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Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight


Edited by Ben Platt

A gripping chronicle of skydivers, BASE jumpers, and the latest aerial pioneers on the edge.

Human flight is one of the last great challenges on Earth. Not like how the Wright brothers flew, but how we fly in our dreams.

This is the goal of the Wingsuit Landing Project: to soar through the sky at speeds up to 100 mph, over distances up to four and a half miles, and to land without the aid of a parachute. At least half a dozen groups around the globe have taken part, from France, South Africa, Australia, Russia, and Britain to the United States. This project is the creation of thirty-seven-year-old adrenaline-seeking Jeb Corliss, Jr., a Southern Californian who seeks to emulate a mode of flight more like a flying squirrel than bird or plane. The possibilities of the wingsuit concept have captured the human imagination—from the mythical Icarus to beloved character Wile E. Coyote—but the results have usually been disastrous. New designs developed over the past two decades have made the wingsuit slightly safer and more predictable, but immense dangers still remain.

Journalist Matt Higgins gained intimate access to wingsuit pioneer Corliss; a brash, publicity-hungry rich kid from LA who, after years of BASE jumping and skydiving, set out to be the first person to be dropped 2,400 feet and land solely with the aid of a wingsuit. But somewhere in the UK, a forty-two-year-old man of average means was plotting to beat Corliss at his own $3 million game. His name was Gary Connery. Along with an international group of wingsuit devotees—including a Finnish magician, a parachute tester from Brazil, an Australian computer programmer, a gruff former Hollywood stuntman-turned-aeronautical engineer, a French skydiving champion, and a South African costume designer—Corliss and Connery race to leap into the unknown as the world’s foremost wingsuit pilots. This race will nearly cost one of the competitors his life.

Bird Dream is a riveting, adrenaline-fueled narrative about a group of unforgettable characters who risk everything to achieve man’s age-old dream of flying. Chronicling everything from stunt parachuting in 1960s Hollywood to BASE jumping off landmark buildings in Manhattan to wingsuit flying in South America, Bird Dream takes readers to the cutting edge of this new frontier—as well as the strange science and fearless history that have led us to this remarkable point in the human experience.


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Praise

“In Bird Dream, Matt Higgins cracks open this astonishingly dangerous sport and captures the spectacular adrenaline surges it delivers. [A] riveting tale.” The Wall Street Journal

“[A] compelling chronicle of the extreme sport subculture of those who love soaring, gliding, and plummeting to the earth from a wide range of deadly heights. Higgins has inherently thrilling material on his hands, but he does much more than merely describe the adrenaline-charged feats of jumpers. The book is a subtle study of the psychology of athletes engaged in a sport where death is a constant possibility.” Chicago Tribune

“Gripping… In a way that shocked me, the book is perversely entertaining when Higgins reveals the fates of many of the men and women he writes about with such admiration. Higgins manages to keep the reader hooked all the way through to the final page. In a truly intoxicating read that was hard to put down, Matt Higgins has managed to make real a world about as far removed from daily life as it gets.” Daily Beast

“The breathtaking highs and life-threatening plunges of the most extreme stuntmen on Earth. Keep your mixed martial arts, parcours and BMX bikes; you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the point-of-view video of these free-flying pilots soaring in their homemade wingsuits over some of the most extreme terrain on the planet. In this riveting journalistic account, freelance writer Higgins chronicles the evolution of the sport from simple parachuting to BASE jumping (the acronym stands for building, antennae, span and Earth, which serve as launch points) to the development of these soaring, superherolike armored flight suits… For anyone who finds these kinds of emotional and precise accounts of risk, ambition and victory irresistible, this is a must-read. A highflying, electrifying story of a treacherous sport in which every triumph is an eye blink away from becoming a disaster.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“[Higgins's] action-packed book introduces a global coterie of remarkable characters who have dared life and limb. He describes escapades from Sixties stunt parachuting to more contemporary BASE jumping, in which one takes flight off of selected worldwide buildings and geographical points to the experience of wingsuit flying—the maximum challenge. The author recounts the huge preparations, financial investments, psychological motivations, personal setbacks, and extraordinary aerial accomplishments that have gone into these extreme sports… An engrossing and exhaustively researched account of extremists who challenge failure and death on a regular basis. Highly recommended for ultimate jumpers in particular, sports enthusiasts in general, and all public libraries.” Library Journal (starred)

“A new tribe of aerial daredevils write their deeds in blood and glory… Journalist Higgins sings the exploits and charisma of ‘wing-suit’ pilots… The book is mainly a chronicle of death-defying stunts: mishaps are plenty grisly when wing suiters traveling at 100 mph encounter anything denser than air, and the body count is high… [a] tribute to the exaltation of defying death; one extreme parachutist ‘felt somehow reborn into the world’ on his first outing, ‘as if scales had been stripped from his eyes.’ These effusions won’t move everyone to a conversion experience, but Higgins’s account is hair-raising enough to hold the reader’s interest.” Publishers Weekly

“Most of us dream of flying, but it is the exceptional person who actually tries it. Matt Higgins takes readers deep into the extreme and fascinating world of BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots, those rare birds who risk their lives for a few exhilarating, gravity-defying seconds. Bird Dream is a beautifully crafted narrative, equal parts adrenaline rush and soulful meditation. From its first sentence, this book soars.” Susan Casey, author of The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth

“Wingsuit fliers like Jeb Corliss and Gary Connery change the definition of ‘impossible,’ often at the expense of life and limb. Capturing the essence of such entrepreneurs of the extreme is like trying to grab sparks. In Bird Dream, Matt Higgins does just that with writing that is crisp, exhilarating, and exhaustively researched. A must-read about ultimate quests—and their costs.” James M. Tabor, author of Blind Descent

“Some people dare to imagine human flight; others dare to don wingsuits and leap birdlike into the void. A breathtaking narrative of outsized courage and irreverent boundary breaking, Matt Higgins’s Bird Dream captures human jumps that defy the rational mind, that duel with gravity’s inexorable pull, and that tango with the ever-present threat of dismemberment and death.” James S. Hirsch, author of Willie Mays

“Matt Higgins takes us on a thrilling ride with an international cast of visionaries, daredevils, and flat-out wingnuts who are pushing the limits of human flight. Higgins weaves a compelling tale that leaves us awestruck and inspired by those who refuse to be constrained by earthly boundaries.” Joe Drape, author of Our Boys

Bird Dream is Born to Run for the wingsuit BASE world. Matt Higgins has managed to straddle the difficult line between maintaining authenticity for insiders and opening this fringe lifestyle to outsiders. As a dedicated jumper myself, I found Bird Dream compelling and absolutely undiluted.” Steph Davis, climber, BASE jumper, wingsuit pilot; author of Learning to Fly

 

Excerpt

It was after midnight when Jeb Corliss opened his window at the Palace Hotel, inviting New York City’s stray sounds inside. With needle-nosed pliers he had disabled the locking mechanism, providing enough room to maneuver his long body through the narrow opening.

A crew hauling equipment and cameras across polished tile in the opulent lobby hours earlier had endured curious looks, but the hotel’s management and staff remained unaware of what was about to unfold in a room on one of the uppermost floors. Accomplices gathered in the room, including a television camera crew. Others waited in the streets. Corliss’s mother fretted in her room several floors below. A conspiracy requiring weeks of planning and the right weather conditions entered its final phase as Corliss clambered onto the window ledge with a grunt. He was dressed all in black, including a helmet, and a rig on his back with a single parachute designed to open quickly at low altitude. He carried no reserve; if his parachute failed to open, in about six seconds his body would crash into a rooftop some 170 yards directly below.

He had jumped from the Palace before, an act that stretched his skills and composure to their limits. Standing on the ledge again, like a gargoyle, Corliss was petrified. “Remember, you don’t have to do it,” he called to Karina Hollekim—a tanned, blue-eyed, blond professional skier from Norway, seated on a bed nearby—who planned to follow him out the window.

She moved nearer. “I know,” she said.

For months they had traveled together, he acting as mentor, imparting techniques and wisdom meant to keep her alive. He had warned her that BASE would wind up killing or crippling her if she stayed at it long enough. Facing forward, size 12 boots balanced on a thin sill, he sighed and shifted forward slightly as car horns and a muffled siren sounded deep in the night. The building’s slippery skin descended hundreds of feet into the darkness toward the suggestion of a rooftop outline. “Sketchy exit point, dude,” he said. After a deep breath, he added, “All right.”

Banishing extraneous thoughts and tremors bobbing his legs like sewing machine needles, he ignored the dryness in his mouth, perspiration on his hands, his heart’s hard-thumping rhythm, and an acid panic rising like an elevator in his throat. In a city of millions, friends a few feet away, he stood alone on the ledge. And he needed to be utterly focused.

“Five seconds,” he said.