“‘It’s not for me.’”
To be fair, that’s how 99.9999% of humans would respond to someone asking them if they’d like to jump out of a plane, traveling at 25,000 feet. With no parachute. And no wingsuit.
Yet, two years after the idea was first broached to him, that’s exactly what Luke Aikins will do on Saturday as part of FOX’s live “Stride Gum Presents Heaven Sent” event.
It’s there that Aikins will look to join a succession of escalating televised shows of athletic daring that has its DNA in the Evel Kneivel jumps of the ’60s and ’70s and that has continued through another massive televised event like Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 Red Bull Stratos dive. Aikins worked with Baumgartner as part of the training staff that prepared him to jump from the outer limits of space, nearly 25 miles from orbit to landing on Earth.
“I’ve had key roles in history-making events, but for this to be one that I get to do, I’m really excited to show the world a different way to approach something,” Aikins told IndieWire recently, with a huge grin. We’re at the iFly Hollywood Indoor Skydiving center at Universal Studios’ CityWalk, where he’s just demonstrated some of the technique that he’ll use during the nearly five mile drop to the ground.
In addition to the ones that he’s been a part of, Aikins is also well-versed in the recent incremental one-ups of recent dangerous dives. “Gary Connery did that in Europe, where he landed in a cardboard box with a wingsuit,” Aikins said, as if that accomplishment carries the relative difficulty of ordering pad thai from your phone.
Makes sense for a man who’s devoted much of his adult life not just to skydiving, but to regularly seeing the world from unusual heights. Aikins is a licensed commercial and helicopter pilot who grew up in a family a jumpers. The skydiving school that his grandfather began is still a family operation, one that’s helped him accrue over 18,000 lifetime jumps.
That’s the résumé that Jimmy Smith knew when he and his “Stride Gum Heaven Sent” co-creator Chris Talley first reached out to Aikins in March 2014. Smith wasn’t fazed by Aikins’ initial pass. In fact, if Aikins had accepted instantly, Smith says that might have been the biggest red flag. “If what you’re being asked to do has never been done before in history, you better think about that,” Smith said. “We want that guy who, as best we can go without being God, they’re going to hit it 100 out 100 times.”
“It” is the contraption that will save Aikins’ life, a 100-foot-by-100-foot, net-like set-up that Aikins calls “The Device.” If it sounds like he’s landing himself the way a captain would steer a plane towards a safe landing, that’s by design. The Device uses the same kind of runway lights, a simple visual cue borrowed from his time in a cockpit that will be able to let him know when he’s veering off course and when he’s hovering above his target.
Falling from 25,000 feet onto a surface not much bigger than a baseball diamond would be an incredible feat in itself, but over the six months of specialized preparation for this jump, Aikins has shrunk the target landing point and is now dropping consistently onto a 30-foot-by-30-foot area. To put that in perspective, the width of Aikins’ landing zone is only a few inches wider than Bob Beamon’s record long jump at the 1968 Olympics. So theoretically, during the final seconds of Aikins’ fall, if you took a running leap from the edge of his target area, he can guarantee he’d be within high-fiving distance by the time both of you hit the ground. And that’s after falling from the height of the average Himalayan mountain.
There will be no shortage of people to celebrate with Aikins if he makes a successful landing. A small crew of cameramen will make the jump as well, following Aikins until they have to deploy their parachutes they’ll be wearing. Aikins will also have an onboard camera in his helmet, the perfect docking place for a jumper’s-eye view of free fall.
Smith says they also plan to capture the experience on a Samsung 360 camera. You could make the argument that Aikins’ jump is the purest embodiment yet of a generation planning its entertainment around virtual reality. One of the unspoken promises of emerging VR technology is the ability to transport extraordinary experiences to a living room, to explore and to engage with impossible scenarios, all while wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
Aikins will live out that dream up in the elements, and it’ll happen quicker than you’d think. “It’s only going to take him two minutes to get down, but it’s gonna seem like forever,” Smith said. “My wife said, ‘I’m not gonna watch.’”
Aikins’ wife, Monica, however, will be there in Simi Valley for the jump and will be a vital part of the televised program leading up to it. (She’s a skydiver, too.) Aside from a glimpse inside Aikins’ extensive training regimen, Smith wanted to focus on Monica and their young son, too. Referencing the Wide World of Sports spectacles of yore, Smith explained, “You never really saw Evel’s family.”
Family was another reason that Aikins initially declined during that first call over two years ago. But after running through an extensive checklist with Monica, he accepted the challenge. And then the waiting came. The rest of 2014 went with no definitive signal, as did much of last year. A few false starts later, Stride Gum’s parent company Mondelēz International stepped in as the primary sponsor back in January, sending Aikins into full preparation mode.
It’s a team that includes noted sports psychologist Michael Gervais, who’s helped Aikins deal with the understandable nerves that come from doing something that no one has successfully completed before. As a Hollywood stuntman, in addition to his flight training, Aikins’ always had to brace for the possibility of things not going according to plan. “When you jump out in emergency situations, I don’t think about anything but what you have to do to make sure you’re going to be OK. In this case, there’s such a buildup. It’s not an emergency situation. So you gotta push some of that stuff away,” Aikins said.
The point at which Aikins’ been deploying his parachute during test jumps, with just 1,000 feet to go before landing is pushing the limit. He mentions the murmurs that the FAA was going to force him to wear a backup parachute. But he explains that, if it somehow got to that point, it wouldn’t make a difference. Once that 1,000 foot limit gets crossed, parachutes don’t really do much. For “Heaven Sent,” the emphasis isn’t on what’s on his back — it’s what his back will hit to cushion his fall. Aikins has worked with John Cruikshank to help make The Device a workable solution to the challenge. And just as Aikins has been going through his target jumps (“Need to be 75 out of 75 to do it on the day”), The Device has gone through a rigorous test as well.
“We’ve been dropping dummies that are equal to my weight in surface area. We drop those into the net and the G-forces they experience, working up to where it’s almost as fast as I’ll be going when I land. Four and a half to five Gs, which is pretty mellow. It sounds like a lot, but if you were to hop off this chair,” he said, gesturing to my seat at general barstool height (if he hadn’t followed his skydiving calling, Aikins would’ve been the coolest middle-school teacher), “you would probably experience eight or nine for a millisecond. Maybe even more than that. This whole thing’s going to happen 120 miles an hour to 0 in roughly a second and a half. 1.7 seconds.”
As we watched Aikins in the iFly tunnel, cycling through various fall positions (one that has him in a seated position, one that demonstrates the barrel roll tuck maneuver he’ll use on Saturday), a crowd began to gather among the CityWalk passersby. The tunnel is clear and transparent, giving everyone outside the view of Aikins’ acrobatics. But even while navigating the twists and turns while the blasts of air, Aikins picked out the young people in the crowd, gauging their reactions to his expert flips.
Aikins may be uniquely qualified for this spectacle simply because he’s a natural ambassador for the sport. (He is on the board of directors for the United States Parachute Association, after all.) If the small children staring mouth agape at Aikins’ display are any indication, you can imagine this jump sending youngsters to skydiving in the same way that a record-setting playoff performance can inspire neighborhoods of kids to get out in their driveway and start shooting baskets. Aikins hopes to bring visibility to an athletic endeavor and a scientific pursuit he’s devoted much of his life to.
“When I was little, I saw a picture of Joe Kittinger, who jumped from the edge of space back in 1960,” Aikins said. “I hope this just sparks imagination and that kids see the science behind it. That science project we all did in eighth grade, I get to do it on a massive scale, with other people helping to make it happen.”
Baumgartner quickly disappearing out of the Stratos capsule became an iconic visual moment, one that defined the enormity of the feat (and launched him into the GIF Hall of Fame). Smith and his team have run through scenarios as rigidly as Aikins has, but it’s hard to predict what moment from “Heaven Sent” will catch the public imagination. “Is it when he’s at 15,000 feet and he’s seeing how he’s getting down? Is there a shot where we can get his wife looking up and you can see him and his wife at the same time? I don’t know. But we’ll have more cameras than hairs on my head,” Smith said.
Come August 1, Aikins plans to be onto other projects, helping to push what’s possible with a plane, some raw materials and a desire to explore. But isn’t there a tiny desire to chase this same thrill again, to jump chute-less away from the cameras and the audience and the pressure?
“No way,” Aikins said with another one of those confident smiles. “You stick it one time and then you walk away.”
“Stride Gum Presents Heaven Sent” will air live on FOX at 8 pm ET.