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The Man Who Could Fly: Exclusive interview with Jeb Corliss

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When you say the name Jeb Corliss, one word immediately comes to mind, extreme. From hardcore, seemingly impossible base jumps to the most amazing wingsuit flying, he's pretty much the gnarliest guy around, and has no plans to stop pushing the limits of his body. He's logged over 1,000 base jumps and over 1,000 wingsuit flights in a career that has spanned more than a decade.

Tu Troung

To call him a daredevil doesn't really do him justice. He's more like a live action comic book hero. When the Chinese, Russian and Malaysian governments hire you to jump off their buildings for the entertainment of the public, there's really no other way to think of it. Things like that only happen in comic books, and typically to guys named Bruce Wayne.

Dubbed the human bird, Jeb has been the subject of documentaries, been featured on numerous television shows, and 20/20 has had him in a special report, ‘Superhumans.' His accolades are too numerous to list, and seem to show no signs of slowing down in their accumulation. His latest project is The World Wingsuit League, which just held it's inaugural event less than two weeks ago in China. Of course Jeb trained and competed in the event, despite having sustained a serious injury earlier this year in South Africa that broke both of his ankles, several toes, one of his legs and created a gash that required skin grafts to heal. It would seem that nothing can keep this man from doing what he was made for, flying.

I was fortunate enough to land a rare interview with Jeb for our readers recently, where the topics ranged from his recovery to his thoughts on Felix Baumgartner's space jump and everything in between. As a longtime fan and follower of his incredible feats, I was blown away by how engaging he was, as well as being exceptionally generous with his time. He's been at the top of my 'interview bucket list' for years, and has completely enamored me with his absolute dedication to living life to it's fullest measure.

Stephie Daniels: When did you execute your very first base jump?

Jeb Corliss: My first base jump was, I think, in 1997, and it was jumping a bridge in northern California. It was around 700 feet high, so yeah, that was my first one.

Stephie Daniels: There is some research out that indicates there may be a daredevil gene, called neuroD2. Do you feel this might be something present in your brain chemistry?

Jeb Corliss: I don't know about a daredevil gene, but ever since I was a really small child, I've just enjoyed doing things that scared me. It's weird because things have changed over time. I've been doing this for so long that the reasons why I did things in the beginning are very different from the reasons why I do them now. You have to pretty much figure what time in my history are you talking about to answer that. As a child I did things for one reason, as a teenager I did them for another reason, in my early twenties, it was another reason, and now, it's something else. It's very complex.

Jeb_helmet_medium
Photo via Alice Sharp

Stephie Daniels: What is it about for you now?

Jeb Corliss: Now, it's about pushing the boundaries of what people believe is possible. I've developed a very unique set of skills over a very long period of time, and I've become incredibly good at dealing with large levels of fear. I'm very good at dealing with fear that most people would shy away from or would cripple a lot of people. Because I've developed these skills over the course of my life, I've used them to do things that people think are completely impossible. For me, it's the joy and feeling of accomplishment from doing something that people think can't be done. That's what motivates me and drives me. If people think it can't be done, or it's absolutely ludicrous, I find that enjoyable [laughs].

Stephie Daniels: You've been talking about doing a no chute landing in a wingsuit for a couple of years. Now that Gary Connery has already achieved it, is it still on your priority list?

Jeb Corliss: I have a new project coming in the very near future. I can't talk about it because, as you're aware, people have a tendency to take your ideas. Now, until I do it, I won't talk about it. I will say that I have something different in mind. The truth of the matter is that I took a very long time to do that project, and my idea for it was very expensive, very complicated and unfortunately, I was unable to get financing in time. Someone figured out a cheaper, easier, more psychotic way of doing it, and he did it. It was very impressive. What Gary Connery did was actually very amazing, and I was blown away when I saw it. He won. He beat me to that project. That's the thing about projects, you can't do them all, and every now and again, someone will beat you to it. I'm actually proud of him. I thought he did a very good job.

Stephie Daniels: Tell me about the World Wingsuit League and where you see it going in say, the next five years.

Jeb Corliss: The World Wingsuit League is a competition among wingsuit pilotswhere the fastest and the best pilots from all over the world get together to compete in a race that involves extreme turns and proximity. The first race we did was just a few weeks ago in the Hunan province of China. There's a cliff that gave us the ability to jump, fly around at turnpoints, proximity fly a cliff, and then go underneath a cable car, which is the finish line. It was wildly successful. I had a feeling that people were going to be interested in watching a race like this, but I didn't realize just how many people. The ratings that we got were astronomical. It was in the hundreds of millions of people that watched it live. Because it was so successful, it ensured that it will be continuing for the next five years. There's no question about it, and every single year, it's going to keep getting bigger.

I was very impressed with it, and to be there with the athletes that I was with. They were all very professional, and it was interesting to see the competitive nature. It's actually not in my nature to compete. I'm not really a competitive person, and ordinarily, I'm kind of against competition, but what I realized, is that competitions like this give people the opportunity to earn a living doing something that they love. Take surfing, for instance. In the beginning, it was just something people did because they loved to surf, it became a lifestyle and they just traveled around the world and did it. Unfortunately, a lot of them were bums, and lived on the beach and basically, couldn't afford to eat. [Laughs] Yeah, it's a lot of fun, and it's great, but at a certain point, you've got to be able to earn a living. The competition aspect of surfing is what finally gave these guys the ability to earn a living doing something that they loved.

The idea with the WWL, is that it will get large enough to where an athlete will be able to travel around the world. Compete with other wingsuit pilots, and be able to earn enough through prize money and sponsorships, to basically live a nice life. We want to take it to a place where the athletes can earn a living doing something that they truly love. It will not only benefit the individual, but it will also push the sport forward. It helps push innovation, technology and human skill, so even though I'm not a competitive person, I am a person that wants to get better at what I do. People get on me about making something so dangerous into a competitive sport, but you know what? Racing cars is dangerous. Racing motorcycles is really dangerous. There's nothing wrong with turning something dangerous into a competitive sport. I think it's kind of interesting and makes it a little more exciting [laughs].

The goal is to have multiple locations all over the world, and between 6-10 races a year, but, right now, we just had the one for this year. Next year, we'll try for two more. Based on how those go, by the third year, we're really going to look at expanding it and moving it around more. These things take time to grow, but based on the strength of the last one, and if the next one is strong, this will definitely spread around the world. It's pretty rare that we invent an entirely new way for human beings to compete with each other. I have a feeling it's going to be the future of sports. It hits people in a very unique way because people have always dreamt about flying.

Stephie Daniels: What do you consider ‘pushing the envelope' these days?

Jeb Corliss: Well, proximity flying is getting about as far as you can go, now. You can't get much closer than impacting solid granite at 120 mph and continue to live. We're getting about as close as we can get, as long as we can get. Pilots are staying within a couple of feet of solid objects for thousands of feet. You can't really get much more than that. We're finding new lines where we're slaloming between trees, spires, and down into cracks. We're pretty much where we can go with that.

I think the future is going to be in telling the story. It's kind of like with surfing. You can only watch a person catch a wave so many times before you're like, ‘OK, I've seen it. Now what?' It gets kind of boring to watch people catch waves after a while. They ended up doing documentaries like Riding Giants that actually tells the story of why a person does that in the first place. The future isn't necessarily about getting any closer or getting anymore hardcore. I think it's more about what motivates a human being to do these kinds of things. For me, that's kind of what pushing the envelope and pushing the boundaries is about. It's 1. Being able to tell a story that compels people and gets them to connect to what's happening, and 2. I have some projects that are hopefully going to ... I can't say too much, because I can't give it away.

Stephie Daniels: You had a close call on Table Mountain earlier this year and ended up with some very serious injuries. How has your recovery been? How long did you wait to go airborne again after your accident?

Jeb Corliss: My first skydive was about five months to the day of my accident. I did about a month of skydiving, and then I did my first base jump about six months to the day of the accident. I ended up going back to Africa and filmed a 3-D documentary about my recovery and my first jumps back, but I think I started jumping a little too early. I have a tendency to take risks beyond what I should [laughs]. My ACL is gone, and I need to get a reconstruction surgery.

I did a couple jumps in Africa, and it was scary and hard, and the landings were nasty. I had to be very careful with my left knee and I have to wear full body armor. After that, I went to Europe and started jumping there because I was trying to train for the WWL, and I was only to do four base jumps before I went to China to do the WWL. I kind of didn't want to go. I knew I couldn't be competitive because I couldn't train. I did go home and did some skydiving before the competition, because the drop zone was a little safer for me. On the way to China, I was concerned because you had to land on asphalt, but I was already committed, so I had no real choice but to go ahead with it. I just had to suck it up and do the best that I could do. My goal was just to try not to get hurt. I went in with no ACL in full body armor. I couldn't stand up on my landings so I had to go down, and going down on asphalt sucks ass [laughs]. If I was a smart person, I wouldn't have been jumping, but I do what I say I'm going to do. I told everyone I'd be there and I told everyone I'd do it.

I go for reconstructive surgery on Monday (10-29-12), and then I have six months of rehab. I've got that to look forward to on Monday. It's gonna be super awesome. I can hardly wait. The minute I get out of rehab in April, I go to do the single most dangerous stunt of my entire life. I can't tell you what it is, but let me put it this way, you will see it. Every human being with electricity is going to see it. It's going to be so special and so unique, that it will change everything.

Stephie Daniels: Before your injury, had the feeling of nervousness or fear prior to a jump completely left you?

Jeb Corliss: I've always been scared of what I do, because what I do is truly terrifying. I've gotten more scared of it over time. Base jumping was one of those things I got into, and it was like, ‘Holy shit! This is more dangerous than I thought it was.' It's the most goddamned dangerous thing ever. You start watching people die, and you start getting injured yourself, and all the sudden, you realize how super serious it is. There's a lot of people who seem to live in some kind of fairy tale La La Land about base jumping being some recreational, fun activity. They're like, ‘If I just do this right, then I'm gonna be totally OK.' I'm like, ‘Yeah, you live in a f*cking fantasy.' I've been in this long enough to know exactly what it is, and it's a dark art and it's super evil. It's terrifying. You'll see some of these guys that have no clue, and I think to myself, ‘You've got about five minutes to live, bro.'

Stephie Daniels: That terror seems to be a bit of a magnet for you, though.

Jeb Corliss: It was. When I got into base jumping, the terror was exactly what drew me to it. Over time, I've gotten to where I don't like the way that feels anymore. I don't like being scared and jittery and like I'm going to throw up. I've just gotten very good at dealing with it. I'm capable of switching that part of my mind off and pushing through the fear. Now, my motivations are very different. People think I'm an adrenaline junkie, and I hate it when people say that shit. I don't drink or use drugs of any kind. I don't smoke, nothing. To call me a junkie is a complete insult. It's also a very dismissive thing by the people that are incapable of doing this kind of stuff because they allow fear to completely cripple and crush them. They need to label you to validate their own pussyness [laughs]. It's just a dismissive thing that wimpy ass people say in order to make themselves feel better.

I hate the way adrenaline feels. I don't like it, I don't enjoy it. That is not why I do this. If I could avoid feeling the adrenaline, I would. If I could switch that part off, that would really make me happy. I think that's why I've gravitated more to wingsuit flying rather than just straight base jumping. Base jumping is just about horror and fear. Wingsuit flying is just about flying, and the feeling you get while doing it is much closer to that dream you had as a child. Base jumping is more that nightmare of falling. I think that's why people didn't seem to connect with it as much.

"I hate the way adrenaline feels.
I don't like it, I don't enjoy it."

Wingsuit flying is beautiful and incredibly unique. There really aren't words to truly express how powerful and beautiful it is. I think what got me in trouble in Africa, was I became a little too comfortable, and I did kind of lose fear. As much as I don't like adrenaline, it really does help you. It's what makes you able to deal with very high stress situations. When you lose that fear, you can mistakes like I did, and bounce off a mountain at 120 mph. I became way over confident, and I saw a balloon that was super low, and I thought, ‘Oh, I can kick that balloon, no problem.' I was wrong. The balloon was there, but I didn't really see the ledge because it created sort of an optical illusion. In order to hit the balloon, I had to impact the ledge. I impacted on the ledge and I hit the balloon [laughs]. Let's put it this way, that put the fear back in me. I'm scared now. It taught me a very important lesson and gave me a massive spanking. It said, ‘Hey bitch, wake the f*ck up.' I'm glad I was able to make a mistake like that because I learned from it, and survived it. Not too many people have a terminal bounce and have that outcome.

Stephie Daniels: Is it one of those things like when you get thrown from a horse, you just have to get right back to it?

Jeb Corliss: It depends on the person. Some people, when they get thrown from a horse, maybe they should go do something else. For me, it was very important to get back to it because that's what I do. It's kind of sad, but the truth is, I've got nothing else in my life that's important to me. It's everything to me. It is my reason for breathing. It's my reason for eating. It's my reason for existing. I was born to fly. I was just born in the wrong body. I can't even imagine my life without flying. People always ask me when enough is enough, and I think, ‘Would you ever ask an eagle when it's going to stop this silly flying thing?' That's what eagles do. They fly, and they fly until the day they die, and I am kind of like that. When I was in the hospital, my biggest worry was if I was gonna get to fly again. That's all I cared about. It might be nice to have a house and a wife and kids, a normal life, but unfortunately, that's not me. It's just not how I'm wired. It's important to be who you are, and not try to fit into other people's molds of what they think you should be.

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Photo via Jeb Corliss

Stephie Daniels: What's been your favorite location to fly?

Jeb Corliss: I really like the Crack in Switzerland. That's one of my favorite places to train, and it's really high up on my list. I also really like flying under the arm of the Christ statue. That was really special, because to see Rio from that perspective, and all the complex things we had to go through to get permission to fly there made it very special. It's really high up there on my list, as well. I really loved that one.

Stephie Daniels: What did you think of Felix Baumgartner's space jump?

Jeb Corliss: I have to be honest with you. I love Red Bull. They're a wonderful marketing company, and a lot of people don't realize that Red Bull is not an energy drink company. They're a marketing company. That's what they do. They market things. Red Bull took a drink that had already been in existence for probably 30 years, and they marketed it properly and made it a massive product. The space jump was very similar to that. It had been done in 1960, and the guy who did it originally, went to 103,000 feet and jumped out. There's still argument if he broke the sound barrier. They're still not quite sure. To me, it was the equivalent of taking a ladder to the top of Mt. Everest and saying, ‘I just climbed the highest mountain.' Well, you basically did what has already been done in the 60's. That's great. You marketed it well, and more power to you, but you basically did the same thing. You just went a little bit higher and a little bit faster. It's cool. Whatever. That's nice [laughs]. I would think that in 2012, you could go a bit bigger. Maybe leave the earth's atmosphere and re-enter it at 4000 mph, at 4000 degrees, and do something really different. They did a great job with it, and it's probably one of the best marketed stunts that's ever been done. It was seen everywhere in the world, by everyone, and it made Felix a household name.

Because they can't really be sure if Kittinger broke the sound barrier, they're now giving the title to Felix, because they know for sure that he did. Now, he'll go down in history as the first human being to break the sound barrier without aircraft, and that's awesome. More power to you, but for me, the real man was Kittinger, and what that guy did to start the space program was so goddamned amazing that I'll always see him as the man.

Gary Connery, landing the wingsuit, no matter how anybody else lands now, Gary will always be the man. He was the first one to do it, and it was badass and hardcore the way he did it, and it took massive balls. You can never top what was done, because it was just that spectacular. Every now and then, somebody does something, and no matter how hard you try to beat their record, you just won't. Even if you go a little bit higher or do it a little bit more grandiose, it won't be as badass. The first dude was badass, Felix ... yeah, it's cool [laughs].

Kittinger did this with technology from the 60's. We're in 2012 now. Couldn't you do a little bit more? Couldn't you do something bigger, something a little bit more special? Why do you have to do the exact same goddamned thing? That's really what it comes down to. I did think it was badass, though. There are two things that Felix did do to impress me. One was that we know he broke the sound barrier, so that's a big deal, because with Kittinger, we're not sure. The second thing he did, and people don't give him credit for this, or even understand it, is he did it without a drogue. I have to give him big credit for that, because Kittinger, when he did it, he fired a drogue, and that was what stabilized him, and kept him flying straight as he went towards the ground. It also gave him a longer free fall time.

I give the guy a lot of credit, but I think it was definitely made out to be a lot bigger than it was. That's what Red Bull does, and they're really good at that. Do I think it was the greatest, grandest thing ever done? No. Not even close. What Kittinger did originally was a greater, grander thing. Do I think what Felix did was greater than Gary Connery landing a wingsuit? No. I do not think it was even remotely close to what Gary did. The amount of skill, risk and margin for error that Gary had, landing in a bunch of boxes in a frigging wingsuit was a thousand million times more gnarly and impressive, and it was the first time anything like it had ever been done. That was the most spectacular stunt that's ever happened in human history. Period. Most people don't even understand the magnitude of what Gary did, and it was a million times bigger than what Felix did. The difference is that Felix had the marketing of the Red Bull machine behind him. To answer your question, his stunt has already been topped [laughs]. That's just my opinion.

Stephie Daniels: You spoke earlier about a big stunt that you have in the works. Will you have a marketing machine behind it, as well?

Jeb Corliss: Yes. It's going to have a marketing machine behind it that will rival Red Bull. I'm kind of a combination of Gary and Felix. I go for the heavy, hardcore stunt that's never been done before, that's super advanced, but I also have the marketing machine behind it. I'll be doing something that is truly massive, and it will be seen by the world. This coming April, just as soon as I'm done with rehab for my knee, it's going to happen. The second my knee is strong, I'm doing it.

Stephie Daniels: You have become quite famous over the years for your stunts, and have made so many fans across the world. A lot of these people sort of live vicariously through you. How does that make you feel that so many depend on you to do the impossible for their entertainment?

Jeb Corliss: I don't really think about it. I just kind of do what I do, without any other intention other than doing it. If it inspires people, I think that's very cool, but I don't live my life based on other people, and what they think. It sounds kind of selfish, and I guess it kind of is, but I really do this for me. If people end up liking what I do, and are inspired by it in some way, I think that's great, but it's not my intention. If people don't like what I do, I also don't care. It doesn't bother me. If a person has a problem with me or what I do, it is genuinely their problem, and not mine. I happen to enjoy what I do, and I like the person that I've become. People think I'm a sell out because now I'm making money, but I think it's awesome to be able to make money doing what you love. I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all.

Stephie Daniels: Do you watch any other sports, or are they too tame to hold your attention?

Jeb Corliss: I love diving with sharks, just because I love animals. I like sports that have consequences. I like sports that have a purpose and a point, and aren't made up. I like sports where the consequences are severe. If you make mistakes, it could be severe injury or death. To me, that's far more interesting, because that's life. I like Alpine mountaineering type stuff, breath hold diving where they go down hundreds of feet in the water. I like extreme, hardcore stuff where if you don't train properly, you die. I kind of like mixed martial arts for the same reason. It's real. You're going against another machine, where if you mess up, you're going to get jacked up [laughs].

Baseball, basketball, football, those things are just boring. I'd rather shoot myself in the face than watch that crap. When you see people get all riled up over goofy sports with made up rules, it's just like, ‘Oh Jesus, really?' I just can't watch it. It's like watching paint dry. Who wants to see that shit? [laughs] I'm not interested.

Stephie Daniels: Last question. Do small, ordinary things still excite you?

Jeb Corliss: Absolutely. I still get excited by things that everybody else does. I like to go see a good movie and I like reading really good books. Every now and then, there'll be a South Park that really makes me laugh my ass off. Primarily, when it comes to watching TV or movies, it's about things that make me laugh. But yeah, the same things that excite most people excite me. Super hot chicks with good boobs, that makes me super excited [laughs]. My life goes in cycles. There are periods when I go heavy and hard, but there are also times when I just spend time being a normal-ish person.

You can follow Jeb via his Twitter, @JebCorliss , his website, www.jebcorliss.net , or his Facebook fan page.