I have worked as a civil engineer for the past thirty years, but only once during that time have I been asked “Will you be our project manager/engineer for a live event to catch a skydiver with no parachute jumping from 25,000 feet?” Talk about Extreme Engineering! This question was asked of me on April fool’s day 2014 by my childhood friend, Chris Talley, who is the brainchild behind the Heaven Sent event. This is the same Chris Talley who told all his friends during the 5th grade that he had a blue whale swimming in his backyard, so I had to hear some facts first before I would agree to his proposition.

Soon, I was meeting with Jimmy Smith (Talley’s business partner), Al Berman (live broadcast producer), and Luke Aikins (world’s best skydiver). Aikins agreed to do this stunt after realizing that it would take the skydiving profession to the next level. He already had done 18,000+ jumps and was Felix Baumgartner’s trainer for the Stratosphere jump from outer space. The group explained that the basic stunt specifications were for Aikins, travelling at terminal velocity – approx. 120 MPH (176 fps) – to make contact with a giant, vertical slide, and adjust his body in the upper reaches to safely decelerate at 4 G’s (max).

Heaven Sent was planned as a made for television event; so meeting the slide development requirements required an engineering approach. I presented my vision for this Design Build project management process to include project specifications (what and where), a project plan (when and how), communication plan (who), and SMART goals that are measured – monitored – reviewed. They asked me to take the lead on project location, design, and construction of the deceleration system. Best of all, Talley and I worked together for entire project.

The slide size was dictated by the four seconds we knew Aikins needed to position himself properly before he starts to decelerate (4 sec. x 176 fps = 706 feet) plus vertical space to impact. We determined that a 1,000’ vertical (min.) would be required and there are only two readymade vertical spaces available to attach this slide – either a high-rise building or the Grand Canyon. We decided on the Hell Hole Gorge in Arizona as our site and designed a high-strength, canvas slide to be held up by cranes with no attachments to the cliffs. Then, we priced out the construction at $4.3 million, which was too expensive. So, it was back to the drawing board.

The Heaven Sent project was to be one of the greatest stunts of all time combining skydiving with freefalling. Aikins is an expert in jumping from a plane but knew nothing about landing without a parachute. He started working with Julius LeFlore, a stuntman who recorded a 155 foot, freefall record (1975) and fell into the Sarlacc (Return of the Jedi 1983). LeFlore knew that we were looking for a less costly deceleration method, so he introduced the team to several airbag experts as this was the technology with which he was familiar. It became obvious that an airbag would not work as Luke’s velocity (120 MPH) as it would require too much vertical stopping distance. Basic physics dictated that we would need at least 120 feet of stopping distance to reduce his deceleration to 4 G’s.

Desperate for an alternate approach, Berman asked the team if we have seen the amusement ride in Belgium where people are allowed to freefall for 100 feet into a double net system below. This was the birth of what we affectionately called “The Trap” – a simple and elegant way to have a large area for Luke to land while giving us the vertical distance necessary to slow him down safely.

By September 2015, we had found our partners – FOX and Mondelez (snack food co.). They loved Heaven Sent from the start and gave us a $7 million production budget (all in). It was now a 2-hour, live broadcast at the end of July 2016. The target audience were called “Uber Doers” or people who are always plugged in and connected. The summer Olympic Games were starting Aug. 4, 2016, so we started planning to do it before this international event.

The first Trap was four radio towers (200 ft x 200 ft) held up with guy wires. Our initial designs had a rigid perimeter, dual-net system suspended 150 feet in the air. Luke would land in a 100 ft x 100 ft net that could start moving with him right before net impact. Then, the net’s downward movement would be slowed by its deceleration system, allowing Luke safe deceleration. A concern was he would hit the rigid net structure instead of landing in the net on initial impact, leaving little room for error. So, we eliminated the steel towers and moved to the use of cranes to hold up the net.

In December 2015, the initial Trap budget was $1.6 M for design and construction (a $2.7M savings over the slide). The Trap system would be composed of three main elements: net, structure, and deceleration system. The idea was to figure out the best solution for each element then put them together for a viable solution.

We started with the net which led us to InCord – one of the biggest net manufacturers in the world – located in Connecticut. We explained to their representative, David Singer, what we are looking for: a 100’x100’ net that can safely stop a person weighing 250 lbs. with gear traveling at 120 MPH. Phones always went silent for a while when we would first explained Heaven Sent. The design configuration was to have a 50 ft x 50 ft debris liner as the trigger net that once contacted would release the main safety net downward.

The goal of the main landing net was to be strong but light. Singer suggested their 5” Personnel Safety Netting (PSN) where there are 3-1/4”x3-1/4” squares that stretched to 5” when pulled. He said he has these net materials in his shop and they would take about 2-3 weeks to construct. He said these nets would have border (perimeter) ropes made of 5,000 lb., ½” high tensile border rope, and energy will be dispersed throughout the net when impacted. In discussing deceleration, Singer recommended an emergency device used on Boeing 747 airplanes to drop cargo called the Fulton extraction system.

We were still in the discovery process, so Aikins suggested we contact The ATS Team (Pacoima, California) and their Chief Visionary Officer, Darren Jeffrey, who is known for his master problem solving abilities. The team visited them in February 2016 to explain the Trap concept of cranes for structures, trigger net above the catchment net, and deceleration goals. We discussed the deceleration systems used during Iron Man (hydraulic brake system) along with other systems suggested: ratchet system, leg jumpers (elastics), and the Fulton extraction system.

Jeffrey – smart and experienced – recognized that too much tension in the net is the biggest issue, and noted that there could be 37 feet of sag in middle of a 100 ft x 100 ft net. He does recognize that energy will dissipate within 15 feet from impact and that Luke will need a target system to ensure hitting the net. Next, Jeffrey suggested using an automated sensor to trip the main net into motion and helium tubes around the net perimeter to keep sag out of the net. Aikins doesn’t like automation and would rather trust a human to release the net. Just one example: the net could start falling early if the automated system is set off by a bird.

Jeffrey suggested only using Champion Cranes for the event, since they are used to working with the movie industry and are conscientious. And maybe testing to include Luke jumping from a building into the net. Okay, enough of brainstorming.

The reality is that that most important element to the Trap is the deceleration system and we haven’t yet solved that problem.

In March 2016, Smith, Talley, Aikins, and I visited the Ka show at MGM Las Vegas, Nevada, to review rigging and netting system developed by Scott Leva. Performers were falling 80-feet onto a stationary net with a low airbag on top. Energy was dissipated through airbag and net dampening motion. After the show, we got a personal tour of the rigging system and discovered they were using Dyneema netting.

While there, Talley, Aikins, and I met to go over the entire stunt to get focus and to discuss design options. The first discussion was around a basket net 130-feet above a 20 foot tall airbag. The initial impact would be a light ‘trip net’ to get the main net (40’ lower) into motion. The deceleration system would be attached to a structure at the same level as the main net.

The Trap was too complicated. We had winches pulling the main net down to start moving at the same rate as Luke when he reached the net. Then, there was a deceleration system (not fully developed) attached to a structure that remained in place throughout the stunt.
Aikins discussed the orientation of the net. He noted that if we rotated the net (made up of squares) and pulled from each corner, then you would not get linear forces that would be difficult to land upon. We discussed hitting the net in all spots, and our real concern was a corner strike and the cable/deceleration system if that corner failed. We sketched up a series system of air pistons reacting in tension having a light blanket of ¾ filled helium balloons attached to the main net. We talked about using an air ram getting the main net in motion. We realized that testing needs to start soon to meet the project deadline.

So, back to the deceleration system, which now weighed heavily on the team. We had some deceleration system options: air ratchets, chain counterweights, gold tails, and descenders. But all of these made the Trap complicated. So, Talley and I met with David Mesloh (Hollywood rigging supervisor) after our Las Vegas trip. Aikins was requiring Trap development and testing start soon, and Mesloh was someone we thought could help build with that.

With Mesloh we had a breakthrough with deceleration when he suggests using bungee cords. He called Ron Jones, President of Bungee America. We talk about how bungee jumpers get 3+ G’s absorbed through their spines while in full body harnesses. The immediate concern was a “slingshot” affect once the Trap net had Aikins at the final resting point and there was a bunch of bungee energy stored up. This could be stopped by one-way “canyon pulleys”.

We drew up the Trap with just a basket net on cranes where bungees at each crane absorbed the downward energy of Aikins, the net, and weights that move the net downward just prior to impact. Aikins reminded Talley and I that air pistons with pulley advantage in lieu of the bungees could be used since they don’t recoil like bungees. We knew we needed to start testing both deceleration systems.

Stride Heaven Sent started to fall into place.

On April 26, 2016, we hired Ron Jones and his team to conduct bungee deceleration (single crane) testing and helicopter test drops at Agua Dulce. The single crane tests proved that the rigging can be done off a crane and that bungee cords could be used for the Trap. The main component was the one-way pulley used by mountain climbers.

May 2, Tatum Shank (working for Jimmy Smit’s company, Amusement Park Entertainment) found the Big Sky Movie Ranch location in Semi Valley and stated “I believe it can accommodate all of our needs and would be a fantastic location for Heaven Sent”. Boy was he right! The property managers seemed cooperative, it can have a 2,800-ft runway, the Trap could be constructed near the airfield, winds are minimal, and it’s within 30-miles of the production zone.

Al Berman, while at the Big Sky, emailed “Well now! Having the runway and Trap at the same location changes the entire broadcast … for the better!!! Very excited about this.” Berman held his phone up to the sky and said “look at all those available satellites!”

May 10-12, we conducted reduced scale testing at Jim Churchman’s compound in Agoura, California. Churchman and Jeff Habberstad are the two rigging professionals that Luke wanted on Heaven Sent from the beginning, and they are finally done filming in Europe.

Everyone, including film crews, show up to witness and to document a 225-lb weight bag dropped from a crane basket 160 feet above the ground onto a helium bag on top of the 51 ft x 5 ft net that was 50 feet above the ground. Two air cylinders were used to decelerate the net. The dummy contacted the net at 69 MPH, decelerated in 37 feet, and experienced a peak of 5.4 G’s.

Here were the takeaways:

  • No value was added by the helium bag
  • The net was better with less wind drag
  • The net’s border was best attached at the corners and midpoints
  • The air cylinders and pulleys worked great

Note: Ron Jones came to this testing. We were still looking at the bungee system. Ron started to develop the next level of bungee testing using a high speed weight being released from the back of a vehicle and being decelerated by bungees on the cranes.

Aikins wrote he is concerned with continuing to look at two systems – air pistons vs. bungee – so we decided to only pursue the air pistons. Aikins had built a test dummy with his aerospace engineer friend.

May 31 to June 10, 2016, we conducted full Scale Trap testing out of the public’s view in Agua Dulce, CA with cranes and a helicopter.

Week 1: Churchman and his crew surveyed, staked out cranes and net positions, built out 110 ft x 110 ft net, build truss bases for decelerators, and prepared for crane arrival. Once the cranes arrived then the team rigged up the full Trap system with two air pistons attached to the four corners.

Week 2: The first test drop happened June 6 at 10:30am from helicopter (Aaron Fitzgerald’s team) at 220-feet above net (helicopter at 350’ above ground level (AGL) and net height at 120’ AGL). With air resistance this had the test weight moving at roughly 66 MPH. The net appeared to work correctly.

The 2nd full scale test. Helicopter AGL 500’, net AGL 120’, drop distance 380’, w/ air resistance weight velocity is 86 MPH. Weight went through the InCord M3000 HTPP Knotless net (dynamic drop test 7,000 ft-lb). Why? The button guy, Nick Brandon, was late on releasing the net, plus this is only a test net. The real net (still in route) is the Ultra Cross Silver Knotless Netting with Dyneema (commercial fishing).

The team repaired the hole in the net and the damaged test sled. Two more 380’ distance drops were conducted that afternoon without fail.

June 7 – Six drop tests conducted from drop distances of 580’ (97 MPH) and 380’ (last five). The objective was to hit different parts of the net with the test dummy. No apparent failures, but appeared to be some net tearing in two of the corners. There was a backlash from the non-impact corner caused by cable slack. We decided we need four balanced air pistons and some give in the net to tech line connections.

June 8 – Churchman was able to bring in and rig up four air pistons (one per net corner). Test one at the 380’ drop distance looked different – much tighter. Test two – Brandon used a man-lift to be level with the net while releasing. Drop distance was 630’. Weight ripped through the net. Brandon was late on the release, and he said it was too hard to track the weight without the net being in his direct view.

Churchman ordered four duplicate air pistons for the event (5” bore, 1” rod, 12’ strike, 3 x 1” ports – front and back, seals for pull only, up to 500 psi pressure).

June 9 – First day testing actual event, Dyneema net. Test #1 – 380’ drop – all good. Test #2 – 880’ drop (107 MPH) – all good. Test #3 – 880’ drop – weight missed the net.

This Trap system appears to be ready to be slightly calibrated, retested, and used to catch Luke on July 30th.

On July 18, 2016, the property owners at the Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, California, started clearing 3-ft high brush at the Trap site and grading a 2,500 foot long airplane runway. On July 25th, Churchman’s team set up the full Trap system using Champion Cranes and started testing. Luke continued his training skydiving from 25,000 feet aiming for the Trap and pulling his parachute at 1,000 feet above the target. Berman set up his live production camp and command center. Bleachers and a VIP tent were set up. There were now hundreds of people on-site preparing for Luke’s daring jump.

July 30, 2016 – Luke started the day with a dilemma: having to decide whether he needed to jump with a safety parachute being required by the Screen Actor’s Guild or jump without a parachute as he had planned and practiced. Still, he and his jump team take off and climb to 25,000 feet. Churchman radioed to Luke . . . “trap 100%, I repeat trap 100%” confirming all is ready to catch him on the ground.

For the first time in his life, Luke exited an airplane without a parachute. He freefell for 2.5 minutes and at 1,000 feet above the fast approach Trap he fliped to his back. Instantly he landed in the net, decelerating in less than 2 seconds from 120 MPH to a stop. After a few seconds, Luke started yelling and kicking his legs and the live audience all collectively screamed in relief and joy.

Confirmed: Skydiver Luke Aikins sets new Guinness world record for Highest skydive without a parachute.

During Luke’s last interview with Facebook 360 that evening he said “the last two years have been like a roller coaster with a very gentle stop”. Al Berman was with him and he said “the landing ended up being the easiest part”. – I would say those quotes prove our success.

by John Cruikshank, PE, F.ASCE, February 11, 2018
John Cruikshank is President of JMC2 Civil Engineering + Surveying a 15 person surveying and civil engineering company founded in Los Angeles, CA founded in 1996 and Ken Okamoto & Associates, Inc. a 9 person structural engineering company in Costa Mesa, CA founded in 1979. Recently, Cruikshank was sworn in as a Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, City Councilman. He is a multi-state, licensed civil engineer who has practiced in California for 30 years. He was the project manager for the Heaven Sent project.

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