Luke Aikins jumped out of a plane with no parachute. Now he talks about what happened after he hit the net.

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EVERYTHING BEGAN THE moment the jump ended. Inside the net, Luke Aikins, the Shelton man who skydived without a parachute last summer, screamed obscenities. Then he whispered. Then he just breathed — slow, deep, rhythmic breaths.

It took 121 seconds from the time he stepped out of the plane, 25,000 feet above the California desert, until he landed in the 100-foot-by-100-foot net. It took another 45 seconds for the net, 170 feet in the air, to lower him to the ground and for him to begin the celebration.

It was the only part of the jump he could never simulate. Everything else he could analyze, inspect, test and calculate. But the end could only be experienced. He floated while in the net — no longer falling yet not touching the ground. He didn’t hear friends calling his name or the hum of engines overhead. He didn’t remember whispering, “Oh my goodness, Luke” or screaming in a voice so high-pitched it didn’t sound like his. Wisps of smoke, the remnants of canisters used to track him during the jump, streaked the blue sky as he looked up.

For the only time that day, he was completely, entirely alone. “Something rushed over me,” he says. “There was stuff I didn’t know had anything to do with what I was doing.”

In the coming weeks, he told and retold stories about the jump for “Today,” People and FOX. But he never mentioned the importance of those 45 seconds in the net.

He thought of his son.

His wife.

His career and what got him here.

And he thought, too, about Colby and the accident.

Then his back touched the ground. He stood up and smiled, an unguarded joy his wife hadn’t seen in years.

 

HIS WIFE, MONICA, pictured his death. She watched the jump 100 feet from the net, near the paramedics. At that proximity, she knew, she would see and hear everything. She had to imagine each outcome.

“OK, if he breaks his leg, no big deal,” she said. “If he breaks his arm, no big deal. What if he’s a paraplegic? What if he’s a quadriplegic?”

If Luke missed the net entirely, his death would be gruesome. As a performer, Luke enjoyed the fact that the possibility of death — of his death — made people watch. (Some of his skydiving friends, however, couldn’t stomach watching the jump live). He was almost cocky in his ability, research and tests. Still, he had one request written into his contract: If he died, he wanted the footage destroyed.

He did not have a death wish, but neither did he believe in fate. “Bad shit happens to good people,” he says. “That’s my personal take on life.”

During testing, Monica would lie on her back underneath the net, right in the center, so she could see Luke’s approach. For the actual jump, Luke wanted Monica to watch with the couple’s 4-year-old son, Logan, in her lap so she could turn Logan’s head. But Monica wanted to be closer. Her only coping mechanism, from such an intimate and unavoidable distance, was visualization.

“I had to go there,” she says. “What I would think his body would look like hitting the ground and being splattered everywhere.”

At first, the jump didn’t bother her. Conceptually, she gave Luke her blessing. She married Luke accepting his risks. He loved flying planes, skydiving, revving his adrenaline, and she learned to love skydiving, too. For Monica, the jump was always on the horizon, always months away, always an idea. It wasn’t until the final flight to California that her concerns became real. She sat quietly in the family’s four-seat Cessna, wondering: What are we doing?

They were ready to start construction on their dream house in Shelton, on the same plot as Luke’s cousin, with a grass runway out back and, per Luke’s request, a clear plumbing pipe running from the second-story bathroom to the first floor so Luke’s son — and presumably Luke as well — could watch the journey of bodily waste. Luke wanted to start construction before the jump so the house would be ready by Christmas. Monica wanted to wait. She didn’t want to become responsible for a house her husband would never see.

She knew the punishment that death could deliver at any moment. Both of them did.

Luke Aikins, in red, tickles his 3-year-old nephew as he watches NFL playoff games with friends and family in the Skydive Kapowsin jump center in Shelton. The Skydive Kapowsin business is an extended family affair: Luke’s grandfather began the business after World War II as a skydiving club. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Luke Aikins, in red, tickles his 3-year-old nephew as he watches NFL playoff games with friends and family in the Skydive Kapowsin jump center in Shelton. The Skydive Kapowsin business is an extended family affair: Luke’s grandfather began the business after World War II as a skydiving club. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

IT WAS AN ordinary evening on Feb. 4, 2005, shortly before sunset. Luke was spreading gravel in his driveway with one of his construction company’s bulldozers. He also was watching his 4-year-old nephew, Colby. Monica and Luke looked after Colby a few days a week for Monica’s brother. Colby loved riding on the bulldozer.

“He was like my son,” Luke says.

That evening, Colby was cold and wanted to go inside. Luke watched him go up the stairs and into the house. He saw Colby look down from the bedroom window. Luke turned around to park for the night and backed up the bulldozer. The day before had been Monica and Luke’s anniversary.

“I saw something out of the corner of my eye as I backed up,” Luke says. “You run down and you pick him up, and you’re holding him. It’s obvious. But there’s no one around. It’s just me. You start to scream and yell for somebody, but there’s nobody. I had to call 911 while I’m holding him.”

What happened after Colby’s death is a blur. Luke remembers little. Monica is blunt, but tears form as she refuses to talk about that day. Monica’s brother sued Luke’s construction company. Luke sold the bulldozer. He didn’t want to eat or leave the house. “He was like a jellyfish,” Monica says.

Eventually she wondered whether this was the new, permanent Luke, cemented in grief.

Decked out in Red Bull gear, Luke Aikins takes a look out the window as the small plane ascends to about 14,000 feet for a casual weekday jump. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Decked out in Red Bull gear, Luke Aikins takes a look out the window as the small plane ascends to about 14,000 feet for a casual weekday jump. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

HE DIDN’T SKYDIVE for two or three months — a significant lapse for someone who jumped every day. His first jump after Colby’s death was with Monica. Family and friends worried he wouldn’t pull his parachute. Unknown to Luke at the time, they’d removed the guns from his house.

“There’s no better opportunity, right?” Luke says; but that’s the easy way out. “I did this. I have to deal with this. I have to live with this. In my mind, that’s my punishment. The shrink doctors and all that are like, ‘That’s not how you need to think.’ But that’s how I deal with it.”

Monica cried flying to altitude, cried during free fall and cried while drifting to the ground under the canopy of her parachute. “Trying to do something normal,” she says, “but it was way harder.”

Skydiving had been as much a part of Luke’s childhood as riding bikes. His family owned a skydiving business, and he made his first jump, a tandem jump, when he was 12. He jumped alone for the first time when he was 16, although he didn’t jump on his 16th birthday as planned. He’d stolen the family car and driven it to a high-school football game. While laughing with friends at the game, he heard his aunt yell, “You son of a bitch!”

Luke Aikins is the last skydiver out of the plane, hopping out in his wingsuit at about 14,000 feet over Shelton. Aikins, also a professional pilot and BASE jumper, dived out of a plane at 25,000 feet without a parachute last summer, successfully landing in a net. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Luke Aikins is the last skydiver out of the plane, hopping out in his wingsuit at about 14,000 feet over Shelton. Aikins, also a professional pilot and BASE jumper, dived out of a plane at 25,000 feet without a parachute last summer, successfully landing in a net. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

Even before he realized why he was doing it, he loved feeling scared. He’d build a ramp a little taller than the ones his friends built, push his bike up the hill a little farther, always testing the balance between fear and ambition. As he got older, he took the family plane out for late-night flights with girls and drove cars fast. Still, to this day, he craves that feeling: when he’s scared, but his desire overrides his fear.

He had no fear when his parents finally allowed him to solo jump. “As long as I could remember, from the age I could remember anything, I remembered skydiving being a part of it: my dad, my grandpa, my aunt and uncle, everybody,” he says. “It was always part of who we were. At that point, I was now a skydiver. It was like adulthood.”

Death had always been abstract. He could act recklessly and ignore it. Death happened to old people, not to him, not to people he loved.

Colby’s death changed something fundamental in Luke. “When you’re happy,” he says, “you’re not as happy as you ever were.”

Nineteen months after the accident, Red Bull wanted local skydivers to jump into Qwest Field. Luke’s name popped up. Most skydivers jump casually and for fun. Thousands are good enough to get free gear. But only a select few have the talent, personality and luck to make a full-time career out of it. Luke’s jump before the Seahawks game in September 2006 was his first audition for Red Bull, the elite sponsor for extreme sports and stunts. In 2007, Red Bull asked Luke to join as a fully sponsored athlete and sent him a customized Red Bull helmet — a defining moment for any skydiver and the first step that led to his jump last summer.

Monica Aikins, left, talks with her husband, Luke, while their son, Logan, 5, helps clean up nails on the floor at their new home in Shelton. The family didn’t start construction on the home until after Luke had completed his free-fall jump. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Monica Aikins, left, talks with her husband, Luke, while their son, Logan, 5, helps clean up nails on the floor at their new home in Shelton. The family didn’t start construction on the home until after Luke had completed his free-fall jump. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

HE KNEW THERE was a selfishness to jumping without a parachute, but there was no room for second guessing. He wasn’t advancing skydiving; people wouldn’t soon line up to jump without parachutes. This was for him, his ego, to show he could turn a crazy idea into a practical achievement.

On this jump, he enjoyed the smallest moment: one foot out the door, into the air, his body and momentum following; the other foot, his trail foot, nestled against the surface where he just stood. He was gone, away from the edge; there was no turning back — and yet part of him, for just a moment longer, was connected to the world.

After the jump, he loved when people learned what he did and asked why. He took it as a 30-second challenge to convince them of his sanity. He made only incremental progress. “You’re not as crazy as I thought,” they’d tell him, “but that’s still nuts.”

Even he struggled to reconcile the risk with the existence of his son. “You want to see him again,” he says. It was his biggest reservation about the jump.

Monica and Luke had planned on children, but Colby’s death changed that for Luke. What made him think something like that wouldn’t happen again? “I was mentally OK with us just being us and not having a kid,” Monica says. “I didn’t even want to ask or approach that question.”

Monica and Luke were going through lawsuit depositions in October 2005, when Monica unexpectedly got pregnant. The pregnancy ended with a miscarriage, but it raised the possibility of kids. Then Monica started watching her sister’s daughter, Miya, in 2008.

Monica watched Miya two days a week. She never left Miya with Luke, never even asked. “I would never put that upon him,” she says. “It was too hard.”

But Luke hung around with Monica and Miya and, over time, Miya crawled on him and demanded attention. Luke didn’t tell Monica until years later that watching Miya slowly changed his mind.

Logan was born on Jan. 9, 2012. Very early on, Luke noticed similarities between himself and his son. Logan not only wanted to build ramps; he wanted to build them higher. He loved jumping off the couch and taking his bike to the skatepark. A thrill-seeker. “How am I ever going to tell my son, ‘You can’t do that because it’s dangerous’?” Luke says.

Luke Aikins, back right, chats with friends and family as a small plane sharply lifts off the runway in Shelton before a jump. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Luke Aikins, back right, chats with friends and family as a small plane sharply lifts off the runway in Shelton before a jump. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

Luke had done crazy and irresponsible stunts before Logan was born. A year before, he performed an airshow for friends above a Christmas-tree farm. About 20 people watched. Near the end, Luke dived the plane toward the ground, but instead of pulling up, he spun. The ground grew really big, really fast as he pulled back as hard as he could.

“I came back, and I was still shaking,” he says. “That’s about as close as you get. Why did I do that? To the people on the ground, they got the same thrill whether I did that spin or not. That was just for me. Do I REALLY need to do that?”

Still, five years later, he jumped out of a plane without a parachute. Logan watched on the ground, 4 years old at the time, the same age as Colby. Logan loved the jump and later told his dad he wasn’t nervous. In the net, alone, Luke wondered whether Colby would have enjoyed it, too.

 

FIVE MONTHS AFTER the jump, Luke asked a friend to dig a hole with a bulldozer at his under-construction house. (Still to be outfitted with a clear plumbing pipe.) Since Colby’s death, Luke had operated all kinds of heavy construction equipment, everything except bulldozers. When his friend finished, Luke made sure no one else was on the property, which is gated and fenced. Still, he double-checked. Then he shifted into gear.

He wasn’t looking for redemption or forgiveness but something more attainable. The one thing he did before the accident that he hadn’t done since was drive a bulldozer.

Monica brought Logan to the construction site the next day. Through the constant harping of his parents, Logan knows to stay on the porch if a car is in the driveway. But he’s still a kid, and just as Luke expected, he saw the bulldozer and asked for a ride. Luke lifted him onto his lap and drove around their new home. Logan loved every minute of it.