Like most people, professional skydiver Luke Aikins once laughed at the thought of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. But that's exactly what he did on Saturday, setting a world record as he safely landed after a 25,000-foot fall.
In a televised stunt called "Heaven Sent," Mr. Aikins jumped out of a plane over the California desert, free-falling for two minutes before landing in a 10,000-square-foot net. The only equipment he had on his body was a GPS, a camera, a communications device, and an oxygen mask, which he removed and handed off to parachuted assistants at around 18,000 feet.
The event was the culmination of two years of training, preceded by a period of initial reluctance after the idea was first suggested, said Aikins, who has completed more than 18,000 skydives since he was a teenager.
"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,'" he told People Magazine. "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?'"
To find out whether such a feat could even be accomplished in the first place, he spent weeks consulting with engineers, who confirmed that it would be possible.
Using a GPS and four lights to align himself with the center of the net, known as the "Fly Trap," Aikins spent most of the fall facedown with his arms extended before flipping over onto his back a mere second before landing.
While physics and experience worked in Aikins' favor, the net itself also played a key role in the stunt's success. The "Fly Trap" was constructed from Spectra, "a high-density polyethylene cord that is twice as strong as steel, but also completely inelastic," wrote Andrew Bisharat for National Geographic prior to the jump. "Once Aikins’ plummeting mass strikes the net, four compressed air cylinders, which are connected to the netting via ropes and pulleys, will slow Aikins down down in the same way that you might catch an egg in your hand—by decelerating it gently over a distance."
After years of careful preparation, the event was almost complicated by a "do not work" order from SAG-Aftra, the screen actors' union, which barred its members from participating in the televised event unless Aikins agreed to wear a parachute just in case of emergency. Aikins reluctantly agreed, as he told the cameras on Saturday that the added weight of a parachute would increase the force of the impact and make the jump more dangerous.
But as the airplane approached the dive's start point, minutes before the jump, the union called off the order and Aikins was permitted to remove the parachute, making the stunt simultaneously safer and more exciting.
Since the 1940s, about 13 people have survived freefalls from great heights, including one World War II pilot who fell 20,000 feet from a B-17 and crashed into a train station, where debris cushioned his fall, Gizmodo reports. Aikins was the first to attempt – and survive – a freefall from as high as 25,000 feet, however.
Though Aikins strongly cautions less-experienced skydivers not to try his feat at home, he does have some advice for anyone who may find themselves accidentally falling through the air without the proper equipment.
"If you're pushed out of a plane with no parachute, all I can say is try to find something soft," he told People.