed of flying. One of his earliest memories came when he was 6 and sitting in the back of his aunt’s car watching birds jump from telephone poles, opening their wings and soaring. “When I get older, I’m going to do that,” he said. His aunt explained that when he got older he would realize that humans can’t fly. “Maybe you can’t,” he replied, “but I’m going to.”
Sure enough, Corliss has dedicated his life to human flight, and in so doing often makes the seemingly impossible a reality. He is one of the world’s foremost and best-known BASE-jumpers and wingsuit pilots. BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span (bridges) and Earth (cliffs) all objects practitioners leap from using a parachute. In 14 years, Corliss has made more than 1,000 jumps, from the likes of the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Falls in Venezuela, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and into a half-mile deep cave in China. He hasn’t simply leapt off and pulled his parachute, though. To add an extra layer of challenge, push the bounds of his ability, and further slice the razor slim margin for error, he has performed acrobatic maneuvers – twists, somersaults, and gainers – during freefall. More recently he discovered the thrills and challenge of BASE-jumping with wingsuits, flying along some of the most stunning and dangerous mountain terrain. In the nearest approximation of human flight yet, wingsuits (which are more flying squirrel than bird or plane) allow the best pilots to trace the contours of cliffs, ridges, and mountainsides at high speed. All of which makes for an incredible spectacle: In July 2011, Corliss flew feet from the ground in the Swiss Alps, an event captured on camera and broadcast on ABC’s 20/20. Two months later, in September, Corliss swooped through an arch in the side of China’s iconic Tianmen Mountain, in front of a live television audience of millions.
From childhood, Corliss’s life has been characterized by adventure, flirtation with danger, and testing the parameters of his fear. Delivered by a New Zealand bush doctor in a house near Santa Fe, New Mexico, he was born on March 25, 1976, into an unconventional life. His parents were international artifacts dealers and with their three children in tow, they traveled the world. By the time he was 6, Corliss had lived in India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where his parents were scouting for art when the Soviets invaded in 1979.
As Corliss and his sisters approached school age, though, his family returned to New Mexico. Still, they continued to move frequently and Corliss found himself in a succession of schools. Always the new kid, he made few friends and was a frequent target of bullies. These experiences reinforced growing feelings of isolation and restlessness. For diversion, Corliss captured rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders in the desert near his home and made them his pets and playmates. The sensations he got from such close proximity to fearsome creatures gave Corliss his feeling for life. Although he has a fondness for most animals, Corliss especially enjoys sharks. At 16 he discovered SCUBA diving and soon began diving with sharks because he was fascinated by them and they frightened him. In 2008 he realized a dream, diving unprotected by a cage and petting a Great White shark off the coast of Mexico.
Jeb Corliss in action (photo by Amos Nachoum)
Soon after discovering SCUBA, Corliss witnessed BASE for the first time while watching TV. He saw a man step to the edge of a cliff, stick out his tongue, step off, and perform a gainer. The experience stirred such powerful feelings, he vowed to himself: That’s my future. I’m going to do that for the rest of my life and I’m going to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
It would not be easy. When he turned 18, Corliss began skydiving in preparation for BASE-jumping. Four years later, he finally completed a BASE training course and made his first jump from a bridge in Northern California. By jumping Corliss discovered a joy and purpose that had been absent in his life, and was filled with a sense of accomplishment. He had made his dreams come true, completing a goal he set for himself years earlier. Still, there were always more challenges and projects to fire his imagination. Today, he continues to train and work toward even bigger feats, including what is likely the ultimate dream: The Wingsuit Landing Project, in which Corliss would leap from a helicopter and land without a parachute. It will require a major commitment of training and funding to pull it off, but Corliss is confident he can achieve one of the last great challenges remaining on Earth – human flight.
Corliss’s stunts and his unyielding approach to life never fail to fascinate. He has been the subject of profiles published in The New York Times, Outside, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian Air & Space, Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone. He has been featured on television in the United States and abroad, including 60 Minutes in Australia, ESPN’s E:60, Today, The Colbert Report, Good Morning America, and Conan. Corliss has been featured in popular BASE documentaries such as A Year in the Life, and Journey to the Center. His life was the subject of a documentary film, Fearless, and he was the original host of Stunt Junkies on The Discovery Channel. When he is not traveling the world, Corliss lives in Venice, Calif.
In 1999, Corliss had a near-fatal BASE jump into the Howick Falls, in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. His parachute opening was asymmetric and he could not avoid flying into the downpouring water.
In October 2003, Corliss was teamed to jump with his best friend, Australian BASE jumper Dwain Weston, at the inaugural Go Fast Games. Corliss was to fly under the Royal Gorge Bridge, while Weston was meant to pass over it. Instead, Weston impacted the bridge at an estimated speed of 120 mph (190 km/h) and was killed instantly. Corliss had to take evasive action to avoid colliding with Weston's body.
In April 2006, Corliss attempted to BASE jump off the observation deck of the Empire State Building, while wearing a camera, but was restrained by building security and arrested by the NYPD. As a result, Corliss received three years probation and 100 hours community service, which was at one point overturned by a Manhattan state judge on the basis that Corliss "was experienced and careful enough to jump off a building without endangering his own life or anyone else’s". This sentence was affirmed in January 2009. Corliss was later permanently banned from the Empire State Building.
On July 1, 2011, near Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, Corliss became the first man to fly through a waterfall wearing a wingsuit.
On September 25, 2011, Corliss jumped out of a helicopter at 6,000 feet and glided through a 100-ft wide archway in Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China, landing with a parachute on a nearby bridge.
On January 16, 2012, in an accident while proximity flying off Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, Corliss broke both ankles, three toes, and a fibula, tore his left Anterior cruciate ligament, and sustained a gash in his skin that required skin grafts to close. He struck his legs approximately halfway between the hip and knee on a rock ledge he was attempting to skim over while aiming at a target balloon. The impact caused him to tumble forward one revolution before he regained some control, cleared some additional ledges and then deployed his parachute. Due to the lack of stability, his canopy quickly spun him into the ground. He was airlifted out by the Red Cross Air Mercy Service. He has recovered, and plans to return to life as usual. A video of the accident has been released.
On September 28, 2013, Corliss made a jump called the "flying dagger". He jumped out of a helicopter wearing a wingsuit and then flew through a narrow "crack" in Mount Jianglang in China. The fissure is approximately 60 feet across at the top, 15 feet across at the bottom, and over three football fields tall. After safely completing the jump, Corliss was quoted saying that it was "...the single gnarliest thing I've ever done..." and "I have never experienced anything so hardcore. Period. I have not been that scared in my life. It was so powerful and overwhelming. I started crying..."