Up in the Air

We hear from people who do BASE jumping that they can see colors, hear sounds, perceive the whole world with an intensity never even imagined by common folk.

All senses, they say, explode into new dimensions. But these strong sensations come at a risk, and the high number of fatal accidents has prohibited this extreme sport in many countries. The French and Swiss Alps have become the Eldorado for those who seek the edge and who crave to fulfill humanity’s oldest dream: flying. Ellen Brennan does not look like a daredevil, her calm and friendly blue eyes inspire confidence, peace, and not the desire for high octane adrenalin jolts while jumping from high mountains. Ellen Brennan is a wingsuit flyer.

Ellen Brennan flies with more than 120 mph and is the fastest flying woman on earth. Ellen fulfilled her dream and moved from her native Utah, where she learned to jump into the open air, to the paradise of adrenalin addicts, the Alps. “When I was a kid I was always dreaming about flying and on my 18th birthday I did my first skydive. It was sensational and it was my dad who gave me the idea that I could do it more than once, if I wanted to. After that, one thing just led to the next and before I knew it I was wing-suiting off of cliffs in Switzerland and … (Ellen laughs) … and here I am! You know,” she continues, “I used to dream about running and jumping and flying and now I have dreams of actually flying and being out there, high up in the air.”

OPEN: When did you first use a wingsuit?
ELLEN BRENNAN: Really step by step. I never thought that I would be a wingsuit BASE jumper but it was always… and that sounds kind of ironic when I say it, but safety has always been the most important for me, everything I do I do for safety … (Ellen looks at me, sees the total astonishment in my face and laughs out loud!) Thus the wingsuit. Nothing is safer than a wingsuit!

Nothing is safer…?
(now very serious) I started out with skydiving, we mostly jumped out of hot air balloons and for that I needed a BASE jump parachute, one that opens safely, so I learned how to do BASE jumping and I realized that jumps from cliffs are also really fun, so I jumped from smaller cliffs, but that can be very dangerous, if your chute opens the wrong way you can hit the cliff and get injured, you are simply too close to the ground…

To the ground?
Vertical ground! Walls are ground too, aren’t they?

I get it! So, as long as you are in the air, everything is great.
Exactly! Which is why I learned how to wingsuit, I wanted to be able to fly out into the middle of the valley as fast as possible and open my parachute in clean airspace.

I have never thought about it this way… in clean and unobstructed air. How does air feel?
It feels really… err, do you mean physically or emotionally?

Both. I want to know if air gets hard, you’re flying at tremendous speed.
The first three seconds of wing-suiting are critical ‘cause you jump off the cliff and you don’t have much air pushing against you, so you can’t really steer… like, in wing-suiting speed is your friend! So if you have more speed you can steer a lot better. It really takes a few seconds before you start to feel the air on your face and that is usually the first indicator of … wow, I’m flying, I’m gaining speed, I’m safe (laughs) … the wind on your face is a very reassuring feeling.

So there is a transition from free falling to flying?
Yes! The suits fill with air and become rigid … so when you first jump off you don’t have a lot of energy yet, your suit is still soft and you’re kind of at the mercy of the angle you pushed, it is a very sensitive moment, and as you start to fall, your suit fills with air and as it becomes rigid (a broad smile on her face) you can take off and the air … (she laughs and exhales deeply with a soft whistling sound)

… and the air is smooth. Is that the right word? How does it feel?
… and the air becomes powerful. I can’t say it any other way, it is not really smooth, it is: … (she hesitates a split-second and pronounces the next word slowly and with a strong expression on her face) pure power. Power is what I feel when I jump the air!

I can see you’re smiling when you’re talking about it, it is the way you are smiling in your movies when you’re flying. Is that a special moment?
It is THE moment! It is pure excitement.

So when this happens with the air, and you go through the motion, is there a point when you say, that element –air– is more my element than anything else?
Yeah … (she laughs nearly shyly) … I mean … its funny, but I feel the most at home when I’m in the air …

… at home? Wow! In my notes I wrote: are you comfortable in that element? At home is so much stronger.
It is, because when I’m in the air, I feel that I can relax and I feel safe, and yes, I feel comfortable and at home! For me, air is the most empowering element in the world.

Are you ever afraid? Do you know fear?
I was always terrified of riding bikes. (Ellen does not laugh)

Yes! And I started taking classes with the little kids and learned how to ride a bike. I can do it now, but I am still frightened, I mean, really, you are so close to the ground, all the dirt and things, everything is so unpredictable, there could be a rock on the trail at any given moment … I just don’t like the ground. The earth is not my element. Water is very powerful, which is really intriguing to me but it’s a little bit overwhelming, you know, I always feel like I can’t breathe in it …

(laughing) … well, you can’t! It’s water, you can’t breathe in water.
… but when I’m in the air, I can just relax and I’m there.

So do you fly every day?
Right now it is complicated, for many reasons, currently I’m seven months pregnant (she beams).

So you are not flying, or are you?
At the moment I am not flying, I stopped when I got married two months ago.

Congratulations! Did you get married in the air?
(laughs out loud) No, no, not in the air, we got married on water, actually.


Carl Boenish was an American cinematographer, considered to be the father of BASE jumping. In 1978 he created the acronym B.A.S.E., it stands for Building, Antenna, Span (e.g. Bridge), Earth.