Maja Kuczynska – Bigger than the Sky
Stunning routine by Maja Kuczyńska
BASE jumping is illegal! Ask anyone and they'll tell you. And not just Dave down the pub or Auntie Carol in Penge: even respected journalists, with their army of fact-checkers and legal-eagle minions will happily set you straight on this matter. BASE jumping is against the law. Many a yellow-jacketed security guard and even the odd Police Constable will happily confirm it’s strictly verboten and punishable by…well…some arcane law… I guess.
Which is all well and good, except, weirdly, it isn't. BASE isn't illegal at all. No. Really.
Of course, minor civil transgressions can, and in truth, often are committed in its pursuit, perhaps comparable to street skaters who re-purpose an angular facet on a municipal building to create an ad-hoc quarter-pipe, or akin to a hiker who deliberately strays from the public footpath and wanders onto private land in pursuit of the road less travelled. Yes, they’re a bit naughty for breaking the rules but in the big scheme of things it's hardly “broken Britain”!
BASE jumping has, written into its very DNA, a pre-disposition for civic deviancy and churlish disobedience: many locations that are a BASE jumper’s stock-in-trade are privately owned or publically managed and require permission to be granted. Since this is invariably denied, BASE is forced to exist in social, ethical and legal purgatory and is certainly the reason why, throughout its relatively short history, jumpers have been perceived as the black sheep of the para-sports world. Early proponents were often ostracized and threatened with the revocation of their skydiving licenses for bringing the sport into disrepute and indeed spokespersons for the BPA have been at great pains to distance their highly regulated and controlled activities from the feudal and esoteric world that is BASE. And, rightly so. The two are, after all, very different beasts, with their own highly specific equipment, methods and dangers.
But times and attitudes have changed, with more prominent skydivers and BPA members partaking in the sibling sub-culture and bringing with their participation a level of acceptance, dare I say mutual respect, which was hitherto denied. BASE, with its dedicated equipment, packing techniques and more recently, its semi-professional First Jump Courses, has finally come of age. No longer can skydiving dismiss it as a roll of the dice and a dance with the devil. BASE is, after all, subject to the same physics as skydiving. BASE is science.
Yet the public perception of BASE being an illegal and capricious activity persists; a myth which is often perpetuated by some jumpers who enjoy the reputation of non-conformity and some who like to feed the media’s morbid preoccupation with spurious probabilities of fatalities within the sport.
However, the public perception of BASE was once again grabbed by the lapels and forcibly shaken last month during the second Airgamez held in Blackpool. Airgamez wasn't the first attempt by UK BASE jumpers to unshackle themselves from the lawless death-loving stigma but it certainly was the most prolific attempt to date with thousands of members of the sun-loving August Bank Holiday public turning up to watch the 73 selected and screened BASE jumpers, from 16 different countries, make in excess of 685 carefully executed jumps from a cage suspended 473ft above Blackpool's celebrated stretch of beach.
With the approval, indeed blessing, of Blackpool's forward-thinking council and with sponsorship for the event coming from local businesses, Airgamez once again saw BASE jumpers emerge squinting into the late summer sun, and for one long weekend at least, enjoy the freedom of the blue Lancashire skies and a welcome respite from immediately having to run away upon landing. With a respectable amount of altitude to play with, jumpers were able to take solid delays of over 3 seconds, perform staged-deployment multi-ways, AFF style linked exits, all manner of aerobatics multi-axis rotations, and even the odd unpacked jump.
Julian Deplidge, erstwhile skydiver and veteran of several hundred BASE jumps from hundreds of notable landmarks including Blackpool’s iconic “Big One” rollercoaster, is the man behind the Blackpool Airgamez and sees the event as a positive step forward for the jumpers, the town and for the general public perception of BASE.
“The idea of the Airgamez arose principally to give UK BASE jumpers an event where we could gather and jump together in a more relaxed and less stressful environment and get to know the real people behind the online personas we create for ourselves. Thankfully BASE has no governing body or hierarchy, but the downside to that is the lack of cohesion and community, so an event like this gives us the opportunity to hear what everyone is doing, what gear they are using and prefer or what they are having issues with. In addition, being local to Blackpool I wanted to try and create something new and exciting for the Town which could be a welcome addition and attraction. People come to Blackpool for experiences, whether it’s the nightlife, the illuminations, the white knuckle rides, a view from the tower, their last night of being single. I felt BASE jumping was something few people have any experience of, even from a spectator perspective, and what little exposure they have had is often skewed by the often sensationalist media preoccupation with death. I genuinely felt that Airgamez could provide a welcome and more positive perspective on what we do.”
With health and safety concerns being paramount in societal culture, pulling off this event, in a packed seaside town at the height of the UK’s short tourist season, is no mean feat and is testament not just to Julian's dogged determination, steely nerve and vision but to the advancement in technology and techniques which have endowed BASE with a statistic predictability worthy of consideration by the ranks of risk assessors whose approval is now mandatory.
“From the outset, Blackpool council were very open to the idea but of course there were concerns for safety; for the jumpers and the public. We systematically took each issue, assessed each risk and highlighted ways of mitigating them. We didn’t try to convince them the event was without risk, only that their perception of the risks were almost certainly overstated. Blackpool has built an industry for itself on thrill-seeking rides which are proven to be safe, but are never without risk. Accidents do happen, even on rollercoasters. Risk cannot be eliminated entirely, but it can be managed and monitored. Once we’d done the required paperwork and shown that the event could be self-financed without any burden being passed on to the council or the tax-payer, they allowed us to get on with it. I really can’t fault them in any way. ”
Proving that BASE is a highly considered, scientifically calculable (albeit with degrees of variability) and thoroughly fun past time is paramount to the Blackpool event. Airgamez is to BASE what the Great British Bake off is to cooking a perfect Victoria Sponge. It may not be for everyone, but for those who do partake, if you do the requisite preparation, understand the science that underpins it and follow the tried and tested recipe the results can be predictable and very satisfying.
This is not to insist that BASE jumping is a safe endeavour; a claim which would be nothing if not irresponsible and like the aforementioned baking competition is always vulnerable to the weak link in the chain that is human error of judgement. Indeed BASE-related fatalities have unfortunately continued to rise in recent years with 2016 witnessing the demise of high numbers already including several highly esteemed jumpers . It is worth noting however, that not all BASE jumps are created equally and the vast majority of all modern BASE fatalities occur during wingsuit or tracking suit proximity flights: the fairly modern sub-culture within BASE which strives to fly, for increasingly prolonged periods ever closer to the hard and unforgiving mountainous terrain below an exit point. It’s a specific niche within the sport where the margins for error are decreasing inversely proportionate to the experience levels of many who are entering into it.
Proximity aside, risk within BASE can still be mitigated in several ways, one factor being in the choice of object jumped. The favoured learner objects; bridges, offer clear and forgiving airspace beneath the exit point which in turn offers increased reaction time in the event of the dreaded off-heading opening. Progression to antennae allows jumpers to use tailwinds to their advantage, blowing them away from the tower , and the next natural step; cliffs, provide landing areas comparable in size to an average dropzone. Buildings with their hard unyielding nature, proneness to localised and channelled winds, limited altitude, accessibility and congested landing areas are ordinarily the reserve of the more experienced jumper.
Which is precisely why the Airgamez event has opted for the best of all worlds, utilising a mobile crane jibbed to exploit the best wind direction, suspended over clear airspace and with a wide, uncongested and soft landing area to touch down in. As far as BASE goes, it's a fairly forgiving object and a contributing factor in why, for two years running , the event has passed without so much as a broken finger nail or bruised ego.
With the added bonus that, unlike the traditional skydiving displays with the inevitable wait and the equally inevitable mass staring at the wrong patch of sky in the hope of spotting a tiny falling body, the public at Airgamez are perfectly positioned to watch the jumpers as they stand on the edge and the can watch agog for those few brief seconds as the bodies accelerate towards the earth, only to be plucked to safety by their 260ft 7 cell canopies which are then skilfully navigated to the soft sand below. It's nothing if not immediate, dramatic, and compelling.
“I think everyone involved is delighted with the Airgamez success. The public seemed to love the spectacle and after a few jumps they start to trust that the jumpers know what they’re doing. The jumpers loved the opportunity to get to meet and jump with each other. The local shops and stall holders experienced an upsurge as more and more members of the public were drawn to the locale to investigate and spectate and Blackpool Council are happy to have added yet another event in their calendar which can only be good for the town.”
Julian is optimistic about the positive impact Airgamez has already made and has plans to increase its scope in coming years
“Long term, I’d like to add additional sports like canopy piloting, speed climbing, skateboarding and BMX and broaden the whole event to encompass an array of non-mainstream sports in an alternative Olympics style competition. We’ve still got some way to go but this year saw the addition of the very popular slack-lining stand, so we’re on the way.”
Airgamez will hopefully perpetuate more Airgamez and perhaps open up access to other sanctioned objects in other locations which may have been previously unthinkable. But as to whether BASE will become so accepted that jumpers can stroll in to any building and expect access to a rooftop? Julian is under no illusions:
“An event like Airgamez is great fun and great for BASE but let’s be realistic here: we’re not about to be welcomed open-armed by owners of tall structures across the country and I’m not sure it would be good for BASE if we were. Being covert and surreptitious has its benefits. It’s a good filter and ensures those who aren’t serious, committed or methodical won’t progress. It ensures you have to consider the jump, be analytical, weigh up the options and very often conclude that the margins are too narrow and walking away is necessary. Having someone hold the door open to all-comers would see an end to that crucial element in BASE: thinking through the jump.”
So it doesn’t seem like there’ll be an amnesty on night-vision goggles any time soon.