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The last big push to bring respectability to the sport happened five years ago in California.
To protest a ban on BASE jumping in national parks, five parachutists announced that they would jump from El Capitan on October 22, 1999. They expected to be arrested at the bottom, and park rangers were on hand to do the honors. But instead of a triumphant public-relations coup, the event became a disaster when the third jumper, Jan Davis, fell to her death. Expecting her parachute to be confiscated, Davis had borrowed a BASE rig. Unfamiliar with its operation, she reportedly grasped for her pilot chute at her back rather than her leg as she fell.
"Now the stigma of BASE is, 'Oh, my God. No wonder this is illegal,'" Tyler says.
Tyler has personal knowledge of the sport's danger. In October, he was at Royal Gorge in Colorado and saw Dwain Weston sliced nearly in half when the parachutist hit the bridge.
As part of a jumping demonstration during the inaugural Go Fast Games for extreme sports, Weston was wearing a BirdMan suit, which made the jumper look like a flying squirrel. Weston could extend his free falls many seconds more than regular jumpers. The Australian had leaped from a plane and was attempting to fly over the bridge before deploying his parachute. He fell just a few inches short, slamming into the bridge rail.
Tyler won't talk about what he saw at Royal Gorge. He remains friends with people who were close to Weston. "Dwain was probably the best in the world, maybe ever," Tyler says. "The loss of Dwain is the equivalent to the loss of Dale Earnhardt in the NASCAR circuit. It had that kind of impact."
Tyler and other Kansas City jumpers also were at Moab last November when another Kansas Citian, 71-year-old Jim Guyer, bounced down the side of a cliff. Guyer fractured his face and pelvis and had to undergo surgery to repair the damage.
"BASE requires jumpers to be highly skilled both mentally and physically," Tyler says. "Certain BASE jumpers aren't meant for every BASE jump. Jumping at Moab may have been at the limit of a 71-year-old BASE jumper. At the same time, I'd like to be 71 and still jumping and not have some jackass 30-year-old tell me I shouldn't jump."
Like NASCAR drivers, BASE jumpers deal with the "accepted risks" of their sport, Tyler says. "Every time you step off an object, there is a chance that is going to happen to you," he says. "BASE as a sport is as safe as anybody wants it to be ... if you prepare properly. If you jump in optimum conditions with maximum preparation, you minimize the risk."
Toward that end, Tyler has become obsessive about his equipment. An engineer, he knows the physics of air and cloth and bodies. He watches pack videos over and over again. The United States Parachute Association mandates repacking reserve parachutes every four months. Tyler will leave his BASE-jumping rig packed for no longer than three weeks.
"The longer it's packed, the slower it opens," he says. "The longer it's folded, the less air that's in there."
BASE-jumping parachutes are tubes of nylon sewn together. The tubes have to be lined up and folded in their pouch so that they come out straight and inflate quickly and evenly. Among the worst things that can happen to a BASE jumper is for his chute to come out facing backward, carrying him back into the object from which he's just jumped. Once the tubes are closed, the chutes themselves collapse. The jumper then falls.