Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight
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PEN / ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing (2015 LONGLIST)
“[P]erversely entertaining... 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
"Matt Higgins cracks open this astonishingly dangerous sport and captures the spectacular adrenaline surges it delivers."--The Wall Street Journal
"[R]iveting... 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 (STARRED)
A heart-stopping narrative of risk and courage, Bird Dream tells the story of the remarkable men and women who pioneered the latest advances in aerial exploration—from skydiving to BASE jumping to wingsuit flying—and made history with their daring.
By the end of the twentieth century BASE jumping was the most dangerous of all the extreme sports, with thrill-seeking jumpers parachuting from bridges, mountains, radio towers, and even skyscrapers. Despite numerous fatalities and legal skirmishes, BASE jumpers like Jeb Corliss of California thought they had discovered the ultimate rush. But all this changed for Corliss in 1999, when, high in the mountains of northern Italy, he and other jumpers watched in wonder as a stranger—wearing a cunning new jumpsuit featuring “wings” between the arms and legs—leaped from a ledge and then actually flew from the vertiginous cliffs.
Drawing on intimate access to Corliss and other top pilots from around the globe, Bird Dream tracks the evolution of the wingsuit movement through the larger than life characters who, in an age of viral video, forced the sport onto the world stage. Their exploits—which entranced millions of fans along the way—defied imagination. They were flying; not like the Wright brothers, but the way we do in our dreams.
Some dared to dream of going further yet, to a day when a wingsuit pilot might fly, and land, all without a parachute. A growing number of wingsuit pilots began plotting ways in which a human being might leap from the sky and land. A half dozen groups around the world were dedicated to this quest for a “wingsuit landing,” conjuring the pursuit of nations that once inspired the race to first summit Everest.
Given his fame as a stuntman, the brash, publicity-hungry Corliss remained the popular favorite to claim the first landing. Yet Bird Dream also tracks the path of another man, Gary Connery—a forty-two-year-old Englishman—who was quietly plotting to beat Corliss at his own game. Accompanied by an international cast of wingsuit devotees—including a Finnish magician, a parachute tester from Brazil, an Australian computer programmer, a gruff hang-gliding champion-turned-aeronautical engineer, a French skydiving champion, and a South African costume designer—Corliss and Connery raced to leap into the unknown, a contest that would lead to triumph for one and nearly cost the other his life.
Based on five years of firsthand reporting and original interviews, Bird Dream is the work of journalist Matt Higgins, who traveled the world alongside these extraordinary men and women as they jumped and flew in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Offering a behind-the-scenes take on some of the most spectacular and disastrous events of the wingsuit movement, Higgins’s Bird Dream is a riveting, adrenaline-fueled adventure at the very edge of human experience.
of “time dilation, reallocation of resources, and the range of reactions to fear” are explained in Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, Jeff Wise (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 32–78. “flow state”: “Go with the Flow,” John Geirland, Wired, April 1999, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.09/czik_pr.html; “Superhuman,” Steven Kotler, Playboy, February 2012, http://www.stevenkotler.com/articles/superhuman/. unpredictability: “Addictive Personality? You Might Be a Leader,”
leave approaching, he put the finishing touches on a plan that he hoped would bring a nice windfall—and the attention of the professional stunt world. • • • On December 20, 1995, the front page of the Daily Mail, one of Britain’s largest tabloids, published a color photo of a man wearing a red Santa Claus costume and a BASE rig on his back, leaping from the roof of the twenty-eight-story London Hilton on Park Lane, in Mayfair. A headline blared, “Why Santa Took a High Jump off the Hilton.”
wing snagged the balloons’ strings before they could float away. Jeb did not flinch. Navigating the ravine in seconds, he emerged out the end, high above town. Reaching back with his right hand to grasp his parachute handle, Jeb pitched the pilot chute to the side, in one motion concluding the second act of his jump, and commencing the third, his parachute opening. His square black canopy bloomed instantly, snapping open like the crack of a whip. The final act of this jump, any jump, required
his flight. How he meant to make such an assessment at more than one hundred miles an hour, he did not explain, but after hanging up with Moose, he, Joby, and Jeff began pulling on their suits and helmets as tourists stared at the spectacle from above. With six cameras stacked on his helmet and thick black sunglasses shading his eyes, Jeff appeared more machine than man. Joby prepared to go first. Calling his wife for a few private words, he tucked the phone in a pocket and zipped his suit.
death but his unconventional life philosophy. One missive from an Army cavalry scout and infantryman who had done two tours in Iraq typified some of the responses. In his message, the combat veteran wrote of his detachment from haunting memories and how Jeb’s zest for life had reminded him of the person he used to be. One of the particular phrases he used that resonated with Jeb concerned the belief that Jeb was living a life worth dying for. The message concluded by thanking Jeb for reminding