Plummeting 25,000ft at 120mph on Saturday night, Luke Aikins became the first person to jump from that height without a parachute or a wingsuit.
Millions tuned in to watch Aikins’s “Heaven Sent” stunt on television. It was broadcast by Fox with a delay, in case anything should go wrong, and with a warning to viewers not to try it at home.
Luckily, the stunt went off without a hitch, with the Californian skydiver flipping on his back seconds before landing almost in the middle of a 100ft by 100ft safety net held up by cranes in the valley below.
Afterwards he embraced his wife, Monica, and their seemingly unimpressed four-year-old son dozing in her arms. Aikins’s father had also been watching nearby.
“I’m almost levitating, it’s incredible,” Aikins, 42, said. “This thing just happened! I can’t even get the words out of my mouth.”
The television special lasted an hour, but it was during the two minutes when Aikins fell that viewers were glued to their screens.
He spread his arms as he fell towards the Simi Valley desert, its brown landscape a blur under the blue sky, and shed his oxygen mask at 18,000ft. Aikins used the lights on the net to position himself correctly — white lights indicated that he was on course and red that he was veering from the target. A headset on his helmet also beeped faster as he neared the centre of the net, and slower as he moved away from it.
“If I wasn’t nervous I would be stupid,” he said before taking the plunge.
“We’re talking about jumping without a parachute, and I take that very seriously. It’s not a joke.” He added: “Everyone is calling this my ‘coming-out jump’, which is ironic considering I’ve been skydiving since the age of 16.”
Aikins had spent two years preparing for the stunt. He had previously completed 18,000 jumps with parachutes and performed stunts for films, including aerial jumps for Iron Man 3. He was also the understudy for Felix Baumgartner, who became the first skydiver to break the sound barrier with a jump from 24 miles above the Earth, in 2012.
Aikins was initially reluctant to perform the parachute-less jump when a friend suggested it years ago. “I kind of laughed and I say, ‘OK, that’s great. I’ll help you find somebody to do it’,” he said. He made the decision to do it himself after a few weeks’ reflection.
Skydiving is a family tradition — Aikins’s grandfather helped to set up a skydiving school after serving in the Second World War and his father and wife are also skydivers.
Aikins revealed that the stunt nearly did not happen because producers wanted him to wear a back-up parachute. The canister could have given him trouble when landing in the net, and he considered pulling out. In the end he decided to jump, but indicated that he would not open the parachute.
“I’m going all the way to the net, no question about it,” he said from the aircraft. “I’ll just have to deal with the consequences when I land of wearing the parachute on my back and what it’s going to do to my body.”
However, as the aircraft approached the drop zones the message came through that he had been cleared to jump without the back-up parachute. Aikins shrugged off the canister and leapt out into the sky.