Bungee boy

John Kockelman

Photo By Barbara Moya

Bungee jumping has its ups and downs. The late 1980s were an up for John Kockelman and his brother Peter, who started Bungee Adventures, the first commercial bungee-jumping company in the United States, in 1988. Since then, Kockelman estimates they’ve introduced more than 10,000 people to the extreme sport of bungee jumping. In the 1990s, the brothers parlayed their penchant for risk-taking into a successful career performing stunts in TV commercials, the apogee of which was designing the world’s largest bungee cord to send a 2-ton GMC pickup off the nation’s tallest bridge. After taking some time off to earn a master’s degree in engineering from UC Davis (his thesis was on—you guessed it—bungee cords), Kockelman has resurrected Bungee Adventures to introduce a whole new generation of thrill seekers to the sport. Those interested in taking the plunge may contact Kockelman at www.bungeeadventures.net.

What’s the big deal about bungee jumping anyway?

The real beauty of bungee jumping is you get to confront a real primal fear—the fear of heights—in a relatively safe, comfortable environment. You don’t need to be a professional stuntman to experience it.

Was your first bungee jump scary?

Yeah, it was extremely scary. I had only seen it done on TV, a brief clip on the show That’s Incredible. I couldn’t find anyone who was doing it anywhere. I basically took my knowledge of rock climbing and engineering and put it together to design my own gear from the ground up.

Where’d you get the daredevil streak?

When I was a little kid, my idol was Evel Knievel. I used to jump my bicycle all the time. I have pictures of me jumping eight garbage cans.

Your master’s degree is in biomedical engineering. What does that have to do with bungee jumping?

My thesis in grad school was basically to design the biggest bungee cord and predict accurately how it was going to stretch. It included research on human G-force tolerance. How many G-forces can a human take?

How many G-forces can a human take?

That depends on what you want the outcome to be. What kind of survival do you want? Do you want to hemorrhage your eye? Your bowels? Do want to piss blood for a month? It depends on the individual. You get about three Gs on the average bungee jump. Some roller coasters have up to five.

Have any of your clients ever been hurt?

Nothing serious. We’ve had some minor incidents, but no broken bones or disabling injuries. Here’s an example of an incident: This kid wanted to do flips on his first jump. We told him he should wait till maybe his third jump, but he wanted to do them on his first. So, he did. The cord wrapped around his arm and dislocated his shoulder.

Why did you quit bungee jumping?

When it started to become a really big fad in the 1990s, I got out. Originally, it was kind of a renegade thing. You went up into the mountains and jumped off a PG&E bridge or maybe a railroad bridge, somewhere you weren’t supposed to be. A lot of people began taking bungee jumping to fairs. I’m not a volume kind of guy. I got out of it when it was at the peak of its popularity and decided to pursue other sports. I started skydiving; then I got into hang gliding. After we got out of the bungee business, my brother and I started a business called Stunt Engineering.

What did that company do?

Remember that Reebok commercial where two guys were bungee jumping off a bridge? One guy makes it, and the other guy falls out of his shoes. You see the cord dangling there with a pair of shoes on it. That was us. It got pulled off the air really quickly because all the moms started complaining.

Do you make a lot of money in the stunt industry?

The way the stunt industry works is you make good money when you’re working, but you don’t work that often.

What was your latest big stunt?

We designed and patented a human slingshot machine. The human being becomes the thing that’s shot out of the slingshot. We built it on top of Foresthill Bridge in Auburn—it’s 730 feet high, the third highest in the United States—with two cranes, a pair of giant rubber bands and a special seat to strap a guy wearing a base-jumping parachute in. Basically, we wanted to shoot him as high as possible without him blacking out. We shot him 250 feet high above the bridge, and he landed safely at the bottom.

What brought you back to bungee jumping?

I just realized that going up to the mountains on the weekends, to gorgeous bridges and river valleys, was a really beautiful thing. I’ve kind of like come full circle. I started looking around for people who were bungee jumping in Northern California, and I couldn’t find anybody. It’s a good time to come back in; there’s a whole generation of kids who haven’t experienced bungee jumping.