Charleston, W.Va.: Imagine plunging off an 876-foot-high bridge with only a parachute as a lifeline. Now imagine doing it in a wheelchair.
That's what Lonnie Bissonnette will be doing Saturday. He even sticks the landing.
Paralyzed below the waist since a 2004 parachuting accident, Bissonnette will return to southern West Virginia for another chance to launch himself on wheels from the New River Gorge Bridge.
Tens of thousands of people will watch him and scores of other parachutists, zip liners and rappellers Saturday during the annual Bridge Day festival in Fayetteville.
“It's scary every single time for me,” Bissonnette said. “And I think that's part of the lure, is the exhilaration after the jump. If I didn't have that fear before the jump, I think then the jump wouldn't be so exhilarating.”
The New River Gorge Bridge, the third-highest bridge in the United States, opened in 1977. Bridge Day started three years later.
BASE jumpers from around the world flock there the third Saturday of every October, the only day of the year that the bridge is open to pedestrian traffic. BASE stands for building, antenna, span and Earth, the fixed objects from which jumpers leap.
Matthew Kaye is a University of Vermont chemist and served with the National Guard in Afghanistan. He's made more than 300 skydives and 100 BASE jumps. And he's scared of heights.
“Horrified,” Kaye said. “I've been shot at. I've been rocketed. Nothing spooks me more than staring over the edge of an abyss.”
He's one of about 450 BASE jumpers signed up to participate.
For experienced BASE jumpers looking for an extra kick, a steel catapult equipped with a seat will send some of them hurtling backward to start their journey.
“It allows them to relive their first jump all over again,” said Bridge Day jump organizer and catapult designer Jason Bell. “You can see the fear in their eyes before launching.”
Bissonnette is making his 19th trip to Bridge Day. Ten years ago while BASE jumping in Twin Falls, Idaho, his parachute lines tangled around his foot as he was doing a flip. Despite being left paralyzed, he was BASE jumping again a year later.
He began using a standard wheelchair for BASE jumping in 2010. He's made about a dozen jumps with it—some at Bridge Day and others in Austria, China, Malaysia, Spain, and Twin Falls.
About half of his landings have sent him tumbling—his front wheels tend to dig into the ground and stop his momentum. Last year's Bridge Day landing, though, was perfect.
“The chair's not designed for what I put it through,” he said. “Landing on all fours and not flipping over and crashing is difficult.”
Bissonnette has added larger front wheels to help with the landing, but he'd like to find a sponsor to get a custom-made chair to withstand the punishment.
“It's pretty amazing what he does,” said Bell, adding that watching Bissonnette land safely in 2013 “was pretty neat and a lot of emotion for a lot of people.”
Bissonnette may be an inspiration to others, but he doesn't see himself that way. In fact, the label doesn't sit well with him.
“That's never been my motive,” he said. “For many years I would tell people that I'm nobody for anybody to be inspired by or to be looked up at. I see myself as just someone who's really passionate about what I do—and literally too stupid to quit. Because a smart guy would have given up after my accident.”
Not only did Bissonnette refuse to quit, he is a daredevil on multiple levels. The resident of St. Catherines, Ontario, plans to leave after Bridge Day for Calgary to start training for competitive bobsled racing, which might become a demonstration sport at the 2018 Winter Paralympics.