Kids, don’t try this at home: Veteran skydiver Luke Aikins made an amazing injury-free landing without a parachute on national television Saturday night – thanks to decades of experience, two years of planning, a bouncy 100-by-100-foot net, and the realities of aerodynamics.
The 42-year-old Aikins leaped out of an airplane at 25,000 feet, maneuvered himself in midair during his two-minute descent to head for the target zone set up at the Big Sky movie ranch in California’s Simi Valley, and flipped over at the last second to slam into the net at about 120 mph.
When the net was lowered, Aikins raised his arms in triumph and hugged his wife and other well-wishers. “I’m almost levitating. It’s incredible!” The Associated Press quoted him as saying.
The whole thing was broadcast live for “Heaven Sent,” a special that aired on the Fox network. The stunt made Aikins the first skydiver to leap from so high and land safely without a parachute or wingsuit.
Aikins’ family owns Skydive Kapowsin in Shelton, Wash. He made his first tandem jump when he was 12 years old, and has been doing it solo since his teens. Today he has 18,000 jumps under his belt, and he’s done stunt work for “Iron Man 3” and “Godzilla.” He’s also a safety and training adviser for the United States Parachute Association.
The parachute-less project was conceived two years ago, in the wake of a string of record-setting, parachute-assisted jumps from more than 125,000 feet.
Those stratospheric jumps – by Felix Baumgartner in 2012 and Alan Eustace in 2014 – involved free-falls at supersonic speeds that had to be reduced by specially designed parachutes. In contrast, Aikins’ velocity hit a maximum of about 120 mph, thanks to the braking effect of the atmosphere at lower altitudes.
Even though Earth’s gravity works to accelerate objects at a rate of 32 feet per second squared, air resistance serves as a speed limit for falling objects. The speed limit, known as terminal velocity, tends to be lower for objects with a large cross-sectional area relative to weight (like a feather) and higher for objects with less drag proportional to weight (like a bombshell).
Terminal velocity is also dependent on atmospheric density. At high altitudes, where the air is thin, a skydiver’s terminal velocity is supersonic. But when that skydiver descends into denser atmosphere, air resistance results in a slowdown – plus friction, which could be a killer for someone falling from the stratosphere without a chute.
The aerodynamics behind terminal velocity worked in Aikins’ favor, but that alone wouldn’t have saved him: Many skydivers have died when their chutes failed to open or collapsed during descent. A skydiver was killed last month at Snohomish County’s Harvey Field in just such a scenario.
It took the cushioning action of a reinforced net, plus Aikins’ last-second maneuver to take the brunt of the impact on his curved back, to bring Saturday night’s show to a happy ending.