The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 15, 2012

I shot a jumper into the air ... to fall not to earth, but into New River

20 will catapult off span on Bridge Day

By Steve Keenan
For The Register-Herald

— They won’t be storming the castle, but the jumps of 20 adventurous, experienced BASE jumpers will have a little extra oomph at Bridge Day 2012.

Officials have announced that the first-ever catapult jumps will occur from the 876-foot span during the Oct. 20 Fayette County festival.

“This year’s Bridge Day (the 33rd anniversary) will feature the first-ever catapult for Bridge Day BASE jumpers,” said Cindy Dragan, chairman of the Bridge Day Commission, which coordinates the annual event. “Not only will jumpers take a leap off of the New River Gorge Bridge; they’ll also have a chance to be flung an extra 20 feet high and 50 feet out from the bridge.”

As they annually put strategies in place for the popular event, organizers attempt to keep things fresh. Bridge Day BASE coordinator Jason Bell, of Bridgeport-based Vertical Visions, says he took a couple of years to design, build and test the catapult system that will be used on the bridge this fall. The project included input from other engineers, in addition to observing other catapult systems.

“I did this mainly as an engineering challenge,” explained Bell. Many BASE jumpers, too, are eager to experiment with a new jumping platform, and it’s also something new for spectators. “We want to always bring something new to the event.”

The catapult, which weighs about 2,500 pounds, will utilize a 120-gallon steel air tank controlled by a ball valve that will force air into a pneumatic cylinder. Once it’s pressurized, the pneumatic cylinder will force the 12-foot-long truss section to rotate 70° before being dampened with an adjustable air cushion.

Those who will eventually make the catapult jump this year will be a hand-picked group. “It will be the best of the best,” Bell says. “I want people I know are confident when they sit in that chair.”

As indicated, jumpers will be hurled about 20 feet high and 50 feet out from their starting point in the custom bucket-designed steel chair, but the BASE jump won’t be much different otherwise.

“I really don’t see any difference at all, except that when they open up their parachute, they’ll be a little more forward.”

Bell is confident the system is safe and won’t create any problems for festival-goers or jumpers. Importance placed on spectator and jumper safety is elevated “far beyond normal levels,” according to his website, www.verticalvisions.com.

The catapult has been repeatedly tested by launching 150- to 200-pound sand bags. In the coming weeks, human volunteers will help Bell further test the system, most likely into a lake near Bridgeport.

“I’m confident with the design,” he said. “We need to fine-tune it throughout the summer.

“There has been a full range of emotions so far. I will be a little bit nervous (on Bridge Day).”

The catapult is a natural progression, Bell said, after he and the BASE jumping community safely implemented a diving board system in 2003 and the current launch system in 2004.

He points out that the Bridge Day catapult isn’t groundbreaking, since a human catapult has been used in such TV series as ABC’s “Wipeout,” and several foreign companies have built their own versions used to launch people into bodies of water.

“We’re not inventing the wheel by any means. We’re just refining it more toward BASE jumping.”

Bell even recalls a Bridge Day event in the early 1990s in which a stuntman — with a parachute backup — was shot over the bridge railing while attempting to grab a cargo net towed by an airplane.

Bell says the catapult will use existing space already included in the jump staging area and won’t hinder spectator traffic flow on the bridge. “It’s not going to create a bottleneck.”

Three or four catapult jumpers will go off the bridge per hour. When they are launched, jumping from the main ramp will be halted briefly. “It’s not going to hold anything up at all,” Bell said.

And, while the catapult is new, spectators can still expect to see most of the more than 400 BASE jumpers leap from the bridge in the more traditional fashion. Also new this year will be the availability of real-time wind speeds at the exit point.

And TandemBASE and Vertical Visions will team up to offer a select number of BASE jump spots for people with no prior jump experience to make a jump while attached to a highly experienced jump professional.

In 2011, Bell said jumper registration was sold out by September, a little earlier than normal. “I expect to be on track for that this year.”

According to www.verticalvisions.com, the following safety mechanisms will be among those implemented for the catapult:

— Spectator-hard fencing will be placed around the catapult with minimum north/south clearances of at least 20 feet.

— Only trained staff members will be permitted around the catapult during launches.

— Only the most highly experienced BASE jumpers (preferably 250-plus BASE jumps to their credit) will be permitted to be launched from the catapult.

— All BASE jumpers using the catapult will be required to attend a preliminary safety briefing Friday, Oct. 19.

— Components requiring manual intervention (ball valves) in order to operate the catapult will be shielded by the front of the boom crane truck.

— The motor/compressor pulleys and belt are fully enclosed.

— Any and all equipment failures, damage, cracks, unsatisfactory results or performance issues of the catapult prior to or during Bridge Day will result in immediate cessation of usage.

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While providing an extra shot of adrenaline for BASE jumpers, the new attraction will offer festival-goers another dose of viewing excitement, Dragan says.

And maybe one of the best views of the jumpers flying off of the catapult will be from down under the bridge.

There are two ways for spectators to be down on the canyon floor, right in the middle of all the action on Bridge Day.

Bridge Day Down Under Tours will take you under the span to watch the BASE jumpers and rappellers who participate that day. Lunch is included in this option. Reservations are required.

And the Hometown Subaru Into the Gorge Shuttles will transport a limited number of people under the bridge to a designated viewing area. Reservations are a must.

Now is the time to book one of those tours. “Spaces are limited, and they fill up fast,” Dragan said.

For more information, visit www.officialbridgeday.com or call 800-927-0263 or 304-465-5617.

— E-mail: skeenan@register-herald.com