CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If leaping off an 876-foot high bridge, deploying a parachute, and gliding past a potentially hazardous array of trees, boulders and rapids to a landing zone on a tiny beach seems a little too tame, this year's Bridge Day program is offering an option to put a little pizzazz in your BASE jump.
On Oct. 20, a pneumatically operated steel catapult will fling thrill-seeking BASE jumpers 50 feet laterally and 20 feet vertically off the deck of the New River Gorge Bridge to enhance their Bridge Day adrenaline spikes.
"Jumpers have been asking for this for years," said Jason Bell, who heads Vertical Visions, the Bridgeport-based firm that coordinates Bridge Day jumping activities. "It seems to be every jumper's dream."
Bell, who has himself made more than 500 BASE jumps, added a diving board to the Bridge Day jumping program in 2003 and a diving platform in 2004. He has spent the past two years designing and building his now-complete human catapult.
"We are always looking to add something new for Bridge Day BASE jumpers and to wow the crowd a little," said Bell. "I think everyone is going to like the catapult."
Due to the busy Bridge Day jump schedule, catapult launches will probably be limited to only about 20 BASE jumpers, drawn from a pool of experienced parachutists with at least 250 BASE jumps.
"People have been beating down the doors" to get on the catapult-firing list, Bell said.
After test-firing the catapult with sandbags, Bell used human projectiles in a test launch last weekend at a Harrison County lake.
"The catapult worked great," Bell said. "We were all laughing like giddy little children" after splashing down in the water.
"We took it a little easy early on, and then got in a couple of longer launches."
Bell was among those taking a catapult test flight.
"I loved it," he said. "Having designed it, it was one of the most memorable days of my life, right up there with marriage, kids and a couple of jumps."
A mechanical engineer when he's not involved in Bridge Day activities, Bell said he began designing his catapult after watching a video of a catapult being used to launch parachutists from a site in Switzerland. Catapults also have been used to launch human contestants into foam, water and airbags on ABC's "Wipeout" series.
Bell also can recall seeing video taken during the 1990s, when a stuntman was catapulted off the New River Gorge Bridge in an unsuccessful attempt to grab a cargo net being towed by an airplane.
Bell's catapult, fabricated by Tri-State Electric and Machine Co. of Moundsville, is made of rectangular steel tubing and weighs about 2,500 pounds. A two-stage air compressor powered by an 11-horsepower gas engine is used to power the launch arm. A custom-made bucket seat designed to accommodate parachutes cushions individual jumpers in four inches of foam padding.
On Bridge Day, hard fencing will surround the catapult to provide a buffer area of at least 20 feet. Only trained Vertical Visions staff members will be allowed near the catapult during launches. A special safety briefing will be held for BASE jumpers using the catapult.
Since word of Bell's catapult has begun to spread beyond the BASE-jumping community, he has received inquiries from people associated with a game show and an amusement park seeking information on catapult design.
For those wishing to experience a Bridge Day jump without having to take parachuting lessons and make the proscribed number of jumps from airplanes needed to become a certified BASE jumper, 10 tandem jumping opportunities will be available.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.