Everyone said it couldn't be done.
It was impossible.
But to Jay Cochrane – AKA The Prince of the Air – achieving the impossible was not just a mission.
It was an art,
a driving necessity.
On Oct. 28, 1995, Jay stood tall over China's Yangtze River with just his thoughts to keep him company. Over the next, grueling 53 minutes, he traversed a wire no thicker than a man's thumb. At 1,230 feet high and moving a distance of 2,000 feet, he strolled across the wire, and in the process set records for height and distance that are unmatched to this day. No human has ever soared so high above the earth on two feet, or traveled so far across time and space. And Jay accomplished these feats without a safety harness or net, no protection of any kind.
As he neared the end of the spectacular journey, Jay performed his signature flourish. He stood on one foot, and saluted the assembled crowd.
It was a sight for the ages..
The walk over China's Qutang Gorge cemented Jay's reputation as the greatest wirewalker who ever lived. But it all started far more humbly in Jay's hometown in Canada, where his father worked in the mining industry and his mother as a music teacher.
As a youngster, Jay dreamed of leaving the shackles of his small town existence and doing something big and exciting with his life, he just didn't know what..
That changed one day when his mother took him and his younger brother, Pat, to the circus.
Jay told the story of that life-changing day on a personal video.
“When I was about 7 or 8, my mother took me to a circus and I saw a man named Charles Ozana do a somersault on the wire. He was about 30 feet high and about a 25-30 foot wire.”
Something clicked deep inside him instantly, and Jay would never be the same. That little boy made a decision that not only impacted his life, but history.
“I said, 'Mother, that's what I'm gonna do when I grow up,' '' said Jay. “Of course, like a typical mother she said, 'Oh no, you're not.'
“Yes. I. Am.''
It wasn't long before Jay made good on that promise. At age 14, he ran away from home to join the circus. Jay traveled to the city of Toronto, to the annual fair known as the Canadian National Exhibition – the CNE.
But from the start, it was not easy. In fact, it was downright dirty.
He headed to the tent of The Royal Hanneford Circus and its matriarch, Struppi Hanneford. Jay knew her by her stage name, Princess Tajana.
“And I told her, 'Mrs. Tajana, I want to be in the circus.' ''
He wasn't taking no for an answer, no matter how hard she tried.
Jay said Struppi told him, “There's no future. There's no business, there's no this, there's no that.'' She put him on a bus and sent him home. But he didn't stay away for long.
“He was there day by day, just constantly very energetic,'' Struppi said on the video. That summer, Jay asked her for a job.
“And I carried the water for the horses and so on and so forth and they gave me my two dollars and sent me home on the bus and they were off to the next town,'' he said. “Little did they know that I didn't go on the bus, I hitchhiked to the next town. They kept sending me home and I kept coming back.''
His persistence paid off – well, sort of – and Jay got his start in show business. It was anything but glamorous.
“I started with a shovel behind the animals for 50 cents a day and I shoveled manure,'' he remembered. Between shovelfuls, he learned how to juggle, and he was mesmerized by the trapeze – Struppi Hanneford was an aerialist – and he absorbed the circus like a sponge. He practiced, sharpened his skills. Ultimately, he left the shovel behind.
At age 21, Jay left the Royal Hanneford Circus to pursue his own highwire act. Back then, rather than walking between skyscrapers or high over gorges, he'd perform what's known as an “inclined wire'' act. He'd walk from the ground up to a 100-foot tower, then do a trapeze act and a ring act and do a handstand.
Things were going well.
However it wouldn't last. Before long, his dreams came crashing to the ground.
For the first time – and the last – Jay allowed someone other than himself to put up a piece of apparatus for him. “And they didn't put a little bolt in the section of the tower,'' he recalled. The error nearly cost him his life as the entire works fell to earth, Jay with it.
In the devastating accident, Jay fell 90 feet. Fortunately, he landed on grass, which provided a bit of a cushion. Instinctively, he protected his head, so his legs and feet took the brunt of the impact. Both of his feet were shattered and he'd broken both legs.. His leg bones snapped and shoved into each other. He broke his pelvis, spine, both arms, many ribs and his left colllar bone. Doctors told him he'd never walk again. He underwent seven major surgeries.
“I was paralyzed for about four years,'' said Jay. But the nuns of an Anglican rehabilitation convalescent hospital were determined to see him back on his feet. “Believe me, they had no mercy,'' he said.
He also used this time in rehab to advance his education, studying fine arts and engineering, specifically bridge and structural. He had no idea how helpful those studies would be for his future.
After four years of intense therapy and sheer will, a miracle occurred. “I was up at it again,'' said Jay.
“The lesson that that taught me is, don't ever depend or trust anyone to put up your equipment. You do it yourself.''
Next up: Jay reaches new heights. At the outset, he had no idea just how high.
A promoter asked Jay to wirewalk between two buildings in Toronto, and he figured the structures were five or six stories high. “No problem,'' he chirped. A few weeks later, Jay learned that the buildings he'd agreed to walk between were 50 stories high.
“I just about fell, passed out on the floor.''
But Jay had already signed the contract, and he was determined to fulfill his promise. Standing atop a skyscraper, seeing a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the energy propelled him. “And from that day on. It was onward and forward.''
With that walk, Jay broke the world record for height on the high wire. His next record-breaking performance was a distance record at the Canadian National Exhibition; Jay traversed the wire 41 times for a total distance of 21⁄2 miles.
Jay's third world record was accomplished in 1980 while in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He lived on the wire for an astonishing 21 days and 21 nights.
Between his three record-breaking performances Jay completed hundreds of other death-defying walks on the high wire, all while raising money for children's foundations around the world.
He wirewalked in Tampa, Florida, at the arch in St. Louis and at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. His walks brought him to Hershey, Pennsylvania and to too many baseball parks to mention.
“It's my job. It's my office. I have a helluva view. And it's where I'm comfortable. It's what I do best,'' Jay enthused. “The toughest part of any walk is the middle of course because that's the part where the wire is the loosest. When you breathe it breathes. When you walk it walks. When you move, it moves. It does everything you do. So you are in control of it. You control it. You don't let it control you.''
Jay learned to control his fear. But he never let go of it.“You better be afraid. Because the moment you let your guard down and you think it can't get you, that's when it's gonna get you. So you pay attention.''
All this culminated in Jay's epic skywalk over China's Qutang Gorge. It was witnessed by some 400,000 to 5oo,ooo people who hiked up into the Himalayas to witness the greatest feat ever performed by a human being.
Jay would set another world record the following year in Shanghai, China, for height and length traveled at night between skyscrapers.
By this time, he's spent a half century on the wire, the first person ever to do so.
He did his next walk, between the towers of the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas, Nevada, at night, and blindfolded.
This time, what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas.
Rather, this was broadcast around the world.
WATCH JAY ON "GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS: LIVE FROM VEGAS"
Jay Cochrane performs Guinness World Record Blindfolded Skywalk
“People ask me how I want to be remembered in life,'' said Jay. “But how I really want to be remembered – here is a person who cared about children around the world, and made a difference. That's quite enough for me. ''
Over the years, Jay raised tens of millions of dollars for charities benefiting children in need, including granting last wishes for those with terminal illnesses.
Fifty years after launching a career that took him around the world, Jay came full circle.
He returned to Niagara, where a young boy's dream became a reality. In 2002, he began a DECADE OF SKYWALKS over the city of Niagara Falls, Canada, reaching new heights as he conquered the city's highest structures.
In 2005, he walked from the Hilton Hotel to the Fallsview Casino twice a day . On Saturday, July 30, 2005, he walked from the top of the casino to the top of the Skylon Tower – the highest and longest wirewalk ever performed in the city of Niagara Falls.
In 2012, Jay had been in show business around 55 years.
What more can a person ask for when their career, their profession, their passion is fun?
“Sure, it's a lot of hard work. If it's easy, everyone would be doing it. Before, when I was younger, the driving force was of course to accomplish more and more and more. Of course, as I've gotten older, and over the years, about 25, 30 years ago I got involved in a lot of children's organizations and I raised money for hospitals and schools all over the world. So that's my principal drive for doing these particular shows now.'
“People ask me when I'm going to retire,'' Jay said in 2012, while performing his remarkable SKYWALK 2012 in Niagara, 48 performances that set yet another world record. “Well, I plan next year to be my last year to walk. I'm hoping, I'm looking to do it where I began in 1958 at the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto as a young boy. I'm looking to finish my career there and do my last performance there. I'll be almost 70."
Jay Cochrane died of cancer on Oct. 30, 2013. In his lifetime, he'd accoimplished even greater feats than he'd ever dreamed of, soaring higher and farther than anyone ever has before or since.
Join us in celebrating an extraordinary man. Now and forever, The Prince of the Air.