Without A Parachute—Luke Aikins Dares The Impossible And Succeeds
When Luke Aikins jumped from 25,000 feet without a parachute on July 30 and landed safely, it put him in the company of those who achieved other epic breakthroughs in skydiving—Joseph Kittinger leaping from 102,800 feet, Felix Baumgartner breaking the sound barrier, Gary Connery landing a wingsuit—with one caveat: Aikins’ jump wasn’t technically a skydive. Skydiving is the act of jumping from an aircraft with a parachute (the “P” in USPA), which of course Aikins didn’t have. Still, skydiving made it possible.
A few years ago, Chris Talley of Precision Food Works approached Aikins to consider a no-parachute jump for the Amusement Park Entertainment ad agency. Talley’s idea was for the jumper to land on a giant slide with a standard jumpsuit. After laughing out loud, Aikins’ response was, “Thanks, but no thanks. I have a wife and son; if you want, I can help you find another guy.” But then he lay awake at night thinking about how to test a no-parachute jump to prove it could be done safely. He came up with the idea of suspending a large net from cranes, using air pistons for gentle braking. He discussed the concept with his wife Monica, also an accomplished skydiver with more than 2,000 jumps. She was OK with it as long as it proved to be technically sound.
Aikins is a third-generation skydiver with more than 18,000 jumps who practically grew up at Skydive Kapowsin, his aunt and uncle Jessie and Geoff Farrington’s DZ now in nearby Shelton, Washington. He is a USPA AFF Instructor Examiner and Safety and Training Advisor, provides advanced canopy training for the military and civilians with his company, Para Tactics, and is a member of the Red Bull Air Force. He has worked on numerous stunts for major movie productions and on big projects such as Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos high-altitude world record jump.
Aikins sent a sketch of his idea to John Wells, an engineer friend from the Stratos jump; Jeff Habberstad, an experienced skydiver and stunt coordinator for the movie Iron Man III; and Jim Churchman, a world-renowned stunt rigger. Together they made a few modifications and concluded it looked feasible.
Eventually, Stride Gum and the FOX TV network showed enough interest and provided the sponsorship to make it a reality. Two separate teams—Aikins, Habberstad and Churchman on one, and Talley and John Cruikshank on the other—worked on many ideas with the same goal: to keep Aikins safe. Aikins had what he wanted: a true flight-test program and not just a Hollywood stunt. Preliminary calculations showed that with the correct setup, the jumper on average would experience a modest gravitational force (g force) of 2.4. For comparison, astronauts experience 3 gs of acceleration during rocket launches and Formula One racecar drivers up to 5 gs while braking and cornering.
Planes landing on aircraft carriers use a Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System for their landings. Various commercial and military flights use a similar system, Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPI), built by Laser Guidance Inc. in Washington State. Aikins purchased eight PAPI systems and pointed them straight up to make a basic instrument landing system. Initially, he placed one unit on each of the four sides of the 100-by-100-foot net and the other four around a 250-by-250-foot area outside the net. In this system, each light is independent. Aikins saw a white light when inside the virtual box. When he flew out of the box, the light on that side turned red. He would then fly back in to make it white again.
As Aikins improved his performance during test jumps, he realized the 250-by-250-foot box was too large. Subsequently, Aikins moved the outer PAPI lights to the center of the 100-by-100 box in a 28-by-28-foot box. He then discovered it was difficult to stay in the 100-by-100 box, but the information from the inner box told him how best to make directional corrections. Aikins and his wife agreed that if he could stay in the outer box 75 times he would proceed with the real jump. Aikins performed 82 practice jumps in a row, staying inside the box before opening his parachute on every single one of them!
In addition to the optical system, Aikins used an audible FlySight GPS system for horizontal speed indication. FlySight developer Michael Cooper made a special position-hold program for Aikins that beeped when he was inside the 100-by-100 box. It beeped most quickly at the center and slowed down as Aikins drifted away. It also announced the absolute horizontal ground speed every three seconds. (Aikins says that we generally think we’re falling straight down in freefall, when in reality we are traveling with the air mass as much as 20 mph horizontally.)
Julio Ruiz of Liquid Sky Suits built four different suits for Aikins to try. Aikins chose the baggier suit, which was 12 mph slower than the tightest suit and left him room to comfortably accommodate a spine protector similar to what mountain bikers wear. A neck brace completed the safety items.
Aikins and Churchman approached Dave Singer at the netting supplier Incord, and the company built a net for a half-scale test. Initially they thought the sag in the net was a problem and countered it with a large helium balloon. However, drop tests on the balloon system using a weighted dummy revealed higher g-force loadings on initial contact, in addition to potential problems with wind exposure, so the helium balloon was scrapped. Further tests without the balloon worked better than expected.
NetSystems Inc. built the actual net, which weighed about 600 pounds. Churchman conceived the perfect plan to stretch the net—held in place by two sets of 3-ring releases—between four cranes at a height of 150 feet. The 3-rings needed to release at precisely the right moment—one second before touch down—to provide the correct amount of give. Too soon and there would be too much give; too late and there would not be enough. Nick Brandon, an expert stuntman with experience in timing systems, had control of the release button. Highly experienced skydiver Travis Fienhage was the spotter, and Aikins and his in-air crew wore smoke to be more visible. Stationed on the ground, Brandon and Fienhage utilized Aikins’ fall-rate information to make the net release spot-on.
Once initial testing proved the jump feasible, Aikins and friend Aaron Fitzgerald, the aerial coordinator for the project, met with Federal Aviation Administration officials in Van Nuys, California. At first, the officials scratched their heads, as the Federal Aviation Regulations for skydiving do not specifically address not wearing a parachute. The FAA considers a stunt where one person leaves the plane without a rig as a skydive once the person hooks onto another jumper or a parachute in mid-air. The FAA does not consider dropping an object such as a washing machine or a car a skydive but allows it in certain locations if the droppers take reasonable precautions. From a legal standpoint, the question was, “Is a person without a parachute an object?” After the FAA further discussed the problem at its office in Washington, D.C., the agency approved the jump as long as nobody else was endangered and the onsite participants attended an FAA briefing.
Aikins then planned for a series of practice jumps at USPA Group Member DZ Skydive Kapowsin, which to be effective required very low (1,000-foot AGL) deployment altitudes. To maintain his standing with USPA (Aikins is the USPA Northwest Regional Director), he needed to address the USPA Basic Safety Requirement that dictates a 2,500-foot opening altitude. After he made a presentation at the winter 2016 USPA Board meeting, the board gave Aikins a waiver for 300 practice jumps with a 1,000-foot opening altitude. Aikins said, “USPA gave me the ability to safely train with a clear mind.” Eventually, Aikins performed 280 practice jumps, which allowed him to separately test the various pieces of equipment multiple times.
It soon became time to choose a location for the final jump. The site needed to be in low-traffic airspace yet within a reasonable proximity to a town to accommodate the media. A crane operator suggested the Big Sky Movie Ranch, famous as the setting of the “Little House on the Prairie” TV program. Aikins made 25 jumps—most from 13,000 feet and two from 25,000 feet—at Big Sky. He made a number with a blood oxygen meter and was surprised to learn that for a normal 13,000-foot jump his oxygen level hovered around 88 percent but on the 25,000-foot jumps with supplemental oxygen, it was 99 percent. The decision to jump from 25,000 feet came about more for showmanship than technical reasons. When Amusement Park Entertainment was searching for an audience and sponsorship, it sold the story for drama, stating that 25,000 feet is an altitude where commercial airlines fly. Having jumped from more than 30,000 feet numerous times, Aikins willingly accepted and in the end was very happy with the 25,000-foot exit altitude.
The Final Jump
With his wife Monica and 4-year-old son Logan in attendance, the big day arrived for the big jump. Aikins chose to jump with his Red Bull Air Force teammates Jon DeVore and Jeff Provenzano, who wore live-transmitting GoPro cameras that televised the jump on the FOX TV special “Stride Gum Presents Heaven Sent.” Aikins’ cousin and Red Bull teammate, Andy Farrington, also jumped and relieved Aikins of his oxygen bailout bottle and mask in midair.
After the four jumpers boarded the Cessna Grand Caravan, Aikins was wearing a rig due to last-minute concerns from the Screen Actors Guild. However, SAG soon withdrew its objections to the rigless jump, the ground crew radioed this news to Aikins and he removed the rig. He was surprised to find that without his rig to lean against, he had to twist and turn sideways to get comfortable in the plane. When the plane reached altitude, Aikins approached the door holding his bailout bottle. As he stuck his head outside, he couldn’t see the net, but he could see the general landing area and jumped. During freefall, Aikins steered toward the net and made flight adjustments according to his visual and audible signals. Once he acquired the target, the outside PAPI lights stayed in the white the entire time.
At about 300 feet above the net, Aikins barrel rolled onto his back. This was necessary because as the net deformed, his body would naturally bend with it at the waist. He let out a euphoric scream in the net but admits that he was mentally and physically tense. Aikins said, “The landing did not knock the wind out of me. It was actually rather soft. I’ve had [parachute] openings that were much harder than that.”
Upon reflecting on the project and the experience of a lifetime, Aikins admits philosophically, “I’m not a leap-of-faith kind of guy. Before I tackle something like this, I need to prove beyond a doubt it will work. I wanted to show the world that things that seem impossible can be approached from a scientific and engineering standpoint and not just be some crazy guy who doesn’t care.”
About the Author
Hal Streckert, C-35945, is from Rancho Santa Fe, California. He is a recently retired scientist and a frequent contributor to Parachutist. As a weekend fun jumper, he has logged more than 540 jumps in the U.S. and six other countries: Australia, Germany, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand and Uruguay.