This is a true story … As best as my semi-burnt brain can remember. No embellishing was necessary. The names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
My first building jump was very special to me, although my approach was somewhat suicidal. Literally. I had just ended a 13-year relationship with the best gal on the planet, and I was the bad guy. After realizing how badly I blew the relationship, I had little respect for my own life. With slightly modified skydiving gear, a single antenna jump, and a half-dozen bridge jumps under my belt, I was off to the big city with reckless abandon. I had very little BASE jumping experience but 15-plus years as an active master rigger and had been testing BASE-gear designs on my two soon-to-be mentors—I will call them Blain and Mack.
Mack started BASE jumping at a very young age. He had a lot of natural talent and was a very early pioneer of BASE. Blain was what appeared to be a gentle giant, a quiet family man. But when he spoke, you listened. He didn’t mince words. When he realized I was throwing myself from buildings he opened, with not much care about myself let alone the site, he grabbed me by the throat and said, “Look, I really don’t care if you kill yourself. But if you fuck up my playground, I will kill you myself.”
Thoughts of doing myself in waned as the more I jumped, the more fun I was having and falling in love with what someday would be recognized as a legitimate sport. Blain and I became best friends and still are to this day. So, for the next three years we hammered the BASE scene pretty hard, especially in the city during the construction boom.
Blain and Mack did the early reconnaissance on what was to be the tallest building in the city, topping out at over a grand. They spent an evening every other week for several months going to the construction site to evaluate the premises for what turned out to be over a year’s worth of memorable jumps. They took note of where the stairwells would be, how to get through the perimeter fencing, and of course, where the construction-site guard was posted. On one of our early entries, he nabbed us. We explained that our mission was only to jump and we would do no other harm. He responded with, “It’s not legal to jump from this building.” And Mack quickly replied, “It’s not legal to drink on the job either, and we have evidence of you doing just that.” The alcoholic sitting on the forklift with his brown bag let us pass. We only had to use that one once, as we found another way to get past him.
I now had built two BASE rigs for myself (after all, the ones I built for Blain and Mack were working) and ordered two brand spankin’ new Raven 2 reserves, since they were the only reserves with a bridle attachment and could be jumped as a main as well. I designed tail pockets with no rubber bands, Zoomo toggles for slider-off jumps, various sized pilot chutes, and mesh sliders for the long delays to come as the building grew.
The guard crew for the job site had increased due to all the expensive equipment left on-site. They were aware that we were jumping on a pretty regular basis. So, they blocked off both stairwells with sheets of plywood, which we could jimmy up enough for us to squeeze under. After a few more nights of them hearing our canopies spank open, they battened down the hatches and we would have to find another way in.
The construction crew had erected an external elevator onto the outside of the building in order to transport materials to the upper floors. They were now working a night shift as well, so we had to be even more cautious as they were all over the place. We paid close attention to the elevator’s up and down cycles. The plan was to crawl into the open shaft on the floor where the plywood blocked the stairs. Just when the elevator passed on its way up with supplies, we would crawl into the shaft, climb up to the next floor where we could get back in the stairwell and past the blockade.
Being in the shaft of an operating elevator was more intense than the jump. At least I felt like I had some sort of control over the jump. One evening I was third in the shaft and was so concerned about hurrying before the elevator returned down that I passed up the floor I was supposed to get off on. I heard Blain whisper loudly, “Where are you going?” I was scrambling upward so fast that I just kept my momentum up and got out on the next floor. It was very unnerving being in the dark shaft not knowing how far up the elevator was going—and more importantly, when it was coming back down. Thoughts of becoming a BASE-jumper pancake or getting ground up in cables and pulleys were squiggly, to say the least.
After weeks of playing elevator-shaft roulette, the plywood was removed and the stairwells were opened up, since construction on the lower floors was progressing and more and more workers appeared and needed to use the stairs. We would run into a worker now and again, but they just passed us by, probably thinking we were workers as well. Electricians, plumbers, plasterers, painters, welders, and the like were now roaming the building and leaving behind a scent from the work they had done, a scent that would become addictive to an urban BASE jumper in a building under construction. Those smells got the juices flowing, as we peeled off our shirts and rolled up our sweatpants for our trip up the StairMaster. I was never in better shape and looked forward to the climbs.
Getting past all the watchful eyes and added security was becoming less of a cakewalk since the lower floors were now occupied. Barry, an electrician friend of mine, wanted to make only one jump from this building. We met on the street one evening and he outfitted me with a tool belt and tool chest for our gear. We walked up to the guard desk on a Sunday night and Barry stated, “Blankity Blank Electronics here. The computers are down and we need to get them up and running before Monday.” The guard gave us passes and name badges. We walked over to the elevator that was attended by a guard. He said the elevator was temporarily out of service and we would have to use the stairs. Acting as a disgruntled worker I replied, “I’m on double-time pay on a Sunday night. I’m not trudging up any stairs. I’ll wait.” We chatted small talk with the guard for 15 minutes ‘till service was restored and got on the elevator. And so did the guard. Crap! Barry smartly hit the 22nd floor button, well shy of where we were ultimately headed. When the doors opened we got off and the guard followed us. So, we meandered down the hall and by sheer luck a huge gray electrical panel appeared on our left. Barry stopped and opened the access door, and we both pulled out some tools to do a little fake wrenching. The guard, satisfied, walked by us and went into an office. We turned and bolted back to the elevator and zoomed up to the 56th floor, got rigged up, and jumped with no issues.
Once again, security was increasing. Blain and I decided to do a little more recon. One night we dressed as street bums. We left our gear at home. The plan was to walk into the lower level parking garage and see where the guard desk was and if we could get to the stairwell. After getting the info we needed, we were leaving the building when a guard saw us and started to come our way. I leaned on Blain’s shoulder and whispered, “Dumpster.” We staggered somewhat drunkenly over to a construction bin and started to dig through the trash. The guard stopped and watched for a bit and then went back inside. He fell for it! While rummaging through the trash, we struck gold! Or should I say blue. We came across hundreds of rolls of blueprints of our building. Back home, I was in my glory. I wallpapered one whole wall of my house with the blueprints. Kelly, the local T-shirt screener, made us shirts of the floor we were jumping with the building’s name on the sleeve. It turned out to be a pretty cool shirt as the blueprint we used was a top view and took the shape of a skull.
One man’s trash and all.
With some serious studying of the blueprints—and with the info that my mentors gained in the early days of studying the ground floor construction—we came up with a new entry plan. The base of our building jutted out and was about three feet away from the building adjacent to ours. We would compress ourselves between the two buildings and chimney climb up about 15 feet to a ledge. We would then make a three-man totem pole with me on top (I was the midget of the crew) to get to the next platform. Once on top I would lower a rope for my two partners in crime and they would climb up.
Using a ¾” inch wrench, we would quietly undo the four bolts that held a 4-by-8 steel grating in place on the floor. This was a vent for the air conditioning ductwork. Inside, I could almost stand up. After lowering the grating back in place, with a headlamp we worked our way through the ductwork for a short distance. There were all sorts of stuff in there. Cutoff lumber studs, wiring bits, McDonald’s cups, spent welding rods, and rats—dead and alive. We were BASE rats in the ductwork. The galvanized tunnel led us to a 3-by-3 inspection door that gave access to the stairwell. Opening the door ever so slightly, we would sniff for coffee, cologne, cigarette smoke, flatulence—anything that smelled like the enemy.
Reaching through the small door, we could touch the banister and feel for vibrations of anyone moving in the stairwell. Satisfied that all was clear, we would squeeze through the inspection door and have one more peek up and down the gaps of stairwell floors, looking for a hand or someone leaning on the handrail. One more deep sniff. Then we would marathon up to number 56, get rigged up, spit, and git. Jump, jump, jump, and scurry away. An hour or so later, we would go back and bolt the steel grating back in place.
I betcha I could still get into that building today, although there would be no windows to exit from, as this building tiered in toward the top. So, jumping from the roof was not possible…Unless you crawled out the beam of the window washing rigging which hung over the ledges below, did a short gulp and pitch, landed on the helipad of the lower building across the street, packed up there and did a direct-bag jump to open high enough to land on the roof of the motel across the next street, pack up one last time and do another go-n-throw and finally land in the street. At times I imagined that I could rob banks. But the only thievery I wanted was that of a little altitude. Dream on, Moe…Dream on!
Security increased big-time as we continued to be a different type of tunnel rat from today’s kids bobbing around in the human blender. Shortly after a jump one night, we drove around the building and it was pretty much surrounded by security. The enemy knew very well that we were still getting by them, as they would hear us whack open a few times per week. One night after stomping through the trash in the ductwork, wondering if they ever clean that crap outta there, we made our way to our ledge. Blain and Mack bailed and landed next to Mack’s car with our ground crew, Blind Donny sitting in the back seat holding the car key. That’s right. Blind Donny was a DZ regular with a few jumps under his belt, mostly CRW with a radio to get him somewhat safely back to terra-firma. He was a pretty sharp motorcycle engine mechanic. He would listen to the DC3 taking off and tell us it was going to blow a jug, and it did. He could ride a motorcycle down the runway. He knew a straight line.
Still fiddling with my bridle, I was a bit behind my mates. Exiting and doing a deep four-second delay I spanked open, got my brakes released, and noticed a white roving security car cruising toward the getaway car. The next thing ya know, the guard got out of the car to intercept me. But he must not have gotten it into park, as the car was still slowly rolling down the street. As he was trying to get back in his car it bumped into the curb and stopped just as I was touching down next to the trunk of the car. He grabbed my pilot chute, pulled and yelled, “Freeze! You’re under arrest.” I blurted back, “What are you gonna do? Shoot me with your radio?” Leaning forward, I cut him away, leaving him stumbling backward with my brand-new Raven in his grubby hands. I bolted to the getaway car and we raced off. Blind Donny exclaimed, “Whoever went last musta hummed it.” He could tell by the sound of the opening.
About a week later, the malfunctioning guard whom I cutaway in the street called the local gear shop on the DZ and was trying to sell my canopy for a hundred bucks. The local jumpers and gear store peeps heard of my adventure from two twin gals who no longer skydived but just happened to be in the city at 2 a.m. when I was landing and saw the whole thing go down. The gear-store folks gave me the phone number of the guard who was trying to sell my baby. The hastily written number was hard to decipher as sixes, eights, and threes all looked the same. After trying several combinations of different numbers I finally got through to the guard who was the chief of all security for the city. He was not a happy man. He said, “Listen. You guys are making us look bad. I have 16 men on that building, and I need to know how you are getting past them. If you tell me how you are gaining entry I will get you and your buddies one jump from any building in the city.”
Tempting, but I wasn’t going to fall for it. I responded with, “Sir I did not jump from your building. When you saw me I was under canopy. You never actually saw me jump because I didn’t. When you drove up the ramp and saw me under canopy, my friend on his motorcycle just rounded the corner ahead. He towed me aloft using a rope and a skateboard so I can fly down this big, wide street. And that’s when you saw me under canopy.” He obviously didn’t buy it, but I stuck to my story. I told him I would give him the hundred to get my canopy back, but I would send a non-jumper to meet him since I did not trust him. We picked a place to meet.
Dogg was a skydiver and a newbie BASE jumper as well as a seasoned bounty hunter. His car, a beat-up old Maverick, was a jail on wheels. It had all the seats removed, sans the driver’s, and only he could open and close the doors. He offered to retrieve my canopy, but in a roundabout way. He asked Mack to go along and he agreed since the chief didn’t really know if he was a jumper or not. Thanks again, Mack. Mack was to drop Dogg off near the meeting spot and then go get my gear. He was not going to give ol’ Chiefy the hundred bucks. If Chiefy got riled up then Dogg would appear, flash his badge and tell him he will handle it. When Mack was handed my canopy he tossed it in the trunk of the old Maverick and slammed the trunk shut and at the same time the driver’s door shut leaving him locked him out. Now Dogg had to come out of the woodwork, flash his badge and open the doors so they could leave. Chiefy was not so happy about not getting his ransom fee and a slow-speed follow entailed until he gave up, knowing my buds were aware of him and were just meandering through the city.
After that we stayed away from the big monolith which gave me my first, and 29 more, building jumps. Blain made 52 and Mack 40-some since they had the jump on me before I had those evil thoughts of ending my life. Oh, I still have them, every time my toes are curled over the edge of something jumpable. But I always chicken out because this is waaay too much fun and truly makes me feel so alive. After all, I could be one of those dead rats in the ductwork…AND…A new pit for a future 600-footer was being dug just down the street and plans for three more big ‘uns in the next two years. Yeah, baby! Life is good!
Moe Viletto is the owner of Tailored For Survival, a specialty sewing and design company for life-support systems. He bought a parachute after his first jump in 1971, started to pioneer BASE equipment and jumping in the early 1980s, and has been working in the parachute industry full-time ever since. Catch his stories on Skydive Radio at SkydiveRadio.com.