It is late July, and a small plane is flying over Simi Valley in California. Then, suddenly, there’s a flurry of motion at the plane’s open doors, and in the next moment, four skydivers are out and dropping 25,000 feet from the ground. What’s more, Luke Aikins, one of the free-falling foursome, is not wearing a parachute.
Born in 1973 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Aikins has enjoyed an exciting career as a skydiver. Aikins has been hurling himself out of planes for more than 30 years, going solo for the first time at the age of 16. And he’s done it thousands of times, often as a competitor or performer.
On top of his personal exploits as a skydiver, he teaches and encourages others. In that respect, he tutors military personnel and civilians both. But he doesn’t just share knowledge, he also works to increase it – helping to study and test designs and techniques. And if all that wasn’t enough, he’s turned his hand to shooting pictures from the air, too.
Aikins assisted fellow daredevil Felix Baumgartner with his jump from the edge of space in 2012, and he’s even helped with movie stunts for Iron Man 3 and Godzilla. With all that going on in his life, it’s amazing that he’s found time to be a husband and a father, enjoying family life in Washington, near the city of Tacoma.
As a family man, it’s perhaps surprising that Aikins ever agreed to jump out of a plane with no parachute. Indeed, he told People magazine in 2016 – before the jump – that his first reaction had not been at all positive. He recounted, “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.’”
However, once the idea was in his mind, he couldn’t stop wondering about the logistics. He told People, “Then, two weeks went by 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?”
With no further hesitation, Aikins started looking into how the jump could be achieved. After weeks of discussion with physics boffins, he concluded that it was feasible. Then when his wife Monica, herself a skydiver, gave the daring proposal her blessing, suddenly it was all systems go.
As it happens, other people have skydived without a parachute before. However, they’ve all either had someone who got hold of them so that they could double up, or they’d donned a chute after leaving the plane. None of them had done what Aikins planned – flinging himself 25,000 feet into a net.
Of course, Aikins didn’t just go up in a plane and dive out. No, to prepare for the stunt, he gathered a team of helpers, some of whom put together the net he fervently hoped would catch him. To test it, they had dropped dummies into it – and you’d imagine that our hero tried not to think about the one that had gone right through the webbing.
Finally, after more than six months, Aikins was ready for the big jump – or as ready as anyone can be to freefall chuteless at up to 150mph. This frightening figure was roughly the speed Aikins could expect to reach. It represented an equilibrium between air resistance and gravitational acceleration unhelpfully known as “terminal velocity”.
To raise the stakes still higher, Aikins planned to carry out this incredible stunt in front of a live TV audience. The death-defying leap was broadcast on the Fox Network on July 31, 2016 – with Atkins and fellow skydivers geared up with TV equipment to share the experience. Naturally, the footage was shown with a short delay – there was, after all, a fair chance that people could be sharing in Aikins’ last moments.
And indeed, video of the jump captures the thrill as four small figures drop from the plane – Aikins with three supporting skydivers, carrying equipment. No sooner are they out than the shot switches, and they can be seen from above. Below them, the ground looks very far away – hills are mere ripples. And there is no sign of a net.
As an altimeter clicks down on the left-hand side of the video, the commentator tells watchers that Aikins is practising rolling over. Because, it turns out, he is going to have to land facing upwards at the end of his nerve-shredding fall. Meanwhile, his three fellow jumpers have deployed smoke trails so that the group can be spotted more easily from the ground.
As the divers splay their limbs to increase air resistance and help slow their descent, the commentator explains that Aikins will ditch his oxygen supply at 18,000 feet. Above that level, the air is so thin that it poses a serious danger to health. One of the team is primed to snare it and bring it back to earth safely.
As the view switches to a longer-range look at the skydivers, it’s clear how fast they are moving. A caption tells us that it’s 150mph – and the team truly screams across the sky. Then Aikins jettisons his oxygen, and we learn from the commentary that at 12,000 feet a signal will let him know he’s halfway to the ground.
Again we see Aikins and his crew streaming smoke into the sky. As they reach 7,000 feet, vision from “Luke Cam” – the camera Aikins has in his helmet – shows the 100-foot-square net far below. Then the people on the ground cheer as Aikins’ team deploy their parachutes.
The commentator’s voice rings out, “Luke is on his own,” while the video shows just that. A lonely figure is plunging towards the ground – and the altimeter is ticking over very quickly now. Through the Luke Cam, the view of the net wavers as the force of the rushing air buffets the daredevil jumper.
The crowd on the ground can now see Aikins as he plunges towards them, and the altimeter has vanished. The Luke Cam gives one last view of the net – it still looks small. Aikins suddenly flips onto his back, and no sooner has he done it than his fate becomes clear.
To a massive roar from the crowd, and the excited cry of “he’s in” from the commentator, Aikins smashes back first safely into the net, though slightly off-center. Medical staff run to check him over as he lies prone. The webbing is lowered to the ground, and finally Aikins stands and raises his arms in triumph.
Not only was Aikins’ two-minute jump shown on TV, but the video was uploaded to YouTube. There, more than two million people have since watched Aikins fall 25,000 feet with no parachute. And the last thing that the video shows is Aikins hugging his wife, none the worse for his daredevil plunge.