The High-Flying Adventures of Miles Daisher
Standing on the Perrine Bridge one midwinter morning, Miles Daisher is pointing out the birds flying a hundred feet below us.A red-tailed hawk and a few crows are battling a gusty north wind. Farther below, the Snake River—slow and olive green—spreads east and west.
It is a grim, steel-grey day outside Twin Falls, Idaho, but Daisher, the world’s most prolific BASE jumper, is fired up. “It’s time to go base jumping!” he belts out. We had met only five minutes earlier, yet now, for no apparent reason, he is willing to jump off a bridge for me.
In one perfect motion, Daisher leaps up and is standing on the five-inch-wide guard railing, 487 feet above the river. Just a few feet behind us 18-wheelers blast by and the entire truss-arch structure shakes as they pass. Daisher stands on the railing talking to me as if he were standing in his living room. Then he looks to the horizon and says, “What a beautiful day. Three, two, one, see ya.” And he jumps.
One full back flip later, exactly two seconds of free fall toward the earth, he pulls his chute. Twenty-four seconds later he is on the south bank of the river.
Daisher is 43 years old, fit and athletic, with a ready smile and rosy cheeks. You would be hard-pressed to find someone as infectiously upbeat and energetic. Sarah Murphy, a friend of Daisher’s who speed flies with him on occasion, says, “Miles creates his own atmosphere.”
There are times when he’s telling a story that Daisher will roll his eyes wide open and impishly cock his head to the side with a grin. At first blush, he looks like a crazy man, but, ultimately, it’s too amusing. One cannot help but smile with the man.
BASE jumping is a sport of jumping off high objects. The acronym stands for “Buildings, Antennae, Spans and Earth.” In BASE jumping, everything is measured in terms of seconds. Jump off the Perrine Bridge and you have two seconds to pull your chute; wait four seconds and it might not fill with air. Wait six seconds and you’ll be at the end of your fall.
In the world of human flight, there seems to be an endless number of ways to hurtle a body through the air. The basics are skydiving, BASE jumping, paragliding and bungee-jumping. But then there is rope jumping (leaping off cliffs with a climbing rope attached), and sky-yaking—a sport Daisher pioneered, in which he jumps out of a plane in a kayak.
Right: Miles Daisher B.A.S.E. Jumping at Riu Hotel in Guadalajara, Mexico, October 2011. Left: Jon Devore, Miles Daisher, Luke Aikins and Mike Swanson of the Red Bull Air Force Team soar over the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, CA, October 2011.
Of all these endeavors, big mountain proximity flying is Daisher’s favorite—and certainly the most dangerous. It entails hiking thousands of feet to the top of spectacular sheer cliffs in places like Baffin Island, Canada, or Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. Daisher then jumps off a rocky precipice wearing a “wingsuit,” a nylon suit that, when extended in flying position, facilitates human flight.
“It takes a little bit of free fall to get air speed,” Daisher explains over lunch. “At about seven seconds you are picking up forward speed. By about 10 or 12 seconds you are going full speed … that is, if you get in the right position at the beginning. If you are in a nice dive, your arms are back, legs back, head down, screaming like an eagle, you are doing 150 to 170 miles per hour.” For a frame of reference, consider that Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 this year averaging 159 mph.
It is important to remember that while Daisher is moving forward at 170 mph, he is also falling toward the earth at 50 mph. The mass of a jumper and the acceleration of gravity are constant, so when it comes to speed, the key variable is drag. For instance, if one gets in a “head-down, pencil dive,” as Daisher terms it, one can really get moving. The top speed Daisher has logged to date is 220 mph.
And then there are the cliffs.
Proximity flying is named as such because one of the objectives of the sport is to fly as close as possible to the walls of the cliffs from which one has just jumped. Daisher calls it “dancing with your shadow.” When pushed as to how far away the cliffs might be when he is zinging along at 170 mph, he says, “maybe five feet.”
To the outsider, the fundamentals of human flight are not obvious. A military veteran with extensive free- fall experience explained the basics. (Because he’s still in active duty, he requested anonymity.)
“The biggest difference between a BASE jump and a skydive free-fall is that the rush of a BASE jump is much greater,” the veteran explains. “Free fall out of an aircraft and typically you are at terminal speed, 110 mph to 120 mph, as soon as you exit. You are starting to fly immediately … all of those forces are on the flying surfaces and you are stabilized.
“In a BASE jump or helicopter jump, you have to fall first. And drag, or lack of drag initially, is the key. When you are falling sub-terminal velocity, anything can happen, because there is nothing to press against, there is no pressure initially. So, these BASE jumpers have to be super calm … and be in position so that when they get up to speed and dump the chute, they are ready to go.”
Though he has never been in one, Daisher refers to this potential danger as a “flat spin.” A jumper, if he doesn’t get his body position under control, can end up on his back, spinning like a top. It’s not unlike what temporarily happened to Felix Baumgartner, a friend of Daisher’s, who recently set the skydiving world record by jumping from a balloon at 128,000 feet. Daisher (and much of the world) was watching when Baumgartner was spinning wildly, and admits, “There was a moment there when everyone was holding his breath.” But once Baumgartner fell in to the thicker atmosphere, he was able to use his hands and legs to stabilize the spin and get in a position to open his chute.
Daisher’s fascination with flight, particularly human flight, began when he was young. The son of an Air Force pilot, Daisher went to countless air shows as a kid. One Fourth of July in Ohio, however, a 9-year-old Daisher watched a man skydive for the first time. He vividly recalls thinking, “That’s it! That’s what I want to do!”
But it wasn’t until he was 25 and living in Squaw Valley, California, that he did his first skydive. The late Frank Gambalie, a skydiver and noted BASE jumper, was his roommate. He convinced Daisher to put the $1,500 class fee on a credit card and go skydiving.
“September 6, 1995,” Daisher recites the day proudly. He did 11 jumps in three days. A year and a half later he started BASE jumping. At the time I interviewed him he was sitting on 3,251 BASE jumps, more than anyone else in the world.
When it comes to BASE jumping, it is hard to ignore the fact that a disproportionate number of jumpers die practicing their sport. In the short time I spent with Daisher he mentioned, without prompting, three different friends who had died in accidents. (I subsequently read about a fourth, Dan Osman, who died rope jumping.)
Shane McConkey was Daisher’s good friend and his main jump partner. But in 1999, while ski-BASE jumping in the Dolomite Mountains, McConkey failed to deploy his wingsuit. Gambalie, Daisher’s former roommate, died that same year after making a successful but illegal BASE jump off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Gambalie drowned in the frigid rapids of the Merced River trying to escape park officials. And then, most recently, Eli Thompson died while filming with Daisher, “Human Flight: 3D” (not yet released) in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.
Certainly every sport has its risks of equipment failure, human error and unexpected environmental events. What sets BASE jumping apart is that the consequence of any one of these failures is so definitive. Still, in the world of risky sports, one truism seems to hold: everyone is calibrated differently. The military veteran, for instance, has spent countless hours jumping out of aircraft at heights at which 747s fly (while the top altitude of military jumps is classified, it is thought to be at least in the 35,000-to 40,000-foot range, perhaps higher.) When I asked him if he had any interest in BASE jumping, he replies, “No, I’m scared of heights.”
When I asked Daisher if he was a regular kayaker, as well as a sky-yaker, he says he wasn’t a very good one. Then he adds, “I’m scared of it. You can drown, you know.”
Will Burks is an extreme skier, speed flier and a friend of Daisher’s. Burks has done his fair share of BASE jumping and has skied some of the world’s steepest mountains. But he acknowledges a shift in his own approach to dangerous sports.
“Risk came into my mind after having kids,” he says. “Doing some of the more extreme things comes with guilt. Sometimes I think, what if?” Burks now does much more ski flying (flying a small parachute with skis on) than BASE jumping.
Daisher’s wife, Nikki, is an occupational therapist who met Daisher in Squaw Valley when it was the cultural Mecca for BASE jumpers and other extreme athletes. Nikki has 80 skydives under her belt, but only one BASE jump. It wasn’t for her, but she seems to put absolute trust in her husband’s skills and thoroughness and is totally supportive of what he does. When Daisher goes BASE jumping, it is analogous to another man going golfing.
The couple has three children, ages 8, 6 and 4. The oldest, Dorothy, is a cheerleader and, more specifically, “a flier” on the squad. Daisher says with pride that she can already “huck standing back flips.” Dorothy has asked her dad for a pink princess parachute.
Remarkably, Daisher supports his family of five by either jumping off of things or teaching others to jump off things. A few years ago, he started a camp for aspiring BASE jumpers called Miles D’s BASE camp. To participate, one must have done 100 skydives or have a paraglider rating of P3. It’s a five-day camp during which Daisher says the emphasis is on safety and fun.
In addition, the energy drink company Red Bull pays Daisher a salary to participate in events and, as Daisher says, “to be a billboard. Basically, they bought my head.” He gets paid to jump into special events like football games and NASCAR races. He showed me one video in which he jumped off a hotel roof in a Superman costume, opened a parachute, then landed in a swimming pool where there were hundreds of party guests cheering wildly.
In advance of what’s called the Red Bull Flugtag—a multi-city event in which people are challenged to launch human-powered aircraft off a 30-foot pier—Daisher recently made a national commercial to promote the event. In it, he was filmed doing an indoor jump at Washington, D.C.’s, Gaylord Hotel.
He showed me the planned flight path on his laptop: it comprised jumping off the top balcony, free falling, opening his chute, turning, going under one overhang, then clearing two different balconies, flying through a fountain and then hitting a 30-foot-by-30-foot landing spot.
Looking at the confines of the building, it seemed absurd that he would be free falling, then flying a parachute through the hotel atrium. Daisher insists that he had some “wiggle room.” He explains that if he didn’t like the way the jump was going, he could stall out on a balcony, or bank left or right to hit two alternate landing zones that he admitted were “small.” This is a credo he learned from his father, the Air Force pilot: “You never paint your self into a corner. Always leave yourself an out, or two, because sometimes you’re going to need it.”
This summer Daisher will be in Europe five times to participate in the ProBASE World Cup. It begins with a target landing competition from the Sapphire Tower in Istanbul, Turkey, an event Daisher won last year. Then there will be wingsuit speed competitions in which fliers go head to head trying to outrace each other to a predetermined finish line suspended in the air (held in Innfyorden, Norway). Finally, there are wingsuit terrain competitions in which competitors must fly around a course set in the mountains near Kjerag, Norway.
After the European events, Daisher will return to Twin Falls where he and Nikki hold the annual Perrine Bridge Festival on the second weekend in September. It is a fundraising event organized to benefit kids in the Magic Valley with special needs.
The Perrine Bridge Fest grew out of a record-setting event Daisher held in 2005. For the original event, Daisher received pledges for each jump off the bridge he could complete in 24 hours. He began at midnight and jumped until 8:30 p.m. the next day. By the end, Daisher had made 57 jumps and had hiked the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest from sea level. Last year, the festival raised $60,000, which went to support speech therapy, physical therapy and wheelchair lifts for children with special needs.
One event likely to be added this year will be a Rail Jam: two jumpers race in opposite directions on the bridge railing to a specified point and then jump off. There will be a “dunk tank” suspended from the bridge and perhaps an event in which jumpers battle with padded pugo sticks on the railing. Daisher is also trying to organize a demonstration of a new sport he calls “human archery.” Wingsuit flyers will jump from planes or hot air balloons and try to fly their bodies through 30’ by 30’ paper targets suspended from helium balloons.
By his very nature, Daisher is constantly thinking about new sports, new ways to fly through the air, new venues from which to soar. He can speak about the skyscrapers of the world like a learned architect. In his eyes, they are all potential perches from which to leap. And so there is always another jump in his mind’s eye.
Just before he has to leave to pick up his kids from school, Daisher suddenly remembered one more video he desperately wanted to show me—a jump from the Petronas Towers (1,483 ft.) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The video opens with a shot from Daisher’s helmet camera looking straight down the tower wall. He’s obviously standing on a tiny ledge. Just watching the video is enough to induce a gut-in-your-throat sensation of falling. Having watched dozens of BASE-jumping videos, I remark to Daisher that I had never seen “that view.”
Daisher breaks a big smile and looks at me like I am the crazy one: “No one sees that view, dude. There are three people in the world who have seen that view.”