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This article was written entirely by Tom Aiello, BASE 579. Tom has made over 500 BASE jumps in the past 30 months, from more than 100 objects. He is not an authority or expert of any kind on BASE jumping or any other type of parachuting, so all his advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Copyright 2002. Permission to reproduce and distribute in this exact form only is hereby granted.
Virtually every time I tell someone that I'm a BASE jumper, their first question is "how could I get into that?" After answering that question dozens of times, I decided to write it all down, so that I can avoid repetition induced laryngitis.
There are as many different ways of getting started BASE jumping as there are jumpers. But, after some soul-searching, some discussion with friends, and some internet research, I've decided that the course I wish I had followed, and the one I've tried to set people on, goes something like this.
Check the Fit
BASE jumping is not for everyone. Give yourself a long hard, look, and decide if BASE really fits you. It's virtually impossible to objectively evaluate yourself, so it might be helpful to have a (close and tactful) friend help you with this step.
Does BASE jumping fit your physical abilities? BASE is not really about personal fitness (although it helps) or athleticism (which only comes into play in advanced sub-disciplines). In BASE, the important physical abilities are reaction time, coordination and balance. Evaluate yours. It may be helpful to ask some of the following questions: If you are sitting at a desk, and knock a pencil off, do you pick it up off the ground, or did you catch it in mid-air? When you spill a bottle of beer, do you have to get up and get a new one, or do you right it before you've lost most of it? How often do you trip or stumble?
Does BASE jumping fit your mindset? The best BASE jumpers are organized to the point of anal retentive. They also have an intellectual curiosity about almost everything. Have you ever wondered how the reserve system on a skydiving rig works? How many times did you trust your life to it before you starting wondering? Are you always trying to find a pull-up cord to close, or do other people ask you for them?
Do you make correct decisions in pressure situations? BASE jumpers need to react quickly, and correctly, in life threatening situations. Have you ever been confronted with an oncoming car in your lane? How did you react? Did you have to think about it, or did it just happen for you?
BASE will best fit a person who is intellectually curious, has good reactions, responds quickly and correctly (without having to think during the emergency), has excellent coordination and is highly organized and detail oriented. You can definitely still be a BASE jumper who has trouble with one or two of these things, but if you are weak in most of these areas, BASE is not a good sport to take up.
Make the Decision
Make absolutely certain BASE is really what you want. This sport is dangerous, sometimes illegal and very addictive. It will take over your life. I would never advise someone to get into it (and I have found it to be the most rewarding experience of my life). In my short time in this sport I've seen two life flight helicopters from the outside, two more from the inside, the back of a police car, several broken bones and a funeral. I've also spent three weeks in Intensive Care and 18 hours in neurosurgery. Are you sure you really want to do this?
There are lots of different reasons to get into BASE, and I have given up trying to decide which are the "right" ones. The important thing is that your reasons are important enough to you to outweigh the potentially enormous costs of BASE jumping. Unless you are a NASCAR driver, BASE is by far the most dangerous thing you will ever do. Statistically, you have something like a 5% chance of dying by the end of your BASE career. Worse, your chance of serious injury (think hospital time) is more like 95%. I know three BASE jumpers with more than 500 jumps who have not spent serious time (more than a day or two) in the hospital due to BASE accidents. Even they agree that it is just a matter of time until they are seriously injured. If you are not ready to die BASE jumping, you are not ready to BASE jump.
Go to this web site: http://juliabell.home.att.net . Read the entire thing. Seriously.
Still want to be a BASE jumper? Then read on...
Do Your Homework
Next you need to find out everything that you can about BASE jumping. Talk to every BASE jumper you can. Read every article you can find about BASE, rigging or weather. Get on the internet and find everything you can about BASE (there is a whole lot more than you'd think). I have included several of my favorite references at the end of this article, but there are many, many more.
Get Your Head Straight
Now that you've made the decision to jump, make sure that you have the right mentality. There are two important pieces of that mentality that will keep you alive in this sport.
Never do anything that doesn't feel right to you. If you're not ready for something, don't do it. We all determine our own learning speeds, and there is no way to know in advance what you'll be comfortable with. Don't be pushed into doing things you're not ready for by overeager partners or teachers.
Never be afraid to back down. It takes far more courage to back off the exit point than to jump. There are definitely times when it is right to back off, and knowing when to heed that little voice in your head is critical to your survival. This sport is very, very serious, and taking it lightly will hurt, maim, or kill you in short order.
The rest of your mentality you'll develop as you go, learning from other jumpers, from experience (both positive and negative) and from the rest of your life.
Tell Your Family
It is the responsibility of every BASE jumper to tell their family that they are involved in BASE, that they understand the risks, and that they have chosen to take those risks.
Sit down with your family and talk to them about BASE. This is obviously an extremely difficult proposition. Facing your family with your decision to engage in a life-threatening activity cannot be easy. However this discussion is important both for you and for the sport of BASE jumping.
An honest, open discussion with your loved ones will make them feel more included in your decisions. They will generally be more impressed with the maturity and thought that has gone into your decision to jump. This can help avoid the arguments, tantrums, and guilt trips that might otherwise be thrown at you by family and friends who don't understand your activities.
An explanation, by you, that you understand and accept the risks involved, will help prevent your family from attacking other members of the BASE community in the event of your injury or death. There have been far too many cases of the families of dead jumpers accusing, confronting, suing and even prosecuting other jumpers as a result of fatalities. Don't let this happen to your friends.
Write a letter to your friends and family, to be opened in the event that you die BASE jumping. In the letter, explain why you have chosen to take up BASE, what you hope to get from BASE jumping, and why you are willing to risk death for it. Give sealed copies to (at the very least) your family and your BASE mentor. Do this to defuse any conflicts that might arise from your death.
Make the Skydives
First, make at least 200 skydives. You need to make these skydives in order to practice accuracy, tracking and canopy control skills. You also need to establish a general comfort level with parachutes, free fall, and split second decisions. The skydivers who are best prepared for BASE generally jump large, 7 cell, F-111 canopies, have had a number of malfunctions and responded correctly, and are comfortable with multiple skydiving disciplines. If your only focus is BASE jumping, don't succumb to the temptation to become canopy swooping freeflyer. Instead, focus on CRW and Accuracy as your skydiving disciplines.
To practice tracking make entire skydives in max track. Don't count on the limited tracking on break off, or on the balanced tracking of a tracking jump. Make the whole dive tracking as hard as you can, with camera and coaching if possible, and work on getting the most lift, and the most drive out of your track.
For accuracy practice, it's best to use the canopy that you intend to BASE jump with. Try to set up low (under 500 feet), to simulate the BASE environment. Don't forget to make approaches cross- and down-wind as well, since you will often have to do this while BASE jumping.
For canopy practice, you should make some CRW jumps (on a CRW canopy) and then do some canopy drills on your intended BASE canopy. CRW is a great way to learn canopy flight characteristics in tight spaces before you get into the BASE environment (and CRW with your BASE canopy is an excellent drill-after you've learned some CRW skills).
Be sure you've made several night jumps during your skydiving career. In many places, BASE jumps are made almost exclusively at night (to avoid arrest, incarceration, and gear confiscation), and comfort with flying and landing your canopy at night is essential to survive these jumps.
Make some jumps on your BASE canopy to learn its performance envelope. Pay particular attention to riser input, practicing riser turns and riser flares. Make sure you practice your riser turns before popping your toggles-that's the way you'll have to do it to avoid smacking the side of a cliff one day. Obviously, you'll want to practice them after grabbing the toggles, as well.
Find a Mentor
While you are learning to skydive, you will doubtless meet skydivers at the drop zone. Try to find and meet the local BASE jumpers as well. Your goal should be to find someone with 200 or more BASE jumps, who you think will be a good teacher, and whom you get along with. You also have to trust them with your life (that is what you will be doing, after all).
Get a BASE Rig
Now, with proper canopy skills and an instructor, you need to find a BASE rig. Your best bet is to buy a new, Velcro closed, BASE specific rig from a major manufacturer, and put a real BASE canopy in it. You can also find good used gear (check the classified ads on the BASE board: www.blincmagazine.com). The key is to get actual BASE specific gear. Lots of people will try to sell you converted skydiving gear (Ravens, Cruiselites, Pegasus's, etc). Avoid this and get real BASE gear. Everyone has different preferences in gear, but the key is to find actual, purpose built, BASE gear.
Take a First Jump Course
So, now you have the pre-requisite skydiving skills, an appropriate rig, and you've found an instructor. Time to go jumping, right?
Wrong. Now it's time to get to work. Before you can make your first jump, you still have to learn basic rigging and packing, dead air exits skills, and simple ethics. There are two ways to do this.
The simplest is to cough up US$1000 or so, and take a first jump course from one of the major gear manufacturers. Since most of us don't have an extra grand to throw around, we tend to try to skip this step. I don't recommend this. It really is worth the money to get qualified, professional instruction. You wouldn't try to make your first skydive without paying for instruction, would you? Even if you had a friend who swore he "knew all about it", and could easily "take you for a jump."
First jump courses are also available from various BASE organizations around the world, such as the Australian BASE Association (which maintains a database of qualified instructors in Australia) and the Norwegian BASE Association (which has classes available at Lysefjord in an attempt to minimize accidents at that popular site). If you have the money, though, my preference would be to take your course from an American manufacturer, as their "teaching object" (a 486' bridge over water, with a huge grassy landing area) is generally the safest for a first time jumper. There is a similar object in Southern Europe, and Robert Pecnik offers a First Jump Course there.
Lots of people try to save some money by getting their friends to "teach" them. This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, you don't know that your friend really has the qualifications to teach. Second, you don't know that he's really motivated to do a thorough job teaching. Sure, he can get you off for that first jump, but what did he teach you about dealing with your unstable launch on jump number 12? Third, you will learn more if your First Jump Course is not taught by the same mentor who guides you through your next 20-50 jumps. Finally, these "informal" first jump courses can drag on for weeks, months, even years. If you contract with a real business, you know the exact dates of your course, and you can plan for it.
Watch Some Video
Now that you have an idea of what a BASE jump ought to look like, get your hands on some BASE video. The best video for this is the "Lemmings Exits" series from Bridge Day (http://www.lemmingsvideo.com/). Try to get several years of "Lemmings Exits", and whatever other BASE video you can find. Watch the video, preferably with your BASE mentor. Evaluate each jump. The more errors you can see before jumping, the more likely you are to avoid them yourself.
Now you're ready to start jumping. After your First Jump Course, you should have a solid knowledge of gear, rigging and packing, some theoretical knowledge of malfunctions and solutions, and a practical set of launches to work from.
The next step is to get home and make as many jumps (in as short a time) as possible with your BASE mentor. Ask as many questions constantly. Try to learn as much as you can. Once you feel comfortable (and so does your mentor), start branching out and jumping with other people. Ask them the same questions (they may have different answers). Watch different people pack. Watch different people jump. Always ask why things are done a certain way.
Now that you have 20-30 jumps, and can hang with the local crew, you can consider yourself a solid beginner. There is still a lot more to learn, see and do. Never stop learning. In addition to being a good way to stay alive, it's one of the most rewarding things about the sport.
First Jump Courses:
4035 Grass Valley Highway
Auburn, California 95602
530 823-7971 fax
236 East 3rd Street, Unit C
Perris, California 92570
909 940-1326 fax
5107 Lantana Street
Zephyrhills, Florida 33541
813 788-7072 fax
Australian BASE Association
Director of Safety and Operations
Must See Web Sites:
http://www.basejump.org Click on the "Articles" link, and read ALL the "Must Read" articles.
http://www.blincmagazine.com Pay special attention to the "Knowledge BASE" and "BASE Board" sections.
http://www.crmojo.com Especially look through the "Articles" section of the "Library".
Understanding the Sky. Dennis Pagen. Sport Aviation Publications; ISBN: 0936310103; (February 1992): Buy this book. Read it, then keep it. You'll want to read it again when you have around 100 BASE jumps, and then again around 500 jumps. Each time, it will become more useful.
Groundrush. Simon Jakeman. Jonathan Cape; ISBN: 0099232618; (July 1993): The first (and so far only) book ever published about BASE jumping.
Album of Fluid Motion. Milton Van Dyke. Parabolic Press, Inc.; ISBN: 0915760037; (May 1982): The most valuable picture book I've read. You may not understand why it matters at first, but once you start jumping cliffs and buildings in wind, the basic concepts in this book become invaluable. Don't worry about the technical jargon-just look at the pictures.
BASE Gear Manufacturer Web Sites
Used BASE Gear Classifieds On Line
Other Informational BASE web sites of interest
And one inspirational web site:
© Copyright 2002 Tom Aiello. Permission to reproduce and distribute in this exact form only is hereby granted. Please address any questions, comments or corrections to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.