American wingsuit flyer Jeb Corliss flies past Tianmen Mountain near Zhangjiajie, China, on Sept. 24, 2011. “Bird Dream,” by Matt Higgins, focuses on daredevils such as Corliss who push the boundaries of human flight. ( /China Daily/Reuters)

In “Bird Dream,” Matt Higgins offers an engrossing account of the men and women who pursue the most dangerous recreational activity imaginable, one in which a razor-thin line separates success from failure, life from death. He begins with the BASE jumpers, skydivers who launch themselves into the air from bridges, antennae, structures (read tall buildings) and Earth (cliffs, mountaintops and the like), opening their parachutes to avert disaster at the last possible second.

BASE jumping is nothing new. Louis-Sébastien Lenormand, who coined the word “parachute,” made the world’s first witnessed jump from the top of the Montpellier observatory in France in 1783. In 1912, steeplejack Frederick R. Law made headlines with parachute jumps from the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the 31st floor of Wall Street’s Bankers Trust Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. The modern era of daredevil parachuting began in 1975 when a skydiver from Queens posing as an antenna repairman jumped from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Soon it seemed that none of the world’s skyscrapers were safe from assault by the fearless. The sport even boasts an annual festival. Every fourth Sunday in October for the past 35 years, the world’s leading BASE jumpers have gathered at the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, W.Va., for the thrill of leaping from more than 800 feet above the bottom of the gorge.

As if this were not enough, BASE jumping gave birth to its own radical subculture, the wingsuit pilots. The ultimate skydivers, they don specialized jumpsuits featuring fabric pouches linking their wrists, ankles and spread legs. Falling through space with parachutes strapped on, they have the appearance and aerodynamic characteristics of flying squirrels. While Higgins fills “Bird Dream” with fascinating characters, living and dead, the focus is on two wingsuiters determined to achieve the ultimate goal of jumping from a helicopter or an elevated spot and gliding down to a survivable landing without a parachute.

Jeb Corliss grew up “willful and heedless of danger,” with a violent streak that resulted in his being expelled from a string of schools until his desperate mother decided to home school him. “When I was 16 years old,” he once remarked, “I became very suicidal, like actively pursuing things that could end my life.” He moved from scuba diving to skydiving at age 18, then quickly on to BASE.

After guards caught Corliss as he was preparing to jump from the observation deck of the Empire State Building in the spring of 2006, he became the target of city officials determined to prevent New York from becoming “a Disneyland for dare devils.” He arrived at his hearing with his head shaved “clean as a monk’s,” wearing mirrored sunglasses and dressed in black from the soles of his combat boots to the top of his wool hoodie. An ankle-length trench coat constructed from the skin of cows, stingrays and a rare species of frog, featuring a row of silver buttons shaped like skulls, completed his ensemble. In his statement to the court, he argued that he had done nothing wrong. “Some people choose to use elevator systems, stairwells. . . . I use the parachute system.” Found guilty, he was given three years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

“Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight” by Matt Higgins ( Penguin)

Corliss cemented his reputation as the most daring of the wingsuit gang in 2011 with a breathtaking leap from a ledge in the Swiss Alps during which he swept to within six feet of another rocky ledge before crossing a cliff face and gaining the safety of altitude. The experience led him to wonder if it might be possible to land without a chute, perhaps on a deep snow slope.

Gary Bullock was only slightly tamer. A native of Hertford, England, he was a competitive kayaker and ski racer before joining the British army and becoming a paratrooper. His first BASE jump, from a cliff in Wales, was followed by leaps from the white cliffs of Dover. On Dec. 20, 1995, he made headlines by jumping from the roof of the London Hilton dressed as Santa Claus. Facing court-martial for performing the stunt, Bullock went AWOL. Captured a month later, he gave the army the slip a second time. Having renamed himself Gary Connery, he promptly established himself as a highly successful movie stuntman. Discovering that he could jump from as high as 100 feet on a movie set and land safely in a well-designed nest of cardboard boxes, he began to wonder whether he could design a “landing strip” of boxes that would enable him to survive a wingsuit touchdown.

Corliss and Connery were not the only ones to consider such a possibility. Why would human beings engage in what can best be regarded as a semi-suicidal pursuit? Higgins points to recent genetic research suggesting that some people are just born that way. Does Corliss or Connery succeed in landing without a chute? Does either of them survive? You will find the answers to those questions in a book you will find hard to put down.

Tom Crouch is senior curator of aeronautics with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.


Adventures at the Extremes
of Human Flight

By Matt Higgins

Penguin Press. 287 pp. $27.95