First Man To Skydive With No Parachute Explains Why He Did It

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Free Falling

Skydiving is already one of the most thrilling activities humans can undertake, bringing us as close as we can get to flying unaided. For some, however, even that thrill is not quite enough. Luke Aikins is a professional skydiver, often choosing to jump out of planes for competition as well as for pay. But there was one stunt Aikins always dreamed about: skydiving without using a parachute. The question is, could he actually manage to accomplish that feat?

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Stunts From The Sky

Aikins has been skydiving for nearly as long as he could remember. By the time he began considering skydiving without a parachute, he’d been jumping professionally for more than 30 years. For Aikins and other professional jumpers, there was nothing that could quite match the thrill of falling through the sky at maximum velocity, but the need for thrills often causes stunt performers to try and up the ante year after year. There were only so many ways Aikins could top himself.

Out There On His Own

The Texas native was born in Corpus Christi in 1973 and got his first taste of skydiving by the time he was 12. He wouldn’t be allowed to attempt his first solo jump, however, until he reached the age of 16. Luke could still remember the feeling he’d had as he stepped into the open air, the wind tugging at his face as he spiraled downwards, cushioned by the moment his parachute opened. It was mere seconds, but it would fuel a lasting love.

Honing A Craft

Over the years, Aikins became such a respected skydiver that he began teaching courses to others on skydiving. Some of his clients included top military units, some of whom include the Navy SEALs. He also coached Nascar racer, Brian Vickers, on successfully skydiving. After all, parachuting is in Aikins’s blood, as he comes from a long line of skydivers. In his long career, Aikins has already jumped over 18,000 times, but never without the safety of a parachute.

The Stunt Of A Lifetime

There was once a time when Aikins never even considered jumping without a parachute. In fact, the idea wasn’t even his in the first place. Aikins was approached several years back about the possibility of him doing a jump without the help of a parachute. He told People, “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.’” That decision would soon change.

Fixing It To Film

It’s clear based on Aikins’ extensive list of accomplishments that he doesn’t just jump for pleasure. He’s been an active part of the stunt team, skydiving or BASE jumping in several different Hollywood movies. At this time, his credits include both Iron Man 3 and Godzilla. More than that, Aikins jumps for publicly filmed stunts, like many others in the field. The difference is that Aikins is considered to have one of the best strategic minds in the industry.

From The Edge Of The World

Outside of the skydiving world, there was one particular stunt that gave Aikins worldwide attention. Though he didn’t complete the jump himself, he was an integral part of planning and training for Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 jump from the edge of space. Baumgartner was determined to achieve his desired altitude in a hot air balloon, which he lifted nearly 24 miles above Earth’s surface, before plummeting down from the stratosphere at a speed that broke the sound barrier. Could Aikins top that?

Taking On The Stunt

Despite turning down the initial proposition to skydive without a parachute or even a wingsuit, Aikins couldn’t get the thought out of his brain. “Then, two weeks went by,” Aikins revealed to People, “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?” If it were just a logistical question to the tactical jumper at first, it would quickly become a challenge that he wanted to take on.

A Lifetime Of Training

“My whole life has been about air, aviation, flying, jumping, all that stuff,” Aikins explained in an interview with Q13 Fox. “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.” When Aikins announced that he would be willing to attempt the jump, the channel agreed to be the ones to broadcast the stunt live, but with a five-second delay, should something go wrong.

A Lifetime Of Training

“My whole life has been about air, aviation, flying, jumping, all that stuff,” Aikins explained in an interview with Q13 Fox. “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.” When Aikins announced that he would be willing to attempt the jump, the channel agreed to be the ones to broadcast the stunt live, but with a five-second delay, should something go wrong.

Calculating The Physics

Next time your children complain about having to study math, you can explain that math can possibly help you pull off the skydiving feat of a century. Aikins might enjoy performing thrilling stunts, but if there was one thing that characterized his career, it was a noticeable lack of recklessness. Before he would even consider free jumping from a plane, Aikins wanted to consult with a team of engineers to determine if the idea was even feasible.

Winging Around The World

What set Aikins’ quest apart from those of his predecessors was that he wanted to undertake the jump without any sort of device attached to him that would break his fall. Diving without a parachute wasn’t entirely unheard of in 2016, but those who attempted it did it with the safety of what’s called a wingsuit, which looks exactly like what it sounds like. Aikins wanted to jump without the security of either, which caused him to reexamine how to land the jump safely.

Marking A Milestone

Gary Connery was the first skydiver ever to land a jump in a wingsuit without a parachute also attached. Wingsuits have been around for longer than they’ve been practical, but new technology has made them significantly safer. Connery managed to earn the moniker of being the first by very quietly planning a jump several weeks before Jeb Corliss’ highly publicized wingsuit dive. Connery made the story even more sensational by purposely landing on a pile of cardboard boxes.

A Record Best Unmade

Though no one who practiced aerial sports had ever fallen from a plane unaided, there was one person who happened to hold the record for such a thing. A Serbian flight attendant was the current record holder for surviving the longest drop without a parachute, though it was only because of a tragedy that brought down a plane she was working on in 1972. Falling more than 33,000 feet, her survival was a miracle, but not the event Aikin wanted to replicate.

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What’s In A Stunt?

For many avid divers, pulling off these sorts of feats wouldn’t quite fall within the realm of a stunt, given that “stunts” are more specifically classified as those highly publicized, and usually corporately sponsored routines. Many experienced skydivers and BASE jumpers see what the professionals are doing for money, and then effortlessly recreate those challenges with little public fanfare. While Aikins may have taken on the task as a personal challenge, he didn’t mind also earning a nice paycheck alongside the adrenaline.

Shirking From Fame

Aikins isn’t the only skydiver or BASE jumper known for taking on record-breaking feats, the biggest difference is that most of them don’t do it for money. Matt Higgens took a deep dive into this world for his book, Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight. “Most skydivers, BASE jumpers, and aerialists practice their craft in relative anonymity. You have to have vision, talent, and courage to try something no one has attempted before,” he explained.

We’re Out Of Here

Aikins may be known for his role in planning the first jump from outer space, but while no one was looking, the same feat was later repeated and bested by a longshot. The record for the highest jump is now held by a man named Alan Eustace, a jumping hobbyist who works for Google. His jump took place at 135,890 feet, more than a mile higher than the publicized space jump that Aikins helped to plan.

Flying In Teams

Another team of divers took on a quiet stunt of their own, repeating Jeb Corliss’s dive that was heavily documented in The Human Arrow, in which he jumped out of a helicopter and flew through a target on the Great Wall of China in a wingsuit. “A week later, a dozen of my friends pulled off an identical stunt on their own, with minimal planning,” shared Richard Webb, another well-known BASE jumper who has also worked with military contacts.

The Scent Of Danger

Though Luke Aikins had no intention of taking on a stunt that would end his life, there were many others who sought the thrill of endangerment, while never intending to commit bodily harm to themselves. Even so, extreme sports like skydiving and BASE jumping, especially when they include an extra stunt component, have had very tragic consequences on multiple occasions, which resulted in audiences bearing witness to some gruesome, rather than thrilling outcomes. Aikins was determined to keep himself safe.

Performing Under Pressure

The air pressure may be lower high up in the atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t significantly more internal pressure the day of the event. “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,” Richard Webb opined in a feature on Aikins’ planning in National Geographic.

Capturing The Thrill

These days, it’s become easy for even the amateurs to get footage of every single dive, given the relative accessibility of small active cameras like GoPros. For the big moments, like Aikins’ potential parachute-less jump, there would not only be camera crew but even a live audience. Aikins worried that if he didn’t get all of the details right long beforehand, the display would quickly take a tragic turn, an outcome Aikins wanted to avoid at all costs.

Seeking Out Alternatives

Even if Aikins was going to jump without a parachute, he still needed to come up with a safe method to cushion his fall, rather than fatally crashing right into the ground. With the aid of his team of engineers, Aikins put together a large net with the intention that he could dive right into it. The solution might seem simple on the surface, but it wasn’t composed of ordinary string. According to National Geographic, the net was made from a special substance called Spectra.

Reach For The Sky

The net itself wouldn’t exactly be simple, according to Aikins’ plan. Rather the web constructed of the “high-density polyethylene cord,” which in practice was even stronger than steel, would be hung from four cranes, 200 ft above the ground. The net itself wouldn’t exactly have any give. Instead, the net would be rigged to slowly lower Aikins down the minute he made contact with the help of some air compressors and other ropes. With safety tests complete, Aikins hoped he was ready.

Devil In The Details/post_page_title]

Without taking the time to carefully plot out every last detail of the jump, Aikins knew just how big of a risk he was taking for things to go wrong. One of the characteristics that makes Aikins so admired as a premier skydiver is just how conscious he is of safety concerns as well as the physics behind what he does. Start to finish, it took more than six months to plan out his attempt to jump without a parachute.

[post_page_title]Approaching Zero Hour

With all of Aikins’ careful preparations in place, he was steadily approaching the moment of truth. The jump would start off like so many others, with Aikins and his team poised in their suits on an ascending plane. He planned to make his leap of faith from 25,000 feet, which required the help of some team members, namely because he’d be equipped with only an oxygen tank that he needed to hand off to another diver once it was no longer needed.

The Guiding Lights

Up in the air, Aikins couldn’t hope to see the net as he fell, given that for most of his dive, he would be too far away to see it. Instead, he and his team rigged a system of lights to their GPS system, which would tell them if they were on track to hit their target or not. This way, they could tell if they were falling in the right direction or if they would need to take emergency measures.

Into Thin Air

The plane’s engine roared over the four men. With camera crews poised below, the plane door opened and released four minuscule figures. Fox was broadcasting the jump live, but with a slight delay, in case anything should go wrong. The audience below and at home watched as three parachutes opened up in the skies, but one didn’t. Aikins was in his free fall, but it remained to be seen if he managed to steer himself in the right direction.

Miles Tick By

In the recording of Aikins’ dive, the network placed an altimeter to show how quickly he was descending. Without the help of a parachute, Aikins could expect to reach a speed of 150 miles per hour, better known as maximum velocity. From afar, the commentator explained that though he was still far from his target, Aikins was doing some practice rolls in order to prepare to land on his back when he ultimately made contact with the waiting net.

Breath Of Fresh Air

It seems like only seconds have passed when all four divers open their arms and legs in order to slow their descent just a little bit. At 18,000 feet, Aikins hands off his oxygen tank, as he is no longer reliant on it to breathe safely. A team member grabs it, hurdling ever closer towards the ground. For those watching at home, the camera shows them views from the air, making it clear just how high up the men are.

Streak In The Sky

Halfway through his descent, Aikins is alerted by a signal telling him he’s hit the halfway point. Depending on the view, it can be difficult to see just how fast 150 miles per hour is for a man, but the long shot as broadcast offered some perspective. The audience below sat captivated, watching the scene unfold around them. Among the onlookers was Aikins’ wife, also an avid skydiver, praying that his GPS steers him right to his mark.

Bird’s Eye View

The camera suddenly switches from focusing on Aikins to showing the view from his helmet. By the time the altimeter hits 7,000 feet, the net has finally come into view, its 200 square feet dwarfed by the distance. It’s time for the rest of Aikins’ team to open their parachutes, leaving Aikins on his own for the last several thousand feet of the plunge. The difference is striking as the wind catches in the chutes, leaving Aikins the sole figure hurdling towards the earth.

Rushing Towards The Earth

“Luke is on his own!” shouts the announcer over the TV! Moments later, the crowd on the ground can actually see Aikins coming into view, the force of the displaced air below him washing through the net that is ready to catch him. On screen, viewers wave goodbye to the altimeter, as Aikins speeds towards the net he placed. In a few short moments, it will be clear whether or not the stunt worked. Aikins gives a final shot from his helmet cam.

Turned On Its Head

With the crowd watching breathlessly, Aikins does his final flip. Seconds later, the announcer shouts,”He’s in!” amidst the cheers of the onlookers celebrating Aikins safe landing. The net is lowered to the ground, after which a team of paramedics rushes over to make sure he didn’t sustain any injuries. Though he had been shooting for dead center, Aikins ended up slightly off to the side of the net. With his feet on solid ground once more, Aikins takes a triumphant pose.

Earning His Wings

The final shot of the live stream that documented Aikins’ two-minute descent, sans parachute from 25,000 feet in the air, is Aikins embracing his wife. Without her approval, he never would have attempted the jump, but given its success, he could check another world record off of his list. Shortly after the event, the video footage was posted to YouTube, where more than two million people have relived Aikins dive. The success of the stunt just makes us wonder what he could be planning next.

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