In Sean Chuma’s 36 years on this gravity-blessed planet, he has completed roughly 3,400 low-altitude parachute jumps. The odds of dying in the sport, known as BASE jumping, are one in every 2,317 drops. For skydivers, the risk is between five and eight times lower.
“There’s no time to think, ‘Oh, I need to pull on this to make the thing turn right,’” Chuma said by phone from his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho. “You need to have a complete connection to the parachute.”
Chuma spoke while searching for a lake deep enough to properly test a new launch contraption known as a Russian swing. The previous week he had been in Malaysia, where he was paid by government VIPs and an Internet executive to strap them to his chest and leap from the landmark Kuala Lumpur Tower.
Profits from his training school and jumps like these will, he hopes, subsidize a new, more altruistic pursuit: offering discounted or free tandem BASE jumps to the terminally ill.
He might be onto something about end-of-life experiences.
“People call all the time to look into it, and they say they’d like to do it at some point. Just not right now,” Chuma said. “It could be fear, which is completely understandable, or they’re thinking about work and all the things they have to do because of financial reasons, or family.”
But those approaching the end of their lives, he said, “kind of let go a little bit. They probably have a little more courage and want to actually live their life.”
In pop culture, the terminally ill ideal is sometimes embodied by joyful risk-seekers who ride bulls and climb mountains in the face of death. End-of-life psychologists suggest that that depiction might be more the exception than the rule. But for some, it may be especially satisfying to find thrills in a death-defying feat at life’s end.
“The sport that I do is life-changing, superhero stuff,” Chuma said. “Most people who are on their way out, I think, would want to do everything they possibly could to enjoy the remaining part of their life. So maybe it’s easy to set aside the fear of doing it.”
Chuma has taken one such person on a tandem jump, and she turned out to be a bit of a celebrity. Dorothy Custer was 102 years and had already been on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” twice, as the sharp-witted centenarian who played harmonica.
Custer’s grandson had called Chuma, who was initially worried that her body might not withstand the physical force of the parachute opening. “I met with her the next day,” he said. “She was flirting with me immediately. She was hilarious.”
A few weeks later she climbed over the rail of the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, 486 feet above the Snake River, and jumped.
“At first her face was kind of a real hardened face, but once the parachute opened I heard her start laughing,” he said.
Chuma said he hopes to connect with nonprofit organizations to fund a program to serve people at life’s end, so he could offer the jumps for free. He hasn’t yet made inroads; most of his charity-related work has involved tandem jumps with victims of spinal-cord injuries.
His experience with Custer, who died in April, weeks before her 104th birthday, was so profound that they remained close. Following the tandem BASE jump, Custer said she had two remaining items on her bucket list: riding an elephant and taking a ride in a hot air balloon. A circus arranged for her to ride the elephant, and the following spring Chuma hosted her in Park City, Utah, for the balloon ride.
While Custer played “Turkey in the Straw” on a harmonica, he and his friends spilled out of the balloon and fell through the sky.
Why didn’t she join them?
“She wanted to, but I cared about her way too much,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk it.”