Update: Aikins, who was compelled at the last minute to wear a parachute to comply with actors' union rules, was cleared to jump without any safety gear minutes before exiting the skydiving plane at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). He freefell without any apparent problems, landed in the specially built net, and walked away under his own power. The program will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 31.
Luke Aikins, 42, has deployed a parachute around 18,000 times over the last two and a half decades of his skydiving and BASE jumping career. But this Saturday, he’s going to find out if he can get away without one.
After two years of training, planning, and preparation, Aikins plans to jump out of a Cessna airplane at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). With him will be a GPS, a communication device, and an oxygen tank. What he won’t have is a parachute, a wingsuit, or anything else that might help him stop or slow his descent.
“My whole life has been about air, aviation, flying, jumping, all that stuff,” said Aikins, a third-generation skydiver, during a television interview with Q13 FOX, the network broadcasting Aikins’ stunt, with a five-second delay, on July 30 at 8 p.m. ET (National Geographic Partners is a part of Fox Network Groups). “I’m out here to show that there are ways to do things that people think are insane and aren’t able to be done.”
As a TV audience tunes in to witness the spectacle—dubbed Heaven Sent and billed by the corporate sponsor and producer, Stride Gum, as the “most dangerous stunt ever shown live”—Aikins’ friends and family, including his wife, herself a skydiving instructor, and their four-year-old son will be on location..
How It Will Work
After leaping from the plane, Aikins will track through the air in a belly-to-ground position and quickly reach a terminal velocity of 120 miles an hour (193 kilometers an hour). Using his GPS, he’ll attempt to square up to the center of a specialized 100-by-100-foot (30.5-by-30.5-meter) net, which Aikins says will stop his fall as softly as if you were to stand on a trampoline and merely drop onto your back.
The net, dubbed the “Fly Trap,” is indeed designed to provide Aikins with that life-saving soft catch—assuming he actually strikes the 28-by-28-foot (8.5-by-8.5-meter) “sweet spot” in the center of the net. The net will be suspended between the tops of four 200-foot (61-meter) cranes. The netting itself is constructed from Spectra, a high-density polyethylene cord that is twice as strong as steel, but also completely inelastic. Once Aikins’ plummeting mass strikes the net, four compressed air cylinders, which are connected to the netting via ropes and pulleys, will slow Aikinsdown down in the same way that you might catch an egg in your hand—by decelerating it gently over a distance.
Aikins will wear an oxygen mask for the first 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) of descent, then pass it off to a member of his support team, who will be skydiving next to him (with a parachute, of course). Aikins will rely on two indicators to make certain he’s falling directly over the Fly Trap: his GPS and four specialized lights that will provide the visual confirmation that he’s on track to strike the sweet spot in the netting. When he’s around 200 feet (61 meters) above the netting—or, a little more than one second away from impact, as he’ll be falling at around 176 feet (53.6 meters) a second—Aikins will roll and tuck his chin, so that he lands on his back.
“If I wasn’t [nervous] I’d be silly, and I shouldn’t do it,” Aikins confessed during his interview with Q13 Fox.
A Race to the Bottom
Top aerialists from the skydiving, BASE jumping, and wingsuiting communities have long been enthralled by the idea of making a safe landing without a parachute. As the technology behind wingsuits—the full-body baffled nylon costumes that resemble the stretched membrane of a flying squirrel—rapidly improved over the last 15 years, it began to seem feasible, if crazy, that someone might be able to land a wingsuit without using a parachute. New wingsuits provided skilled pilots with better control of steering, accuracy, and speed, even allowing them to flare their suits and slow down to a forward velocity of just 50 miles an hour.
Jeb Corliss—perhaps the most recognized name in the wingsuit world for his high-profile stunts that attract big sponsors, big money, and big audiences (e.g., “Grinding the Crack,” “Flying Dagger,” and, most recently, “The Human Arrow”)—proclaimed his intent to be the first to achieve that goal as early as 2007.
But Gary Connery became the first, and still only, person to land a wingsuit without a parachute in 2012. A British stuntman, skydiver, and wingsuit BASE jumper, Connery achieved this goal by arranging and stacking 18,600 cardboard boxes into a landing strip that measured 350 feet (106.7 meters) long, 45 feet (13.7 meters) wide , and 12 feet (3.7 meters) high. When he reached an altitude of about 200 feet (61 meters) above the boxes, he flared his wingsuit, slowed his descent, and crashed headfirst into the boxes—and survived.
Connery, in fact, reportedly said the landing was “soft and comfortable.”
There was such little fanfare in advance of Connery’s stunt that when Corliss first heard that some English dude was thinking about beating him to the punch, he thought it was an April Fool’s joke. A week later, Corliss watched the rather crude Internet feed of Connery achieving this goal. He was both impressed and gracious, calling it “the greatest stunt ever performed.”
To Stunt or Not to Stunt
Within the realm of extreme sports, and particularly with aerial sports such skydiving and BASE jumping, practitioners can be categorized in two groups, albeit with significant overlap. There are those who do “stunts,” which may be defined as a public event in which a person takes a big risk against a backdrop of a major film or television production and potentially corporate sponsorship.
And then there are those who simply practice their sports, as extreme and dangerous as they may be, without any public display at all.
”Most skydivers, BASE jumpers, and aerialists practice their craft in relative anonymity,” says Matt Higgins, who brilliantly captured the dangerous world of wingsuit BASE jumping in his book Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight. “It’s the exceptional athlete who seeks to gain notoriety and has the wherewithal to pull off a major stunt. You have to have vision, talent, and courage to try something no one has attempted before,” he says.
“But a major televised event like Heaven Sent requires corporate sponsorship for production, permitting, insurance, and all the associated costs that can easily stretch into the millions,” Higgins adds.
It can be difficult, then, to decide whether a stunt is a marketing achievement or represents a significant leap forward within the sport.
“In my opinion, the definition of a stunt today seems to be how much marketing power you bring to bear,” says Richard Webb, a wingsuit BASE jumper and former Navy fighter pilot profiled in National Geographic Adventure in 2015. Webb cites Jeb Corliss’s most recent stunt, dubbed “The Human Arrow,” in which he jumped out of a helicopter and, like the proverbial arrow through an apple atop someone’s head, flew his wingsuit through a target atop the Great Wall of China.
“My perception was that it was a manufactured, marketed stunt to an audience who knew nothing about how un-stuntworthy it was,” says Webb. “A week later, a dozen of my friends pulled off an identical stunt on their own, with minimal planning. With Gary Connery, there was minimal media build-up in the weeks prior to it, minimal fanfare, barely any sponsors involved by today’s standards. He quietly planned and trained behind the scenes. On game day, he stepped up, executed, and then went to lunch. Honestly, it barely seemed to faze him.”
Thanks to pocketsize high-definition cameras such as GoPros, it’s not always necessary to pull in big sponsors and a television production crew in order to broadcast a stunt that will subsequently attract millions of viewers. The Italian wingsuit pilot Uli Emmaneule, for instance, has produced his own extremely gripping and widely viewed films, such as his 2015 GoPro video in which he flew through a crack in a freestanding rock that was not much larger than his own body, and a 2016 video in which he flew through ring of fire about 10 feet (three meters) in diameter.
“It’s awesome and neat and impressive but nothing new, right? He flew through a hole,” says Matt Gerdes, owner of Squirrel Wingsuits, and a world-class wingsuit pilot himself, speaking about the “Ring of Fire” stunt. “Stunts like this prove that the progression has happened in the sport, [but] the stunts themselves are not progression.”
“Sometimes stunts advance or progress a sport, but not always in immediately obvious ways,” says Higgins. ”More people are getting into BASE jumping and wingsuit flying all the time. How many of them were inspired by witnessing the many televised wingsuit stunts of Jeb Corliss?”
Another recent example is Felix Baumgartner’s “Red Bull Stratos” project, which Luke Aikins was instrumental in planning. The highly publicized 2012 stunt saw Baumgartner ride a helium balloon into the stratosphere, then achieve a record for the highest skydive ever, jumping at an altitude of 127,852 feet (38,969 meters), or roughly 24 miles (38.6 kilometers) above the earth’s surface.
The Red Bull-sponsored event was broadcast on YouTube to more than 9.5 million viewers, setting a live-stream record for the website.
Two years later, in 2014, without any trumpet calls, a Google executive named Alan Eustace, then 57, broke Baumgartner’s record by over a mile, jumping from an altitude of 135,890 feet (41,419 meters). There’s a certain delicious irony to the fact that a computer scientist in his late 50s, who is a far cry from the typical Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports star, achieved this sports and scientific record without any pre-publicity.
So where does jumping out of plane sans parachute land in terms of its significance to aerial sports?
On the one hand, no one has ever intentionally jumped from 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) without a parachute and survived. The Guinness Book of Records, however, lists Vesna Vulović, then a 22-year-old Serbian flight attendant, as holding the record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute—a 33,333-foot (10,160-meter) plummet—when the plane she was in exploded from a bomb on January 26, 1972. (The details of this story, however, are debated, as is Vulović’s record. She once said she’d just as well prefer not to have it.)
Testifying to the difficulty and legit badassery of Aikins' stunt, Matt Gerdes says, “Luke is more dedicated and more competent than anyone would imagine based on the premise of the stunt, and he has more science and calculations into this than anyone would think possible. This is a record that won’t be broken for a long time.”
On the other hand, according to Webb, “Physically, you could train to that level of accuracy easily, with the correct equipment. [But] game day is all about that last 500 feet. That’s where the mental component comes to play. That’s where Luke will shine, I have no doubt.”
A Potentially Deadly Spectacle
“People die doing dangerous aerial feats with numbing regularity,” says Higgins. “Many die anonymously or unseen, but several high-profile athletes have died publicly or crashed before a crowd and later died of their injuries.” In the last five years, the many of the world’s best, most competent, and most current wingsuit BASE jumpers have died in unseen accidents, including Mario Richards, Sean Leary, Dean Potter, and Graham Hunt.
Cliff Winters, however, was one of those cases in which his death was very public. He was a skydiver and stuntman whose career in the 1950s and ‘60s saw him jumping out of planes in straitjackets and purposefully crashing planes into mock buildings. He died before a crowd at the 1963 Labor Day Airshow at Chino, California, when he snap-rolled a double-wing airplane into the ground.
In recent years, there have been some gruesome deaths before audiences. In 2003, Dwain Weston, while flying a wingsuit, crashed into a crowded bridge at the Go Fast Games in Colorado, splattering the canyon with body parts.
In 2009, performing a stunt before a live audience in Zurich, Ueli Gengenschatz died when he crashed his parachute into a building. The pro skydiver and BASE jumper for Red Bull’s team was also being filmed for the energy drink company at the time.
At a public event in Turkey in 2015, Ian Flanders, a Californian wingsuiter, experienced a parachute malfunction and subsequently died. Footage of his spiraling plummet to the ground made its way to the Internet, and was shared around the world.
“It’s human nature that the possibility of these deadly mishaps makes stunts more exciting for viewers,” says Higgins. “Maybe we don’t necessarily want to see someone killed, but the high stakes make it worthwhile to tune in and watch.”