It’s the sort of scenario that normally ends with a hypnic jerk – the sensation of falling as you wake up from a dream in a cold sweat – except this time there were no pillows or bedcovers to provide reassurance. Instead, all that 42-year-old American Luke Aikins had to cushion his return to Earth was an enormous net made of plastic fibers, which he plunged into from a height of 7,620 meters (25,000 feet) after jumping out of a plane with no parachute.
With more than 18,000 previous jumps under his belt, Aikins decided two years ago that the time had come to raise the stakes, and began training for the highest ever parachute-less freefall. Finally performing the stunt in Simi Valley, California, in front of a live audience – including his wife and son – Aikins plopped into the record books at a spine-tingling speed of 193 kilometers per hour (120 mph).
Accompanied by three support crew – all of whom wore parachutes – Aikins used an oxygen tank for the first 3,050 meters (10,000 feet) of his descent, before handing this off to one of his escorts. Reaching terminal velocity in a matter of seconds, the daredevil belly flopped face down, towards the ground, using a GPS tracker to align himself with the center of a 30-by-30 meter (100-by-100-foot) net made of inelastic yet incredibly strong polyethylene cord.
In the final stages of his freefall, Aikins rolled over to face the sky, tucked his chin into his chest, and waited for the feeling of something solid against his back. Suspended by four enormous cranes, the net then gently dropped as soon as Aikins made contact with it, in order to break his fall by slowly decelerating him.
Though stunts like this obviously carry a huge potential for disaster to strike, Aikins’ explained in a Facebook post that his meticulous preparation ensured that by the time it came to jump day, there was “nothing but net” breaking his landing.
Yet in spite of all his hard work in the two years leading up to the event, the organizers weren’t quite so confident in his ability to pull it off, with the Screen Actors Guild insisting that he wear a parachute, just in case. However, this extra weight would have significantly increased the risk factor, leading to this requirement being lifted in the final minutes before take-off.