31 Days of History: 25 July

On this day in 1966, two men, Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert, were at the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (California). They walked over to the edge, enjoyed the view, and hurled themselves into the abyss. Pelkey and Schubert are credited with making the first BASE jump (BASE is an acronym that stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: Bridges, Antennas, Spans and Earth) from El Cap. How does that have a connection to Washington, DC? Keep reading to find out. . .

El Cap; Yosemite National Park

Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert; 1966

Over the edge...

The idea of a parachute—using a device to slow the fall of an object to earth, has been around for hundreds of years. Leonardo Da Vinci composed early sketches of a parachute, and early demonstrations of a parachute occurred as far back as 1617. These were very rare, and the parachute didn’t enter mainstream though until the late 1700’s. A few brave (very brave) souls demonstrated the parachute, mainly from hot air balloons throughout the 1800’s, but the design and execution was less than perfect.

Fausto Veranzio’s early design for a parachutes;1595

Case in point: In 1912, Franz Reichelt, a tailor, jumped from the Eiffel Tower to testing his invention, the coat parachute. Unfortunately, his coat parachute didn’t work, and he died in the attempt. (It was his first ever attempt with the parachute and he had told the authorities in advance he would test it first with a dummy. He didn't, but simply tried it himself first! Maybe he was the dummy?)

Franz Reichelt in his "Overcoat Parachute"; 1912

Enter Stefan Banic (23 Nov 1870-2 Jan 1941). Banic was a Slovakian immigrant to the US and who worked as a coal miner, stone mason and as an employee of the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company. In 1912, Banic witnessed a tragic accident (he never provided additional details) that impressed (terrified?) him so much that he started to think about the construction of a “modern” parachute. By 1913, Banic had constructed a prototype of a parachute in 1913 and submitted it to the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC. At the time, patent law required either a model (for some larger items, a full scale example wasn’t practical) or a demonstration. Patent officials and military representatives were present to watch Banic leap from a tall building and float safely to the ground! Banič received a U.S. Patent (No. 1,108,484) for his invention, but donated it to the US Army Air Corps and received little fame and no fortune his creation. After World War I Banič returned to Slovakia and disappeared from the realms of history.

Stefan Banic; c. 1913

(A side note to clarify a historical aberration. Some stories claim Banic jumped from a 41-floor building to demonstrate his parachute. If you are even a casual spectator of DC, you’ll recognize that the highest structure in DC is the Washington Monument (at 555’). As a matter of fact, DC has a law, the “Height of Buildings Act” which legally restricts the size of DC buildings—no building will ever be taller than the Washington Monument. Banic couldn’t have jumped from a 41-story building, because there never have been and never will be a 41-story building in DC! Most of the larger buildings are in the 10-14 story range, which makes one wonder if some ancient scribe accidently turned “14” into “41”?).

It’s not my desire or intention to give a detailed account of how BASE jumping evolved into what many call “the original extreme sport”; if you desire that info, you could find it here:

Which takes us back to Yosemite. . .The technology that Pelkey and Schubert used to BASE jump from El Cap is a direct descendent of what happened in Washington, DC 96 years ago. The next time you want to go for a BASE jump, think of Stefan Banic.

One final bit of housekeeping: BASE jumping in Yosemite was prohibited in 1980, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, it just means you can get arrested, spend a night in jail, and get fined $2,000 if you are caught. As a matter of fact, shortly after we moved to the Yosemite area in 1999, a female BASE jumper from the San Francisco Bay area, Jan Davis, planned on making a “protest jump” to highlight what she perceived as unfair treatment BASE jumpers were receiving from the National Park Service. She contacted the NPS, along with many members of the media, and wore a striped “jail outfit” to make her point. In what can only be described as tragic irony, her chute didn’t open and she died in the attempt. The picture below was taking by her husband (!) as she hurled herself into eternity. . .

You can read an blurb in Outside magazine about the event here:

If you'd like to read about the first jump from El Cap, click here:


Anonymous said...

About Jan Davis... She died because she could not find the pilot chute handle. It is wrong to say "Her chute didn't open", the reason behind her not finding the handle was that she jumped old, borrowed gear that had an old style deployment system that she should have trained more with. She jumped this gear because she knew it would be confiscated by the NPS (an agreement was made between the jumpers and NPS that no jumper would be arrested at the protest, but they would lose their gear).

Just to clarify. As a skydiver and basejumper it pisses me off when I read about how "someone's chute did not open". Parachutes are extremely reliable and total malfunctions are one in a million.

Anonymous said...


I am a fellow jumper and can confirm that she could not find her ROL pilot chute mounting - she was used to BOC and was not adequately training with the old-style gear.

It had nothing to do with the condition or opening-nature of the canopy.