SCROLL DOWN DOR VIDEO
Luke Aikins lands safely in a 30-metre by 30-metre net bordered by lights in Simi Valley in southern California
As he prepared to jump out of a plane at 7,600 metres (25,000ft), Luke Aikins could barely see his landing zone.
This is not unusual, but landing in the correct area mattered more for this skydive than it usually does – Aikins was attempting the first jump from such a height without a parachute.
His only chance of survival was to hit a net, 30 metres by 30 metres (100ft by 100ft), or about a third the size of a football field, suspended 60 metres above the southern California desert.
The dive itself took a little more than two minutes and was watched below by a small crowd including Aikins’s wife and four-year-old son, plus many more watching it live on TV.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” Aikins, 42, said before boarding a propeller plane to perform the jump.
Leaving the aircraft with three other skydivers, he wore an oxygen mask, which he removed and gave to his cousin – a member of his support team – at 4,500 metres. At 1,500 metres the other skydivers opened their parachutes, leaving him to complete the final stage alone. He had to direct his body towards the net while in freefall using only the air currents around him.
As well as making sure he hit his target, in order to land safely Aikins had to land on his back, meaning he had to flip around and tuck in his knees at the last second, a manoeuvre he practiced several times during the dive.
Right before the jump, Aikins said he had been ordered to wear a parachute but not open it, which could have potentially harmed him as he landed on the parachute canister. However, as the plane was climbing, that requirement was lifted and he jumped without a parachute.
After landing successfully, to cheers from the watching crowd, Aikins climbed out of the net and embraced his wife.
“I’m almost levitating. It’s incredible,” he said.
Aikins is a professional skydiver with more than 18,000 jumps under his belt and did some of the stunts in Iron Man 3. He comes from a family of skydivers – along with his father, grandfather, and wife. The family owns Skydive Kapowsin near Tacoma, Washington.
When Aikins was first approached about the jump, he laughed off the idea and turned down the offer.
[frontpage_news widget=”192″ name=”Latest Post”]
“Like any normal, sane person, I said: ‘Thank you but no thank you. I have a wife and a son and I’ve got a life to live,’” Aikins told People magazine. “Then, two weeks went by and I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking if somebody said you had to do this, how could it be done?”
“Aikins’s leap represents the culmination of a 26-year career that set a personal and world record for the highest jump without a parachute or wingsuit,” his spokesman, Justin Aclin, said in an email.
Rook Nelson, the director of Skydive Chicago and a three-time world skydive champion, said the dive was “truly amazing” and that the skydiving community in Chicago was “stoked” with Aikins’s success.
“I could hear the cheers going up from the bar. It was like watching your home sports team win,” said Nelson, whose drop zone will host the World Parachuting Championships in September.
He has known Aikins for years and said that while he worried he could watch his friend die, he ultimately did not believe the jump was reckless.
“In the beginning, I was 50/50 on this, whether this is going to work, or if we were going to watch a good friend pass away. But when you see the time and effort and research that went into making it safe, it wasn’t reckless, it was well thought out,” he said.
Saturday’s feat was also a technological victory. To direct Aikins toward the net, lights were set around it that were just visible from 7,600 metres. Aikins explained the system on his Facebook page as “a variation on an airport light system. The lights change colour based on your position.”
His helmet contained cameras and a GPS tracker and sent out beeps to alert him when he reached various points on his descent.
While training for the stunt, Aikins carried out test jumps with a parachute aiming for smaller targets. For his final practice jumps, he did not release his parachute until 300 metres. Dummies of the same weight and surface area as Aikins’s body were also used to determine what g-forces his body would experience during the fall.
He spoke of how he had been inspired as a child by hearing about Joseph Kittinger, who set a record for the highest skydive in 1960, jumping from 19 miles (31km).
At the age of 84, Kittinger went on to direct the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, who broke the record with his 24-mile freefall in 2012, a dive Aikins acted as a consultant on.
“My whole life has been about air, aviation, flying, jumping, all that stuff,” said Aikins. “I hope this just sparks imagination and that kids see the science behind it.”