History in Making in China

March 17, 2024

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Today, I want to take you down on a memory lane to Zhangjiajie, a breathtaking destination renowned for its otherworldly landscapes, often referred to as the inspiration for the floating mountains of Pandora in the movie “Avatar.”

Located in the Hunan Province of China, Zhangjiajie is also home to the Tianzi Mountain Range. Among its most iconic features is the Heaven’s Gate Hole in the Wall, a natural arch formed over millennia by the forces of erosion.

This location has played an instrumental role in the development of modern wingsuit flying and its introduction to the masses.

Back in 2010, I was a founding partner in Pan Pacific Entertainment. We started by organising business-to-business events and working as a bridge between China with Hollywood. We moved to feature films and were looking to create our own intellectual property.

My best friend Jeb Corliss knew I traveled to China often, and he had sent me a picture of a small plane flying through a hole in a mountain, curious if this location could possibly be suitable for a wingsuit fly-through.

We began the process of navigating through bureaucratic requirements and establishing connections with government officials in order to arrange a scouting expedition for a potential large-scale event.

As I recall, the “Heaven’s Gate” hole stood at 170 meters high and approximately 60 meters wide and deep. Upon exiting the cave, he would have to navigate through hundreds of stairs before being able to deploy his parachute down the valley.

To achieve this feat, he would require maintaining a consistent forward glide angle of 2.5 and a downward angle of one, utilizing the maximum capabilities of wing suit technology available at the time.

Upon witnessing the location firsthand, Jeb made the bold decision to risk his life in an attempt to become the first person ever to fly through such a closed formation.

To cut a very long story short, after we were able to find the location suitable for the stunt. We secured Red Bull China as our main sponsor with LIVE broadcasting feed and received a green light for a private helicopter ride.

I had to figure out a marketing angle. I knew the Chinese were passionate about flying. They have centuries-old stories about manned kites, where early inventors wanted to taste the sensation of flight.

We marketed the event as something where we brought the latest technology and performer, who has spent a lifetime to master his skills to the birthplace of the dream of human flight.

The Chinese media adopted our story, and it created a snowball effect. Something we had envisioned as only to stay with the Hunan province became a national story; in the end, 14 different networks stopped their other programming to show LIVE, including the main CCTV channel.

Our practice time was cut short due to bad weather, and on the morning of the event, we were still not sure if it was doable or not.

Witnessing my friend Jeb prepare himself in moments like this brought me back to memories of our early days when we were young BASE-jumpers with an insatiable thirst for adventure. There’s always the moment of commitment.

For him, there were a few “no turning back” moments: the moment when he said yes, he would do this project, and the moment he would exit the chopper.

I had done my heavy lifting within the sport and understood the battle was going on in his head.

Injuries had forced me to retire, but there he was, over a decade later – and still carrying the heavy crown for pushing the boundaries within the world’s most dangerous sport.

When the day finally arrived, we flew a group of the most talented and famous BASE-jumpers to put on a show. They would jump from cliffs and gondolas, leading up to Jeb’s one-of-a-kind stunt.

Everything went well until the actual fly-through. Jeb had exited the chopper too early, and after he disappeared behind the mountains, he never came out of the hole.

Most of my work is done by the time an event starts, but when things go wrong, I have to step up. I took my interpreter and driver along as we raced to find him.

 

For some reason, I was not too worried about his well-being. Our relationship had been forged in metal, and I’ve seen him survive unbelievable situations before.

We had told everyone that landing in the backside of the mountain with trees and sharp rocks was not an option for landing, but now it became his only choice.

Luckily, he was able to land in a quarry of rocks unhurt and race up the mountain, walk through the hole, and down the stairs to our car.

We raced down the curvy roads back to the landing area. Our cars races so fast that it made everyone feel sick. Our interpreter started to throw up inside the car and we had to leave him out of the car along the way back to helipad.

Finally, we reached the helipad, and we heard that we would have to wait for 15 minutes for a scheduled flight in the same airspace.

This gave Jeb an opportunity to calm down, relax, and concentrate on his task.

This was important. You never want to rush and risk your life if you are not ready.

The moments before the chopper took off, there was a moment of calmness. We got this, I felt.

And the second time around, Jeb exited the chopper perfectly. I could not see the hole, but when spectators started to roar loudly, I knew he had been successful.

Soon a little, fast figure flew towards me and I could see him opening the parachute and land safely.

He had made history!

I thought the long wait would have destroyed our ratings, but it turned the other way. People had time to get excited and call their friends, who also tuned in.

It was like our Ultimate Fighter moment, where their live final became a word-of-mouth phenomenon during the show.

Our ratings were measured in hundreds of millions. We made the main CCTV news, and all international news outlets from CNN, BBC, AP, and Reuters were there to interview us.

If you happened to watch those networks during that news cycle, there was a good chance you saw a recap of his flight.

Later, we produced a documentary film “Heaven’s Gate” about our adventure. It toured the documentary film festival circuit and won awards. It was acquired by National Geo for international distribution.

I few years later, I happened to put the TV on somewhere in Southeast Asia and heard myself speaking a foreign language on TV by the magic of dubbing.

But more than anything, our event captured the hearts and minds of the Chinese.

They wanted to see more. What would he do next?

The same question was presented to us by our sponsors and partners. What’s next?

I was certain there are more unique rock formations in China, and we could explore them with Jeb.

And maybe we could return to Zhangjiajie and do something different?

A wingsuit race, maybe?

To be continued…

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