Advertisement

A legend of base jumping takes leap of faith -- his last

Times Staff Writers

In 1966, Brian Schubert and a buddy strapped parachutes to their backs and leaped off Yosemite’s 3,000-foot-high El Capitan cliff -- and unwittingly inspired the worldwide extreme sport of base jumping.

A blurry snapshot captured the stunt that broke both of Schubert’s legs. At the time, people who knew parachutes thought the two guys were nuts.

Schubert spent the next decades in anonymity, raising a family and working as a Pomona police officer. He retired as a respected lieutenant.

On Saturday, Schubert strapped on a parachute and made his first jump in 40 years. Before 145,000 spectators, his daughter and his old El Capitan jumping partner, Schubert leaped off a bridge to his death.

Advertisement

He was 66 and known as a legend by fans one-third his age. “They treated us like the sky kings,” said Mike Pelkey, 66, of Simi Valley, who made the famous El Capitan jump with him.

No one knows why Schubert didn’t open his parachute until late in the jump. There are conflicting opinions about whether he was adequately trained for Saturday’s leap.

Video shown nationwide captured Schubert leaping off an 876-foot bridge into the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, W.Va., during an event known as Bridge Day. He hit the water with a partly opened chute and died on impact. The National Park Service and the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department were investigating.

“Why Brian didn’t open is such a total unknown,” said Pelkey, who was standing above his old friend on the ramp, ready to jump next. As Schubert tumbled, Pelkey said the crowd screamed “Throw! Throw!” urging him to throw open the chute.

Advertisement

“No one would have ever dreamed that after the expert one-on-one training with the best ... that this would happen,” Pelkey said.

Schubert’s daughter, Cynthia Lee, 42, of Alta Loma, said his family was proud that he had decided to do the jump.

“He had lived for this jump for the last three or four months. He was so excited,” she said. “My father died with a smile on his face because he has so much passion for what he loved -- and that’s our saving grace.”

She was on the telephone with her older sister, Tina Lindebaum, 44, of Upland, who had gone with their father to Bridge Day. Tina gave her an account of what was happening as the events occurred:

Advertisement

“She said they just announced Dad is in line to jump and the media are going wild.”

Tina then hung up on her sister, only to call back minutes later, saying: “Pray for our father’s peace.”

Jean Boenish, another of the sport’s pioneers and the former safety director for Bridge Day base jumping, saw Schubert fall.

“There were no factors that should have inhibited this parachute from opening properly,” she said.

Advertisement

Schubert had no recent experience jumping and only a day of practice before Saturday, said Boenish, who was his friend and flew with him and Pelkey to West Virginia.

“I would not have let this man jump,” she said. “I told him I didn’t think he was ready. He would have nothing to do with me after that.”

Pelkey said Schubert had trained hard, practicing jumps with a parachute into swimming pools and losing 80 pounds. But he had not jumped from a cliff or plane in practice, said Boenish.

Forty years ago, Schubert was an expert jumper who had learned as an Army paratrooper, his family said.

Advertisement

In 1966, when Schubert and Pelkey were 26-year-olds from Barstow, they decided to jump from El Capitan “because it was there,” said Pelkey.

Pelkey remembered the jump as “absolutely awesome,” even though he broke an ankle. Schubert broke both legs after strong winds collapsed his chute during the last 50 feet of the jump, according to Pelkey’s account.

“Those guys were just operating on guts,” said Nick Di Giovanni, a base jumper and a historian of the sport. “Most of the skydivers of the day thought those guys were knuckleheads. But it just showed how far ahead of their time they were.”

After the El Capitan jump, rangers confiscated their gear. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded the two men for a year, Pelkey said, and notified local parachutist drop zones that they had been banned from jumping.

Advertisement

The men were close friends, “two birds of a feather,” Pelkey said. Schubert was the best man at Pelkey’s wedding, and Pelkey named his first son Brian. But they lost touch after the jump, Pelkey said.

Pelkey moved to Simi Valley and became an engineer. Schubert became a Pomona cop, retiring in 1989 to become a private investigator. As they receded into private life, their names were forgotten to all but a few daredevils.

Among those was an engineer interested in parachutes: Carl Boenish, Jean’s late husband.

By the 1970s, square parachutes made it possible for jumpers to direct their flight away from the objects they’d just leaped from. In 1978, inspired by Pelkey and Schubert, Boenish filmed the jump of four colleagues from El Capitan with a square parachute. His films and later jumps popularized the sport. “That was the dividing line of when it became a sport,” said Di Giovanni.

Advertisement

Boenish, who died in a jump in 1984, named the sport base jumping -- an acronym for “buildings, antennas, spans and earth.” Leaping once each from those four platforms earns a jumper a base number. Today, more than 1,200 jumpers have a number, Di Giovanni said.

Equipment has improved, and participants in the sport now number “in the thousands,” said Di Giovanni.

West Virginia’s Bridge Day became the sport’s most important event. Now in its 27th year, it attracts more than 400 jumpers from around the world and thousands of spectators.

As the sport grew, the legend of Schubert and Pelkey remained part of its lore.

Advertisement

“For all the early years of base, we always heard their story, we knew their names,” said Di Giovanni. “But no one knew who they were.”

Two years ago, Tina Lindebaum contacted base jumpers through documentary filmmaker Marah Strauch and told them of her father. Lindebaum found Pelkey in Simi Valley.

In 2005, the men met again for the first time in decades. Bridge Day organizers invited them to the event last year. They went onstage to thunderous applause and recounted their El Capitan feat. Many jumpers wiped away tears.

“They didn’t know we knew who they were,” said Di Giovanni. “It was like having an explorer club and Christopher Columbus shows up.”

Advertisement

That year, Pelkey leaped from the bridge. Both men returned this year, intending to jump. “They were very protective of safety. He had to pass checks of all kinds,” said Lee, Schubert’s other daughter.

On Sunday, Pelkey said he still respects this extreme sport and wants it to continue.

But, he said, “right now I hate base jumping. Right now, I feel like I never want to do it again.”

*

Advertisement

sam.quinones@latimes.com

janet.wilson@latimes.com

*

Begin text of infobox

Advertisement

Base jumping refers to an acronym for the buildings, antennas, spans (or bridges) and earth (or cliffs) from which participants leap. Base jumpers typically leap from heights far lower than the 1,800-foot elevation at which regulations require parachutists to deploy their canopies. Their flights last only seconds. Approximately one in 1,000 base jumps ends in death, according to statistics compiled by industry leaders.

*

Source: Times reports


Advertisement