There are many ways in which humans are brilliant. Members of our species have cured diseases, made communication through wires and (now) screens possible, and have created machines that allow us to travel several times our normal movement speed. Societies have been built; and while in the past, poor people have been malnourished and even starving, humans have created fast food, which has allowed even the poorest among us to enjoy the gifts of obesity. It goes without saying that the species as a whole is impressive, but on an individual level, some more so than others.
While the things humans have created are impressive, we have also managed to grow our understanding of our own world and the inner workings of our minds. On some level, we are all animals; we like and dislike certain things. One behavior that is puzzling, however, is scaring our minds and bodies into thinking we’re about to die...for fun. Whether it be skydiving, bungee jumping, or some other activity, many people love the thrill of thinking about ways to die but never forgetting about the enjoyment that goes along with it. We try to carry out these activities with as much safety gear as possible. But at the end of the day, to stick with skydiving and bungee jumping as examples, we put our very existence in the hands of a thick stretchy rope and a sturdy parachute.
While plenty of people will attempt stunts like these ones and then go back to their normal lives, some make cheating death a centerpiece of their lives. It can be difficult to make a living, but these days, if you put a GoPro on your helmet and do crazy stunts, there is a chance that someone might start throwing cash your way. Looking at the history of death-defying stunts and some of the impressive feats that have been accomplished, there is no question why people do this stuff and why other people love to watch. We’re all just a bit sick. Here are eight of the greatest stunts ever pulled off, along with seven that ended in catastrophic (and often deadly) failures.
15 Flawless Success: Dar Robinson’s Fall Onto Airbag
Even some of the most dedicated modern film buffs might not recognize this name. The late Dar Robinson is one of the greatest stunt performers in the history of cinema. Despite knowing the dangers any time he was performing his stunts, Robinson was always eager to do what needed to be done in order to make the shot look good for a film. He set over a dozen world records during his career in the 1970’s and ‘80s–including highest wireless freefall–when he jumped from the Hyatt Regency Downtown in Atlanta for Burt Reynolds’ 1981 film Sharky’s Machine.
He didn’t use any cables or wires for the shot, and at that height, a parachute would have been useless, so he just jumped onto a large inflatable mattress on the ground. This was just another day at the office for Robinson. But unfortunately, a few years later, while filming a scene for Million Dollar Mystery, Robinson drove off a cliff after a mishap during a scene involving a motorcycle.
14 Horrible End: Jim Bailey - Airplane Hang Glider
As a stunt person, one always wants to get close to danger but while remaining in perfect safety. Even these daredevils don’t enjoy pain and suffering, and they want to live to fight another day. With this in mind, safety equipment is incredibly important (no kidding, right?) and few people should check their gear quite like stunt people and extreme sports practitioners. Back in the early 1980’s, Australian stuntman Jim Bailey, who went by the stage nickname of “The Human Torpedo,” was earning fame after being dragged behind a car. One of his other stunts was to strap himself to the underbelly of an airplane and then use it as a sort of improvised hang glider after takeoff.
His death was caught on camera. Bailey was harnessed underneath the plane, and it rolls across a grassy runway and takes off. After flying for a few seconds, his harness fails, and he can hold himself using only his two hands. They gradually slip and he disappears offscreen. He fell about 500 feet to his death.
13 Flawless Success: Felix Baumgartner - Red Bull Stratos
Back in October of 2012, Austrian skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, floated about 39 kilometers into the sky in a capsule attached to a massive helium balloon before hopping out and plummeting toward Earth. His jump, which was sponsored by Red Bull, broke three world records for jump altitude, speed in vertical freefall with a top speed of 843.6 mph, and the record for the longest freefall, rocketing downward for just under 36.5 kilometers.
Obviously, for those who are not familiar with this event (likely the most famous on our list), some might be saying “okay, so he made an intense skydive?” Well, yes and no. There was potential for fatality from a number of sources. If his special pressurized suit gets damaged at all during some parts of his descent, his blood could have boiled because of low air pressure or he could have froze to death. If he had entered an uncontrollable spin, his blood flow could have been affected by the gravitational forces being exerted on his body. Finally, it was unknown whether a sonic boom, created by his body breaking the sound barrier, would do anything to his body.
Luckily for Baumgartner, the only near-mishap was when he started to tumble during his jump, but he was able to quickly regain control over his descent.
12 Horrible End: Jane Wicker’s Wing Walker Accident
Surprisingly, wing walker incidents are considered rare, despite how dangerous this activity seems. Wing walking is exactly what it sounds like—a person rides and walks around on the wings of an aircraft during flight. As the legend goes, Ormer Locklear, said to be the pioneer of this form of daredevil stunt, climbed out of the cockpit of his World War I aircraft while flying, in order to make mechanical repairs and ended up wowing crowds of people with his talent after the war was over. Locklear himself died back in 1920 after a nasty crash in which he was on the wings while his pilot was unable to come out of a nasty spin.
Years later, one of the most popular wing walkers at air shows in the 2000’s was Jane Wicker. During the summer of 2013, Wicker was at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Ohio and was on the wings of a plane piloted by Charlie Schwenker when he made an error that slammed the craft into the ground, killing both of them on impact.
11 Flawless Success: Paul Steiner Switching Planes
We already discussed Red Bull Stratos, but the marketing and promotional people at that energy drink company are full of cool ideas that get the name out. Back in 2010, Austrian skydiver Paul Steiner performed a stunt for Red Bull in which he exited one glider while 2000 feet above ground, walked across the wing, and then lowered himself down onto another glider. The first of the two craft then inverted itself, and Steiner grabbed onto that glider’s tail fin.
While he was wearing a parachute for obvious reasons–and for that reason, this likely isn’t the most dangerous stunt on our list–this took a great amount of skill and care, not only on the part of Steiner himself, but also the pilots to get close enough to allow their “passenger” to transition between two planes. Whether or not there were multiple attempts made here, we do not know.
10 Horrible End: Dwain Weston’s Bridge Accident
There are few extreme sports that seem as much fun as wingsuit flying. Fans of the Toy Story franchise of films may recall the phrase “That’s not flying, that’s falling with style.” This is exactly what wingsuit fliers do. They jump off mountains or out of helicopters and use special flying suits with fabric between arms/torso and between the legs to glide through the air. It takes hundreds of skydives to even start training in this form of flying, but those who have mastered it are beyond gifted. The ultimate test for wingsuit fliers is proximity flights, wherein they try to fly as close to dangerous objects or the ground.
Australian Dwain Weston was considered one of the best BASE jumpers in the early 2000’s and was participating in a wingsuit stunt with fellow daredevil flyer, Jeb Corliss, back in 2003. Weston and Corliss were jumping and flying toward Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado, with the plan being for Corliss to pass under it and Weston to soar over the bridge. Weston misjudged his flight and slammed into part of the structure, losing a leg instantly. While his parachute deployed, he still smashed into the gorge; it remains unclear which impact killed him.
In 2012, Jeb Corliss had his own brush with death, clipping his legs on some rocks while flying Table Mountain in South Africa. He managed to deploy his parachute and escaped with only a few broken bones and a torn ACL.
Dwain Weston’s accident is just one of many in the BASE jumping community. We have to admit, it ain't pretty; but it is likely quick and there are few more awesome ways to go other than rocketing through the air at 150 mph.
9 Flawless Success: Robbie Kneivel Jumps The Grand Canyon
We wouldn’t be able to produce a legitimate list of amazing stunts without mentioning both the elder and younger of the Knievels. Evel Knievel, who died back in 2007, remains an icon in the world of stunt driving. Throughout his career, he had more than a few of both successes and failed attempts, some of which resulted in serious injuries. It is a miracle that the man made it to 69 years old. Most of his great jumps were over buses, but he always wanted to make it across the Grand Canyon. However, he was always denied a site for such a project by the Department of the Interior. In 1974, he attempted to jump over Snake River Canyon in Idaho, but the parachute he was using deployed early, and he ended up crashing into the canyon, sustaining only minor injuries.
His son, Robbie, also a brilliant and daring stuntman with many amazing jumps to his name, was able to gain access to part of the Grand Canyon and managed to jump his motorcycle across it in 1999. We will admit that while the jump was a success, Robbie lost control of the bike after landing and fell off, breaking his leg.
8 Horrible End: Ken Carter’s Rocket Car
Canadian stuntman Ken Carter’s choice of stunt variety always involved a car, and more often than not, his major stunts and attempts involved cars that were tricked out with rocket power. He had been doing car stunts for about two decades when he decided that he wanted to try a massive jump across the St. Lawrence River. He came up with this idea in the late 1970’s and while he never actually ended up completing or even attempting this feat, he kept on pursuing greatness with rocket-propelled cars.
In 1983, he concocted an idea that he would use a car to jump over a large body of water in Peterborough, Ontario. In September of that year, Carter attempted this stunt, and for some reason, before he entered the vehicle, he requested his staff to add extra fuel to the rocket engine. This extra fuel pushed the car further and higher than was necessary to complete the jump and the car ultimately ended up flipping over and landing on its roof, killing Carter on impact with the ground.
7 Flawless Success: Philippe Petit - World Trade Center Tightrope Walk
While it may not be quite as exciting as a motorcycle jump or a wingsuit flight, but tightrope walking is a phenomenally impressive undertaking. More often than not, especially these days, most people who perform these types of stunts use harnesses, because...you know...who wants to die? For much of the history of this activity, however, the performers have not used such safety equipment, making the stakes all that much higher.
Back in 1974, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit did eight full passes on a cable stretched out between the two World Trade Center towers. He was over 400 meters in the air and even managed to perform stunts such as lying down and bowing to those watching. He was arrested after the event but after seeing the public outcry and general fandom for Petit after his performance, all charges were dismissed.
6 Horrible End: Samuel Koch Jumping Over Cars
While some of our entries on this list involve flying, the great outdoors, or tall buildings, German stuntman and actor Samuel Koch needed only a series of cars. According to his own recollection, he had been hopping over moving cars for years before his accident. He was on the German TV show Wetten, dass...?. This show had a betting theme and centered around people doing extraordinary things. The show was only on a few times a year and celebrity appearances and musical guests were plentiful. Wetten, Dass...? also spawned several international shows with similar themes.
Samuel Koch’s trick was that he jumped over moving vehicles with his powerizer jumping stilts. To Koch, the stunt was nothing new. And for much of his segment of the show, the first several cars, in fact, people were blown away and enjoyed his performance.
5 Flawless Success: Alexander Polli - “Batman Cave”
We already mentioned a couple of gifted wingsuit fliers who had been in accidents. Dwain Weston didn’t make it, and if he had been flying a foot lower, Jeb Corliss likely wouldn’t have either. Italian BASE jumper Alexander Polli actually died just last year while proximity-flying in the French Alps when he slammed into a tree. He died at the scene and was only 31 years old.
Before he went, however, he gave the world of wingsuit flying one of the most brilliant proximity stunts they have ever seen. Back in 2013, he jumped from a helicopter and soared through a very small rock face opening “Batman Cave” in Montserrat, Spain. It is widely recognized as one of the best jumps caught on camera and was about as dangerous as a wingsuit flight can.
4 Horrible End: Andrey Retrovsky’s Fall
In Russia, they are referred to by many as “roofers.” But in the English-speaking world, we just generally say “what the f*** is that kid doing on that building?” Chances are, you’ve seen it on YouTube or Facebook—a GoPro video of someone running, jumping, performing acrobatic stunts, and of course, hanging off the edge of a tall building. This is part of an awesome but incredibly dangerous obsession with hazardous selfies that has been going on throughout Russia and some parts of Europe for a couple of years now.
It is impressive, but given that some of these people are doing flips and stopping at the very edge of a building, it isn’t surprising that a few people participating in this kind of activity have fallen to their deaths. In this case, Retrovsky was using a rope to keep himself “safe” for his stunt, but that rope came undone and he plunged to his death.
3 Flawless Success: Gary Connery’s Parachute Free Wingsuit Flight
We have featured a couple of wingsuit-related entries already, but this has to be one of the most impressive jumps in the history of this ridiculously dangerous pastime. Doing something like proximity flying is impressive and dangerous, but even after you’ve done your flight, you can only hope that your parachute doesn’t fail. In the case of British stuntman Gary Connery, however, he decided in 2012 that he was going to land a jump without bothering with the whole pesky parachute business.
He set up a massive raised landing strip in a field in Buckinghamshire. That landing zone was over 300 feet long and just over 40 feet wide and was constructed using over 18,000 cardboard boxes. This stunt was something that Jeb Corliss, who we mentioned earlier, had wanted to do for a couple of years. But he admitted his admiration for the man who accomplished his dream.
2 Horrible End: Jan Davis’ Final Jump
Most stunts that get videotaped are done for fame or excitement. But in the case of this jump that took place in 1999, it was a political protest. In response to a ban on BASE jumping in Yosemite National Park, several parachutists planned to jump in order to get the opportunity to challenge this rule in court.
Davis was somewhat of an icon at the time among the BASE jumping community. She was over 60 years old and loved the hobby. Unfortunately, during this particular jump, she opted to use borrowed equipment other than her usual parachute. The reason behind this was that she was going to be arrested and would have her gear confiscated and likely not get it back. When she jumped off the El Capitan cliff in Yosemite, her chute never opened and she plunged to her death while many people watched and helplessly pleaded to her to deploy.
1 Flawless Success: The French Spiderman’s Climbs
Alain Robert, known to most people as the French Spiderman, is famous for climbing tall buildings with very little in the way of safety gear. He is now in his mid-50’s and has been climbing for decades with dozens of impressive buildings climbed since the early 1990’s. Among the most iconic buildings he has climbed are the Empire State Building, which he conquered in 1994, and more recently, the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on the planet, back in 2011.
Early on, when he wasn’t a semi-celebrity for his climbs, he was often arrested at or near the top of whatever building he was climbing. But more recently, he has done promotional climbs and managed to avoid legal scrutiny. He has fallen numerous times during his career, but never from an altitude that’s high enough to kill himself. He has, however, endured many nasty injuries. Given the fact that this guy has climbed so many absurdly high buildings often without safety gear, it is incredibly impressive that he is still alive.