Skydiver Luke Aikins jumps from a helicopter during his training in Simi Valley, Calif.(AP)
Skydiver Luke Aikins jumps from a helicopter during his training in Simi Valley, Calif.(AP)

He’s a skydiver working with a net, but no parachute

He’s made 18,000 parachute jumps, helped train some of the world’s most elite skydivers, done some of the stunts for “Ironman 3”. But the plunge Luke Aikins knows he’ll be remembered for is the one he’s making without a parachute. Or a wingsuit.
By AP, Simi Valley, Calif
PUBLISHED ON JUL 28, 2016 07:07 PM IST

He’s made 18,000 parachute jumps, helped train some of the world’s most elite skydivers, done some of the stunts for “Ironman 3”. But the plunge Luke Aikins knows he’ll be remembered for is the one he’s making without a parachute. Or a wingsuit.

Or anything, really, other than the clothes he’ll be wearing when he jumps out of an airplane at 25,000 feet this weekend, attempting to become the first person to land safely on the ground in a net.

The Fox network will broadcast the two-minute jump live at 8pm EDT Saturday (5:30am IST Friday) as part of an hour-long TV special called “Heaven Sent”.

And, no, you don’t have to tell Aikins it sounds crazy. He knows that.

He said as much to his wife after a couple Hollywood guys looking to create the all-time-greatest reality TV stunt floated the idea by him a couple years ago.

Skydiver Luke Aikins smiles as he jumps from a helicopter during his training in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)
Skydiver Luke Aikins smiles as he jumps from a helicopter during his training in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

“I said, ‘You won’t believe these guys,’” the affable skydiver recalls with a robust laugh. “‘They want me to jump out without a parachute.’ She said, ‘Oh, with a wingsuit.’ I said, ‘No, they want me to do it with nothing.’ We both had a good laugh about that.”

But in the weeks that followed he couldn’t shake one persistent thought: Could anybody actually do this and live to tell the tale?

Because if anyone could, Aikins wanted to be that guy.

After all, the 42-year-old daredevil has practically lived his life in the sky. He made his first tandem jump when he was 12, following with his first solo leap four years later. He’s been racking them up at about 800 a year ever since.

He took his wife, Monica, on her first jump when they were dating and she’s up to 2,000 now. The couple lives with a 4-year-old son, Logan, in Washington, where Aikins’ family owns Skydive Kapowsin near Tacoma.

Over the years Aikins has taught skydiving, taught others to teach skydiving, even participated in world-record stacking events, those exercises where skydivers line up atop one another as they fly their open chutes across the sky.

He tells of having his chute tangle with others on a couple of those efforts and having to come down under his reserve parachute. In all, he’s used his reserve 30 times, not a bad number for 18,000 jumps.

This time, though, he won’t have any parachute.

“If I wasn’t nervous I would be stupid,” the compact, muscular athlete says with a grin as he sits under a canopy near Saturday’s drop zone.

“We’re talking about jumping without a parachute, and I take that very seriously. It’s not a joke,” he adds.

Nearby, a pair of huge cranes defines the boundaries where the net in which Aikins expects to land is being erected. It will be about one-third the size of a football field and 20 stories high, providing enough space to cushion his fall, he says, without allowing him to bounce out of it. The landing target, which has been described as similar to a fishing trawler net, has been tested repeatedly using dummies.

One of those 91kg dummies didn’t bounce out. It crashed right through.

“That was not a good thing to see,” recalled Jimmy Smith, the veteran Hollywood public relations man who, with his partner Bobby Ware, came up with the idea of having someone skydive without a parachute.

Skydiver Luke Aikins prepares his parachute during his training in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)
Skydiver Luke Aikins prepares his parachute during his training in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP)

Chris Talley, who had worked with Aikins on other projects and helped train him for this one, recommended the skydiver to the two Amusement Park Entertainment executives. He told them Aikins was arguably the only guy not only good enough but also smart enough and careful enough to survive this.

Smith recalled how the three men gazed at each other with a look of foreboding after that dummy crashed through the net. Then they looked over at Aikins.

“Luke just said, ‘No biggie, that’s why we test.’”

Fox has had little to say about the stunt other than it will be broadcast on a tape delay, as is the case with all its live broadcasts, says network spokesman Les Eisner. It contains a warning not to try this at home.

That would seemingly be difficult, as Smith and Ware had to scour a good part of the world, from Arizona Indian land to Dubai real estate, before they found what everyone agreed was the best place for Aikins to land.

He’ll come down in a dry, dusty, desolate-looking section of an old movie ranch north of Los Angeles where not that long ago Shia LaBeouf was battling “Transformers”.

The drop zone, surrounded by rolling hills, presents some challenges, Aikins said, noting he’ll be constantly fighting shifting winds as he falls 193 kph.

Other skydivers have jumped from planes without parachutes and had someone hand them one in midair. But Aikins won’t even have that.

Why?

“To me, I’m proving that we can do stuff that we don’t think we can do if we approach it the right way,” he answers.

“I’ve got 18,000 jumps with a parachute, so why not wear one this time?” he muses almost to himself. “But I’m trying to show that it can be done.”

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