BASE Jumping: How It Began

Either as an emergency life saving device or in the sport known as skydiving, generally when one thinks of parachuting it is in combination with airplanes. However, parachutes have been around long before airplanes first took to the skies. Bridge Day B.A.S.E. Jumper - Photo: Melvin Grubb

The ancient Chinese of the 11th Century used small parachute-like devices to retard short falls during gymnastic demonstrations. In the 16th Century, crude parachutes were tested to allow the occupants of tall stone towers in medieval Europe a means of escaping fire.

When the hot air balloon was invented 1783 by the Montgolfier Brothers they also began testing parachutes in earnest. And that same year Sebastian Lenormand successfully jumped from a tall tower using a 14-foot diameter parachute.

Parachutes soon went from being made from heavy fabric held open by a rigid framework to foldable devices made of silk.

The best early documented use of parachutes to jump from stationary objects is in the year 1912. That year a New York steeplejack (a craftsman who makes repairs on tall towers) named Fredrick Rodman Law, jumped from the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and a Wall Street bank building!

Later, in 1942, a Milwaukee airplane mechanic parachuted from the rafters "inside" a large blimp hangar.  In the 1960s a European dentist made a jump from a cliff in the Italian Dolomites.   And in 1966 Mike Pelkey and Brian Schubert jumped from El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park.

In the mid-1970s jumps were made from the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado and from the World Trade Center Towers in New York.

The "sport" of modern BASE jumping officially began in 1978 when a California skydiver named Carl Boenish organized four jumpers who successfully jumped again in Yosemite National Park.  Carl proved these types of jumps, using modern gear and techniques, were not only repeatable, but well within the grasp of most experienced skydivers.

Carl Boenish also coined the acronym "BASE" which stands for Building, Antenna (tower), Span (bridge), and Earth (cliff). These are the four types of jumps BASE jumpers make.  And there are BASE jumping sites open to us all over the world.

And today, at Bridge Day 2009, what you are seeing is a sport being practiced by people from all walks of life. Ask ten jumpers why they BASE jump and you'll get as many answers. But the one constant will be, "Because it's fun!"

One of the first true extreme sports, modern BASE jumping is now a stand alone sport with its own guidelines, its own events, and a thriving equipment and training industry. The equipment used by BASE jumpers today has pushed parachute technology to ultra reliable levels.

And while "incidents" do occasionally occur, just like in any human endeavor, most can be traced back to user error.  So, while you may believe you are witness to the ultimate in craziness, what you are really seeing is the latest chapter in humankind's age old and never ending dream of flight.

Special Guest Post By:

Nick DiGiovanni - BASE 194