It was a Saturday night when BASE jumper Bryan Rapoza accomplished what no one else in Jacksonville had done — jump from the 37-story Modis Building. It happened in January 2010, when Rapoza and two of his assistants jumped from the building (which is now owned by Wells Fargo) that overlooked the St. Johns River and downtown Jacksonville. Rapoza worked in the building at the time of the jump and had been planning it for years.
At around 9:30 p.m. when hardly anyone was present in the building, he and his assistants gathered their gear and snuck onto the roof. The roof door closed, locking them out, and Rapoza remembered feeling like he entered a point of no return.
Rapoza, who had been skydiving since his 20th birthday in 2003, knew that jumping from a building was one of the most technical types of BASE jumping (which stands for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth). Many factors would determine whether Rapoza would survive the landing. That evening, Rapoza remembered the day being particularly windy. An ideal wind speed for a building jump is 5 to 10 mph. But Rapoza recalled the wind being approximately 20 mph, and it concerned him.
“Skydiving and BASE jumping requires you to manipulate air in a certain direction,” Rapoza explained. “If you want to turn, you tilt your arms a little bit which spills air off one side. It’s similar to putting your hand out of a moving car and feeling the air press against you palm.”
The wind would likely veer Rapoza from his targeted parking lot. But once his equipment and parachute were in place for him, the moment finally came.
As he flew down, his body accelerated, which is unique to BASE jumping compared to skydiving, since skydivers already reach an ideal acceleration rate by the time they jump from the airplane at about 10,000 feet.
“There is a common misconception that you’re going to get that feeling as if you’re riding a rollercoaster while skydiving.” Rapoza said. “But it’s not like that at all. You feel as if you’re floating in space.” But BASE jumping is a lot less forgiving for errors and every jump is different, Rapoza said. “It’s kind of like rock climbing. It’s a puzzle to figure out. BASE jumping is the idea that every object is different.”
At the right moment, Rapoza deployed his parachute but the wind, as expected, ripped him from his landing trajectory. He ended up landing in a tree, which was a surprisingly soft landing, he added.
Rapoza wouldn’t define himself as an adrenaline junkie and believes that image falsely depicts the sport of BASE jumping and skydiving.
“I’ll skydive when I want to relax. It’s like my playtime,” Rapoza said. “There’s all this massive space when you’re in the air and there’s nothing to hit at 10,000 feet. It’s just huge. But when you BASE jump, you do it for the intensity.”
He called BASE jumping a hyper-focused variation of skydiving that requires a mastery of parachuting and canopy skills. Rapoza mastered these skills in skydiving before he started BASE jumping. His first freefall jump happened nearly 14 years ago at Skydive Palatka, which had been in business for over 20 years.
“And that was a big part of the appeal to me by being able to overcome these basic fears and to control and act on them. Eventually, it becomes fun. I enjoyed it immensely from the word, ‘Go,’” Rapoza said.
Licensed skydivers, including Rapoza, have to go through the standardized Accelerated Freefall program. Completing this program provides you with a USPA A license. Mastering the skills and tasks of the first seven jumps clears the aspiring skydiver to student status.
From here, students can free fall without having an instructor harnessed to them or on the side of them. Students can also jump on their own and with instructors, completing the tasks and skills for each jump. By the end of the course, students become a true skydiver and can go to drop zones where they can rent gear and jump with their friends or meet new people.
Rapoza has BASE jumped off cliffs in other countries, including Navagio Beach, also known as Shipwreck Beach, in Greece. “Human flight has taken me all around the world and has led me to some of the most amazing, as well as some of the most terrible experiences, one can have,” he said.
After a close mentor of his died during a jump in France, Rapoza slowed down, especially now that he has a wife and a 10-year-old daughter. Rapoza said BASE jumping, in particular, became mainstream in the early 1980s. As far as skydiving, he mentioned the drop zone in DeLand, Florida was one of the first in the area.
Rapoza said skydiving is more accessible than many extreme and quick-decision sports like bungee jumping with more opportunities in other countries than in the U.S. With the World Skydiving Center at Jacksonville, anyone with the funds and a free weekend afternoon could try their hand at free falling with a tandem jump.
“It’s nice to be able to jump over Jacksonville. Being able to see the St. Johns River and run into north of Orange Park and to see the Navy base and then in the downtown area is very cool.”
Rapoza said many people, sometimes the younger skydivers, aren’t aware that it takes years to master BASE jumps. “We’re not looking for the gnarly radical types, but for ones that wouldn’t really tell anyone about their jumps or post it all over YouTube,” he said, adding a good candidate is not only is a master of skydiving skills, but is also humble.
A true skydiver, in his mind, is one who jumps for their own pleasure and self-improvement — or just for the fun of it.