The acronym "BASE" was coined by film-maker Carl Boenish, his wife Jean Boenish, Phil Smith, and Phil Mayfield. Carl was the real catalyst behind modern BASE jumping, and in 1978 filmed the first BASE jumps (from El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park) to be made using ram-air parachutes and the freefall tracking technique. While BASE jumps had been made prior to that time, the El Capitan activity was the effective birth of what is now called BASE jumping. BASE jumping is significantly more dangerous than similar sports such as skydiving from aircraft, and is currently regarded by many as a fringe extreme sport or stunt.
BASE numbers are awarded to those who have made at least one jump from each of the four categories. When Phil Smith and Phil Mayfield jumped together from a Houston skyscraper on 18 January 1981, they became the first to attain the exclusive BASE numbers (BASE #1 and #2, respectively), having already jumped from antennae, spans, and earthen objects. Jean and Carl Boenish qualified for BASE numbers 3 and 4 soon after. A separate "award" was soon enacted for Night BASE jumping when Mayfield completed each category at night, becoming Night BASE #1, with Smith qualifying a few weeks later.
During the early eighties, nearly all BASE jumps were made using standard skydiving equipment, including two parachutes (main and reserve), and deployment components. Later on, specialized equipment and techniques were developed that were designed specifically for the unique needs of BASE jumping.
There are isolated examples of BASE jumps dating from the late 1700s.
However, these and other sporadic incidents were one-time experiments, not the systematic pursuit of a new form of parachuting. After 1978, the filmed jumps from El Capitan were repeated, not as a publicity exercise or as a movie stunt, but as a true recreational activity. It was this that popularised BASE jumping more widely among parachutists. Carl Boenish continued to publish films and informational magazines on BASE jumping until his 1984 death after a BASE-jump off of the Troll Wall. By this time, the concept had spread among skydivers worldwide, with hundreds of participants making fixed-object jumps.
BASE jumping grew out of skydiving. BASE jumps are generally made from much lower altitudes than skydives, and a BASE jump takes place in close proximity to the object serving as the jump platform. Because BASE jumps generally entail slower airspeeds than typical skydives (due to the limited altitude), a BASE jumper rarely achieves terminal velocity (that speed achieved after twelve seconds of acceleration). Because higher airspeeds enable jumpers more aerodynamic control of their bodies, as well as more positive and quick parachute openings, the longer the delay, the better.
Skydivers use the air flow to stabilize their position, allowing the parachute to deploy cleanly. BASE jumpers, falling at lower speeds, have less aerodynamic control, and may tumble. The attitude of the body at the moment of jumping determines the stability of flight in the first few seconds, before sufficient airspeed has built up to enable aerodynamic stability. On low BASE jumps, parachute deployment takes place during this early phase of flight, so if a poor "launch" leads into a tumble, the jumper may not be able to correct this before the opening. If the parachute is deployed while the jumper is tumbling, there is a high risk of entanglement or malfunction. The jumper may also not be facing the right direction. Such an off-heading opening is not a problem in skydiving, but off-heading opening that results in object strike has caused many serious injuries and deaths in BASE jumping.
At an altitude of 2,000 feet, having been in free-fall for at least 1,000 feet (300 meters), the jumper is falling at approximately 120 miles per hour (54 meters per second), and is approximately 11 seconds from the ground. Most BASE jumps are made from less than 2,000 feet (610 m). For example, a BASE jump from a 500 foot (150 meter) object is about 5.6 seconds from the ground if the jumper remains in free fall. On a BASE jump, the parachute must open at about half the airspeed of a similar skydive, and more quickly (in a shorter distance fallen). Standard skydiving parachute systems are not designed for this situation, so BASE jumpers often use specially designed harnesses and parachute containers, with extra large pilot chutes, and many jump with only one parachute, since there would be little time to utilize a reserve parachute. If modified, by removing the bag and slider, stowing the lines in a tail pocket, and fitting a large pilot chute, standard skydiving gear can be used for lower BASE jumps, but is then prone to kinds of malfunction that are rare in normal skydiving (such as "line-overs" and broken lines).
Another risk is that most BASE jumping venues have very small areas in which to land. A beginner skydiver, after parachute deployment, may have a three minute or more parachute ride to the ground. A BASE jump from 500 feet (152 meters) will have a parachute ride of only 10 to 15 seconds.
One way to make a parachute open very quickly is to use a static line or direct bag. These devices form an attachment between the parachute and the jump platform, which stretches out the parachute and suspension lines as the jumper falls, before separating and allowing the parachute to inflate. This method enables the very lowest jumps (below 200 ft) to be made, although most BASE jumpers are more motivated to make higher jumps involving free fall. This method is similar to the paratrooper's deployment system.
The legal issues that a BASE jumper must consider concern permissions to use the object from which the jump is initiated and the area used for landing.
Covert BASE jumps are often made from tall buildings and antenna towers. The general reluctance of the owners of these objects to allow their object to be used as a platform means many such BASE jumps are attempted covertly. While BASE jumping itself is not illegal, the covert nature of accessing objects usually necessitates trespassing on an object. Jumpers who are caught can expect to be charged with trespassing, as well as having charges like breaking and entering, reckless endangerment, vandalism, or other such charges pressed against them. Other people accompanying the jumper, such as ground crew, may also face charges. In some jurisdictions it may be permissible to use land until specifically told not to. Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, is the only man-made structure in the United States where BASE jumping is allowed year-round without a permit.
Once a year, on the third Saturday in October ("Bridge Day"), permission to BASE jump has explicitly been granted at the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia. The New River Gorge Bridge deck is 876 feet (267 m) above the river. An object dropped from the deck will hit the water in 8.8 seconds. This annual event attracts about 450 BASE jumpers, and nearly 200,000 spectators. If the conditions are good, in the six hours that it is legal, there may be over 800 jumps. For many skydivers who would like to try BASE jumping, this will be the only fixed object from which they ever jump. On 21 October 2006, veteran BASE jumper Brian Lee Schubert of Alta Loma, California was killed jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge during Bridge Day activities. His parachute opened late and he plummeted to his death in the waters below. Jumps continued following the recovery of his body. He and his friend Michael Pelkey were the first to make a BASE jump from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 1966.
However the National Park Service has the authority to ban specific activities in US National Parks, and has done so for BASE jumping. The authority comes from 36 CFR 2.17(3), which prohibits, "Delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit." Under that Regulation, BASE is not banned, but is allowable if a permit is issued by the Superintendent, which means that a mechanism to allow BASE in National Parks was always in place. However, National Park Service Management Policies have stated that BASE "is not an appropriate public use activity within national park areas ..." (2001 Management Policy 188.8.131.52.) This meant that there could be no permitted air delivery. It is noted, however, that this policy has a proposed change that strikes the language banning it outright and replacing it with a different test. Whether this will be approved, and whether this will make the granting of permits easier, is open to speculation.
In the early days of BASE jumping, the Service issued permits under which jumpers could get authorization to jump from El Capitan. This program ran for three months in 1980 and then collapsed amid allegations of abuse by unauthorised jumpers. Since then, the Service has vigorously enforced the ban, charging jumpers with "aerial delivery into a National Park". One jumper drowned in the Merced River while being chased by Park Rangers intent on arresting him. Despite this, illegal jumps continue in Yosemite at a rate estimated at a few hundred per year, often at night or dawn. El Capitan, Half Dome and Glacier Point have been used as jump sites.
Other US public land, including land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, does not ban air delivery, and there are numerous jumpable objects on BLM land.
The legal position is better at other sites and in other countries. For example, in Norway's Lysefjord, BASE jumpers are made welcome. Many sites in the European Alps, near Chamonix and on the Eiger, are also open to jumpers. Some other Norwegian places, like the Troll Wall, are banned because of dangerous rescue missions in the past.
Upon completing a jump from all of the four object categories, a jumper may choose to apply for a "BASE number", which are awarded sequentially. Base-1 was awarded to Phil Smith of Houston, Texas in 1981. The 1000th application for a BASE number was filed in March 2005 by Matt Moilanen of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
BASE jumping is often featured in action movies. The 2002 Vin Diesel film xXx includes a scene where Diesel's character catapults himself off a bridge in an open-topped car, landing safely as the car crashes on the ground. Since the 1976 Mount Asgard jump featured in the pre-credits sequence to The Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond movies have featured several BASE jumps, including one from the Eiffel Tower in 1985's A View to a Kill, the Rock of Gibraltar in 1987's The Living Daylights, and in Die Another Day, 2002, Pierce Brosnan as James Bond jumps from a melting iceberg. Of the James Bond jumps only the Mt Asgard and Eiffel Tower jumps were filmed in reality; the rest were special effects.
The 1990s surge of interest in extreme sports saw increasing interest in BASE jumping, though unlike other "extreme" sports which have become more or less mainstream, BASE jumping retains a reputation as a stunt or daredevil activity rather than a sport. The lack of an objective standard for judging between jumps from a single object is certainly a problem here--in one sense, any jump in which the jumper survives is successful, and as jumpers rarely attain sufficient speed to engage in the kind of acrobatics that conventional skydivers do, the opportunity for distinguishing one's self beyond the mere fact of the jump is somewhat minimal.
The high fatality rate is another likely reason that the activity has largely failed to gain widespread acceptance, and though the availability of specialized equipment and wider knowledge of techniques has made BASE jumping safer than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, deaths still occur on a regular basis, even among experienced jumpers. Some deaths through ground impact in free fall or object strike do occur, but most incidents are due to hazardous landing sites or other problems which develop after the parachute has opened. Because of the covert nature and questionable legality of many BASE jumps, no reliable figures are available to assess the statistical risks of the activity, though it is by any measure one of the world's more dangerous recreational activities.
Guinness World Records first listed a BASE jumping record with Carl Boenish's 1984 leap from Trollveggen (Troll Wall) in Norway. It was described as the highest BASE jump. (The jump was made two days before Boenish's death at the same site.) This record category is still in the Guinness book and is currently held by Glenn Singleman and Heather Swan with a jump from Meru Peak in northern India at a starting elevation of 6,604 meters (21,667 ft)
The sheer variety of the nature of the challenge at different jump sites means that direct comparisons of different jumps are often meaningless. There is a Guinness entry for "oldest BASE jumper" (James Guyer, aged 74 years 47 days). Even more contentious are claims sometimes made (although not recognized by Guinness) for the lowest jump. Given that a static-lined parachute can be made to open in little more than the length of its suspension lines, jumps can actually be performed at practically any altitude down to the point at which a parachute is not necessary for survival.
BASE competitions have been held since the early 1980s, with accurate landings or free fall aerobatics used as the judging criteria. Recent years have seen a formal competition held at the 452 meter (1483-ft) high Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, judged on landing accuracy.