Photo: Andy Farrington
Luke Aikins interview on his new project "Heaven Sent", 17. June 2016.
On July 30th, career sky-diver Luke Aikins is about to jump from 25 000 feet and safely land without using the parachute in an event called Heaven Sent.
We as skydivers at Akando had a lot of question marks in our heads and were fortunate to get a chance to speak to Luke prior to this event. Here is what we found out:
Akando: Why did you choose 25 000 feet as your exit altitude?
Luke: 25 000 feet was a little bit more for the TV and for the dramatic effect. As we know as skydivers, once you get above about 1200 feet you are going terminal and it doesn't really matter above that. Probably the best altitude for something like this is around 10000 feet because it is just easier to focus for a shorter time.When jumping from 25000 feet you have to be focused for about 2 minutes which is a long time to hold a position as opposed to holding it for 1 minute. 25000 feet is pretty cool because it is the lowest altitude of commercial airlines. In this way general public can relate better, but to me it doesn't make a difference.
Akando: Will you use supplemental oxygen on this jump?
Luke: Yes, I will use oxygen and the plan at this point is that I'll wear oxygen to jump out with and then half way down I will hand the oxygen system off to a teammate so that I don't have to land with the oxygen bottle. After I hand them off the oxygen system they will continue to fall with me until 5,000 where they will open their parachutes. My teammates will be pumping smoke so that we are easy to see.
Akando: Will you jump out of a helicopter or an aircraft?
Luke: I will jump out of an aircraft. It will be Cessna caravan with Blackhawk conversion.
Akando: What technology will you use to determine the exit point and to navigate during your jump?
Luke: The spot will be figured out like we do on a normal skydiving jump except the spot isn't upwind or downwind. Usually you would jump upwind and then you would get the wind drift that will bring you back to the target. We don't want to do that. We want to exit over the top of it and then adjust to the wind all the way down. I may have to be in a slight track forward or whatever position necessary to work to stay the in the correct position. I will have to find the correct spot in free fall and then stay there. We use normal GPS positioning on the jump plane with the jump lights like a normal skydive except for the fact that on the ground I also have some lights. These lights change color depending on the angle you look at them from. Target is surrounded by eight of those lights which are spaced out in all four directions and some are really close to the edge of the net that we are going to land on. These lights can be seen perfectly as you fly over them when you are on a jump run at 13 000 feet. The light is red and as soon as you cross the outside one it turns white. At that time I jump and then I end up very close to the middle and then I can "fly" the middle lights from there down. While I'm skydiving I'll also have the guidance lights. Basically they are aircraft lights that help guide airplanes to runways (PAPI). It is the same thing with slight modifications. I designed the system to shoot straight up and down in the air. I am also using the FlySight. Michael Cooper who makes the FlySight has written a special program for me that we've been using. That program is a position hold that I have it set now at 15 meters. So when you are within 15 meters of the centre it starts beeping faster and faster. The Fly Sight is also giving me information about my ground speed, how fast I am moving across the ground. It doesn't tell me which direction to go but if I look down and I see the lights are looking good and hear good beeps in my ears but have a fast ground speed, I know I am moving and the lights are about to change. To sum up, I am looking for a low ground speed, listening for tones, looking at the lights and then the thing I am really counting on is my eyes and experience to line up over the top of the target.
Akando: Wow, that sounds really exciting and reassuring as these details were not clearly been known before.
Akando: What gear will you use for this jump? Will you be wearing a parachute at all or not?
Luke: The plan right now that we submitted to the FAA is to jump without a parachute. We wear parachutes on practice jumps, but for the real jump our plan is not to use one. Whatever is done will be 100% legal. Depending on what happens with the FAA which we are in talks right now we will decide. If they require a backup, like an emergency parachute, I will wear one and I won't hide it like some people say "oh, you can't tell anybody, you have to hide it". That is not me, that is not Luke. If I have to wear it, I have to wear it. We are not going to use it and once you are too low anyway it doesn't matter, you are not going to be able to use it. So the plan is not to wear one. I've asked specifically not to wear the parachute and the FAA seems to agree that this doesn't fall into any category that exists at this point. We will see how it ends up. USPA (United States Parachute Association) has given me a waiver to open my parachute at a 1000 ft. so that I can safely train. So for all my practice jumps that I've been doing I've been deploying my parachute at a 1000 ft above the target. The net itself is 200 ft in the air and if I am deploying at a 1000 ft. That means I am open at only 800 ft. By the time you initiate the opening your parachute is totally open at about 800 ft, so you are roughly 600 ft above the net when your parachute is open, you know exactly where you are. There is no question where you are going to land. I've done a lot of jumps like that practicing and I am probably going to do about a 100 more of those. At the week of the event I will make another 30 jumps at the event site with the net in the air. We need to be 30/30 or 50/50, every single jump needs to be a hit OR I don't jump!
Akando: At what point in jump do you plan to turn on your back, as you said it to be the safest way to decelerate. What technique will you use for this transition?
Luke: We've been doing a lot of that in the wind tunnel and on the skydives. Basically we'll do a half barrel roll. It keeps your fall rate the slowest and what we do with that move is that it takes about 3/4 of a second to be totally perfectly stationary on your back. You flip to your back in about 1/2 a second but 3/4 to 1 second you are not moving at all. You are totally locked in. So, if we go 176 feet per second in free fall, I'll roll over roughly 200 feet above the net, the last possible moment. We've been doing a lot of practice in the wind tunnel and in the air when you jump with people and they tell you if you have moved a little bit. But in that 1 second you're not moving. When I go in the wind tunnel right now, I've been closing my eyes looking straight ahead. I close my eyes, count to two, roll to my back with my eyes still closed and it is roughly 6 seconds before my feet touch the wall. So I am confident that practically I am not moving at all in that short period of time.
Akando: How does your family feel about your stunt?
Luke: My wife has been involved in it from the very beginning. She is in the background now and is laughing. - she says she hates the idea ;), but she has been supportive of me the whole time. We talked about it, on how you could test it. We are dropping stuff into the net at a terminal velocity and the net is catching it. The G forces are 5 Gs or less so it is very safe. Some openings on my practice jumps had a lot higher G forces. We are testing every part of this except for actually touching the net going terminal with the human body. So she is supportive as long as we have a check list, she and I, of the stuff we need to make sure they happen in order to do this jump. If all those things check off we'll move ahead, if not then I don't do it.
Akando: This looks like the most challenging thing you are about to do so far in your life. What was the next best thing you did up to now?
Luke: Red Bull Stratos was a really cool thing for me. That was probably a dream come true to be as close to that project as I was. To be able to help train (Felix), design the equipment and dealing with so many people who had their own opinion on how you should do that jump was pretty challenging.
Akando: We got our biggest questions answered so far. Is there anything you feel people should know? There are a few mixed opinions and comments on the internet about your stunt. Maybe people don't have all information so they are skeptical?
Luke: I read the comments a little bit but I don't get too wound up because on everything I've done in my whole career you have the opinions of the internet people. I don't even know what to call them. They sit at the computer and are not out doing anything. It is easy to comment when you are not out there doing stuff. There are people that I respect that have written to me personally and asked me about the stunt. Then, when I explained to them they started to understand a little bit more, like you guys. Once I start walking them through the process and in just 15 minutes I kind of told you a bunch about it and now you know a way more. What I would really like people to know is how you can accomplish things that people say are crazy, insane and impossible to do, but if you approach it the right way they can be done safely. For example, if you approach this like a science problem, not just like "woo hoo, I don't care if I live or die" attitude I think it to be the right way. People who know me know how I think and the people who don't get it they never will there is no way I can convince them differently. And of course, you have to be a little bit crazy to do something like this .
Other thing I'd like to mention is that I feel super fortunate to be in a position where I have companies like Stride and Red Bull that have backed me. Red Bull has nothing to do with this project, but what I mean is there aren't a lot of people in such a position that get to do things they dream up. These companies that back us deserve to be supported because they let us help progress the stuff that we do, which I think is great.
Akando: Thank you Luke for this short insight in your latest project. We wish you best of luck.
On July 30th project Heaven Sent will be airing live on FOX at 8 ET on The Internet.
Coming soon: Akando Facebook Live Q&A with Luke Aikins. Follow Akando on social media to stay updated.