The red beacons on KTUL-TV's 1,909-foot antenna tower rise in the predawn distance—several horses and one barking dog away from where Phil Smith, Phil Mayfield, Rick Harrison and Randy Harrison are unloading parachuting equipment from a station wagon. It is 4:30 a.m. outside of Tulsa and no one has gotten more than two hours' sleep, but a couple of sips of coffee and a couple of gallons of adrenaline supercharge the morning.
The four are BASE jumpers, the acronym representing the fixed objects off which those so inclined can take a flying leap with a parachute. They run the risk of death or injury or, at the least, getting arrested for trespassing, whether the target is B (building), A (antenna tower), S (span, usually a bridge) or E (earth formation, usually a cliff). There are enclaves of BASE jumpers in Canada, England, Australia, France, Norway, Sweden and West Germany, as well as the U.S. According to statistics kept by the U.S. BASE Association, only 87 jumpers, four of them women, have completed the BASE cycle—jumping at least once off each type of fixed object—since it was established in 1981, and no more than 50 are jumping regularly these days from fixed objects.
Conventional parachuting groups generally scorn BASE jumpers, regarding them, as an official of the U.S. Parachuting Association once put it, as "sky-diving outlaws." Up close and personal, though, the KTUL jumpers come across as nothing more—and nothing less—than hearty, calculated-risk-taking individualists, of which the world has no surfeit these days.
With 132 leaps, Smith, 34, called Smitty, is the most experienced BASE jumper in the world. He's unmarried and drives a truck for Consolidated Freightways in Houston. He lives, he admits, for jumping. He's the leader.
August 25, 1985
His close friend, Mayfield, 33, is an account manager for a steel-door manufacturer in Arlington, Texas. He has a model's good looks and physique, a wife, Lyn, two children and a cautious nature that seems incompatible with his outdoor hobbies, which also include rock climbing.
Rick, a lawyer from Galveston, Texas, and Randy, a union electrician from Iowa City, Iowa, are 35-year-old twins. They have the same compact build and the same infectious enthusiasm. When the Harrison twins were young, they used to scramble up a 90-foot water tower to escape the wrath of an older brother, and in many ways they haven't changed. Their nude dives out of a plane into Dan Gable's post-NCAA wrestling championship party are still remembered around Iowa City.
Smitty and Rick flew in the night before from Texas. Mayfield made the six-hour drive with his family, while Randy's drive from Iowa took 11 hours. "I guess we've just got kind of an affectionate love for ol' KTUL," says Randy.
"Well, let's go," says Mayfield, snapping shut his rig bag. "Listen, if I bounce, my keys and checkbook are in this bag." A ground-crew member winces at his macabre comment. "Just being practical," says Mayfield. "Don't want my wife to be searching for them."
The jumpers have done KTUL before—this will be the ninth time for Smitty—and experience tells them the dog will start barking as soon as they approach the tower. Almost on cue, that's what happens. Randy throws half a Snickers bar in the dog's general direction to buy him off, and the yapping dies down. The horses and jumpers freeze for a moment as they spot each other, before the former gallop away, ghostlike, into the darkness. The jumpers reach the tower, and there's no sign of life from the nearby equipment shed. Randy wonders aloud if they'll hear KTUL's programming bouncing off the antenna during the ascent, as happened one time during a religious program. As he puts it, "I made this climb on a Sunday morning, and I couldn't get rid of Oral Roberts for a thousand feet."
The jumpers climb at their own pace, resting frequently on the platforms set 150 feet apart. It will take 3½ hours.
Everyone who knew Carl Boenish (pronounced BAY-nish) agreed he was unique. "An avocado and buttermilk guy," says Randy, referring to two of Boenish's favorite nutrients. "He was kind of goosey," says Mayfield, not unflatteringly, "and the most unselfcentered person I ever met." "A deep thinker, a philosopher," says Smitty.
Boenish had a promising engineering career with Hughes Aircraft in the mid-1960s when he became immersed in sky diving. Then it was sky-diving photography. Then it was bye-bye to Hughes and hello to a brave new world. For over a decade he was the unofficial chronicler of sky diving, the free-fall photographer for many Hollywood films (e.g., The Gypsy Moths; Iceman) and the creator of his own memorable sky-diving documentaries, which he called "film poems." In the late '70s he turned from sky diving to BASE jumping and became its first director and guiding force.
The accident that killed Boenish, one of 10 recorded BASE fatalities, happened on July 7, 1984 on a cliff near the town of Andalsnes in western Norway. Boenish was supposed to be jumping from a preresearched site but changed his mind and exited from a different cliff. No one will ever know why. "It was an uncharacteristic decision," says his widow, Jean, also a BASE jumper, who with him jumped off, among other objects, a cliff in Yosemite National Park, the 54-story Crocker Center in Los Angeles and the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia. Boenish's chute opened but soon after that, he crashed into the cliff wall. A helicopter recovered his body from the foot of the cliff three hours later. He was 43.
Two days later Jean made a BASE jump from a nearby site that had been carefully researched. An obvious question is why.
"You can't stereotype grief," Jean says quietly. "It's not like you see it on TV. Only I know how strongly I felt about Carl's death." Jean, 25, pauses and smiles to herself. She is lugging around a cast on her right leg, the legacy of a sky-diving accident in Venezuela eight months ago. By chance, she has been asked to recall the events of her husband's death on the first anniversary of the accident, yet she speaks carefully, precisely and without visible emotion.
"Carl's life was very full," she says. "He accomplished much, much more than most people do in a lifetime. Carl always said, 'If something happens to me, I don't want people to miss a beat in their lives.' " A lot of people say things like that, but Carl Boenish, by all accounts, really meant it.
Jean, who took over as director of the USBA when her husband died, says BASE fatalities occur roughly once in 600 jumps. That compares to one death in 71,000 jumps for sky diving. In BASE jumping, there is the same inherent risk of chute failure but, in most cases, much less time to pull the reserve chute. Sometimes, on jumps of 500 feet or less, there is little time for a reserve if the main chute fails. And there is always the added danger of careening back into the fixed object itself, as Boenish did.
"BASE jumping is two or three times more dangerous than sky diving," says Mayfield, "maybe 10 times."
"It's not for everyone," says Smitty. "I don't go around trying to sign up BASE jumpers." Neither does Jean, who, through the USBA, spends as much time trying to discourage risky jumps as she does trying to enlist recruits.
Because of the danger, BASE jumpers have been accused of having a death wish. But Rick says, "We prove every time we jump that we don't, simply because there are so many ways we could die and we do things to avoid them." "Finding a way to cheat that reaper," says Randy. "That's what this is all about."
Even at the relatively familiar—and, because of its considerable height, safer—apex of the KTUL tower, cheating the reaper requires care. About halfway up the tower, the jumpers determine that they will leap due north. "Whatever wind there is, that's the way it's blowing," says Smitty over a two-way FM radio to his ground crew. On tower jumps, the leap is always made with the wind so that it helps propel the jumpers away from their base.
This Saturday-morning climb has been uneventful; not even Oral Roberts has disturbed the jumpers' ascent of the tower, which, to put things in perspective, is 600 feet higher than the Empire State Building. Once at the top, the foursome climb into jumpsuits. Then they "rigger-check" each other, taking particular care that the nylon webbing, or bridle, that connects the pilot chute to the main chute is routed correctly. Rip cords are pretty much passé in parachute jumping. Nowadays when a jumper is ready to release his canopy, he throws out a pilot chute—taking care not to throw it into the "burble" or vacuum of wind directly behind him—and the pilot in turn pulls out the main chute.
The A is probably the second-least-dangerous letter in the BASE formula. S's are almost always a piece of cake; there is no solid face for the jumpers to slam into, and the landing is usually into water. Most dangerous are B's, since urban planners do not provide parachute-landing areas. Second-most-dangerous are E's, which, like buildings, have solid faces that punish misplanned jumps and also are subject to wicked, confusing crosswind currents. The wind blows through the apertures of antenna towers. Also, the landing areas around the usually remote towers tend to be plentiful and soft, as in the case of KTUL, where a BASE jumper has a good chance of plunking down in a pile of fresh cow manure.
No BASE jump, no matter how familiar, is problem-free. On the KTUL tower, for example, guy wires run from ground to top in twos and threes, 24 wires altogether. Obviously, they are to be avoided. And on this muggy summer morning there is almost no wind, even 1,900 feet up, to push the jumpers away from the tower.
Nobody would suggest that sky diving is a sport for dullards, but most BASE jumpers, almost all of whom began by jumping out of airplanes, say that their jumps require infinitely more planning. In 1983, for example, it took Smith and Rick two months to plot an intricately timed Butch-and-Sundance-style jump off a moving Southern Pacific train into the Pecos River near Comstock, Texas.
The KTUL jumpers decide to exit from a beam above the highest platform on the tower. That way they can experience what Randy calls "the beam rush"—the exhilaration of standing at the brink—and avoid jumping near a microwave dish on the platform. Rick claims Randy's beard once was discolored by a prior microwave toasting on a tower. Reaching the beam, however, necessitates a risky 30-foot climb up a rickety ladder hung outside the tower.
"Hey, we didn't come this far for a damn quilting bee, right?" Randy tells the ground crew after the four reach the beam safely.
There had been isolated fixed-object parachute jumps for more than a decade, but the sport of BASE jumping got its real start on an August weekend in 1978 when four parachutists leaped off the breathtaking 3,000-foot El Capitan cliff in Yosemite. Carl Boenish, needless to say, was there to photograph it, and his pictures spread the word about cliff jumping. El Cap jumps were eventually banned by park authorities, but the sport of fixed-object jumping was off and winging. "Once I had done El Cap," says Smith, "all I wanted to do was jump off of things."
Carl and Jean felt the same way. They did this tower, that bridge, this cliff. It was at Mayfield's house in Texas that Carl, Jean and Smitty, dictionary and thesaurus in hand, came up with the BASE acronym. They felt it covered all possible categories of objects to be jumped from, and they were delighted that it also had a double meaning, in that jumpers leap from a stationary base.
On Jan. 18, 1981 Smith and Mayfield became the first jumpers to complete the BASE cycle. They had ASE and needed the B, which they added by parachuting from the 72nd floor of the then unfinished Texas Commerce Tower in Houston. Smitty jumped first, a split second before Mayfield, thereby earning the distinction of being BASE No. 1. On the ground, cameras poised, were Carl and Jean. Carl, who would go on to organize the USBA and publish six issues of BASE Magazine, probably could have pressed to become the first jumper to complete the cycle, but that wasn't his style. Besides, neither he nor Jean cared for the swirling winds at the top of the building. A week later Jean became BASE No. 3, Carl BASE No. 4.
Randy stands poised on a beam almost 2,000 feet above the ground. He is barely visible to his support crew. Smitty delivers a fitting quote: "God," he says, "what will we ever do if this gets dull?" Randy gets a 10-second countdown from Mayfield and jumps on "Go!"
The official party line of BASE jumping contains a good bit of philosophy—about freedom, one's inherent right to jump from fixed objects and the adventure of discovery and exploration—but, when you cut through it all, BASE jumping is about the exhilarating feeling of jumping without the noise and wind currents caused by an airplane. The rush. The adrenaline charge. "It's so quiet for the first few seconds," says Mayfield. "Then it's shhhhhhhh!" Rick says, "If that rush you get in the first few seconds wasn't there, it wouldn't be worth it."
Randy goes into a forward 1½ somersault. Eight or nine seconds after the exit, he throws his pilot chute and the canopy opens. He floats to earth, soundless but for his own enthusiastic greeting to the ground crew. He lands perfectly on his running shoes; improvements in chute technology have made obsolete the heavy paratrooper-style boots of old. "I was just thinking on the way down that, after this, bowling seems a little boring," he says, smiling.
Randy looks skyward as Mayfield jumps, his nylon suit cracking like a bullwhip, audible even at 1,000 feet. "Hum it, May, hum it!" Randy shouts at him. Translation: Keep free-falling. Mayfield hums it for a full 10 seconds before throwing the pilot that kicks in the main chute. Another perfect 10.
Over the radio, Mayfield gives the countdown to Rick and Smitty, who are going to make a dual exit. Rick leaps first, his helmet-mounted, rear-facing, motor-driven camera clicking off frames of Smitty above him. Rick intended to throw at seven, "but it felt so good I kept it going to eight," he says later. Above him, Smitty, wearing a front-facing camera, has thrown at four. It is axiomatic on dual BASE exits that the jumper leaving last pulls first, so that he will slow down and stay away from the first jumper's chute. Rick plops to earth in a perfect stand-up landing but favoring his right leg, which was badly injured—a shattered tibia—in a BASE jump in 1983. Some eight seconds later, Smitty lands.
Their faces are flushed, their conversation animated with parachuting gobbledygook. They sip beer and stare at the tower as if it were a dear departed friend. There is no question that the four to 10 seconds of free-falling into the heavy Oklahoma morning air has made the weekend.
A plan at once noble and absurd begins to emerge from the snippets of conversation. They talk excitedly about making "the ultimate patriotic jump"—from the Statue of Liberty torch during the centennial ceremonies in 1986.
"Just give us an American flag, put us in red-white-and-blue jumpsuits," says Rick, "and let us go."