If you think Luke Aikins has a screw loose, you wouldn’t be alone.
But perhaps that knee-jerk reaction isn’t fair. Perhaps the screw is supposed to be loose. And maybe years of testing and research went into getting it perfectly calibrated.
That’s how the 42-year-old Shelton man would like more people to think about the project that dropped him into the worldwide spotlight.
On July 30, Aikins stepped out of an airplane at 25,000 feet over Simi Valley, California. Without a parachute.
He was aiming for a 100-by-100-foot net. With cameras broadcasting the 2-minute freefall to a worldwide audience, Aikins hit his target.
“Yes, it was a crazy thing that I did, but I don’t think that I’m a crazy person,” Aikins said. “I think it came across the way I wanted it to. There was a lot of science and math. It was a giant science experiment.”It took Aikins 1 1/2 months to agree to do the jump and another 20 months to prepare.
“It’s been quite a year now that I sit back and think about,” Aikins said.
Now that things have slowed down a bit, Aikins took a few minutes to field some questions about his high-stakes science project.
Q: What goes into convincing people that this is a thoughtful project and not just a stunt?
A: I work with Red Bull a lot. I worked on Red Bull Stratos where Felix Baumgartern jumped from the edge of space and broke the speed of sound. I was the lead on the skydiving side. I trained Felix. I designed the equipment, and I really watched how that project was approached. Every other thing that I’ve done in my skydiving career has been “Yee haw! Whoo Hoo! Let’s do this!” But that Stratos project, we had the Air Force involved, NASA. That was more of a flight test program.
We did it in baby steps. It took four years, and we worked our way up to it. On the day of, Felix had to man up and go do the jump, but we were very, very confident that everything was going to work. There was nothing unknown to us.
I took that same approach with this project. I really wanted to show the science of what we were doing and how we were testing.
I think it is always a little bit of a battle between the athlete who is doing the project and the people who are funding the project. We are not independently wealthy, so the athletes usually can’t fund the projects ourselves. And if we do we have to cut corners. I was really fortunate that Stride Gum came along for this one. They stepped up and gave me the backing and the patience to do it correctly.
Q: How did the idea come about?
A: I got a call about the project. They had an idea of landing on a giant slide. I actually turned it down. I have a wife and a son, and I plan on being around for a long time. I said I’d love to help, but it’s not for me. But I started thinking about it, and my wife and I talked a lot. She said, if you do it the way you think it should be done we could do it.
That’s when I came up with the net idea, and I found the right guys to put the system together.
Q: Why didn’t you like the giant slide idea?
A: I couldn’t figure out how to test that. You can’t drop something and have it steer itself onto this slide. Plus, it’s not practical to build a 1,000-foot slide. So, I said, I’ll do it, but it needs to be this way, and I need to have full control. And if I find at any time that it can’t be done, then I’m backing out. And they were onboard with that. I think I gained their respect by turning it down.
Q: Was there any doubt on jump day?
A: I did 200-250 jumps training for this thing, and I have over 18,000 jumps to start with. It took a bunch of jumps just to figure out how to train for this because it’s so different. You’re freefalling all the way to the ground, and you have to fight the wind currents all the way down.
I ended up doing 82 jumps in a row opening my parachute about 300 feet over the net. My goal was 75, so my confidence was very high.
Q: You rolled over to your back a few times as you were falling. Why?
A: It’s vital that you land on your back or the net is going to bend you in the wrong direction. I’ve done thousands of these rollovers, but nobody had ever done it without a parachute so I wanted to try it. It’s kind of like a batter taking a few practice swings.
Q: But if something isn’t right, the guys jumping with you aren’t able to really do anything for you, right?
A: Not at all. Once we stepped out of the airplane there were no do-overs. You just have to land in the net.
Q: At one point, one of the guys reached out to you. What was happening there?
A: You can’t breathe very well at 25,000 feet so I jumped out with an oxygen mask. About half way down I took off my oxygen mask and tank and handed it off to Andy Farrington (Aikin’s cousin).
Q: So you weren’t bull’s eye perfect on the net. Looking back, is that scary?
A: I was about half way to the edge. I kind of drifted a bit when I was making some last-second corrections. Those corrections were me kind of over-amping in the moment. When I was at 3,000 feet I was perfect. But there is a lot of adrenaline and a lot going on in your mind. You start getting a little bit antsy, and I kind of made some overcorrections, and I had to mellow that. Once I got that stopped, I’m, “OK. I’m a little left, but I’m in the net.” I knew I was safe, so I decided to stay where I was and do a nice, controlled flip to my back.
Q: How have things change for you since this?
A: It’s cool. I travel the world working with Red Bull like I did before. I jump all over the country. Since this jump I get a lot of opportunities to do even cooler stuff. I get to talk to a lot of people, whether it’s kids or colleges. And I have some ideas for some future projects, and now you have a lot more traction when you call somebody.
Q: Is there an urge for your next project to push the envelope even more?
A: I think if I try to one-up it you get into a scary position. I don’t know what’s more dangerous than what I did. I proved that it can be done, but I think the next thing will be a little bit different.
If somebody else wants to do it, great. But it’s somebody else’s turn to do that particular thing.