On the morning of September 2, 9-year-old Dessa Blaine looked up above the small town of Page, Arizona, and saw her father, David, become a tiny dot in the sky. Suspended by 52 large helium balloons for his YouTube live event “Ascension,” he rose high above the desert while Dessa, his project partner Luke Aikins, the ground team and viewers around the world watched. At 24,900 feet MSL, he detached and began to fall.
For David Blaine, the freefall, canopy ride and safe landing were the culmination of 14 months of training aided by experts in the skydiving, ballooning and stunt communities, and it was a total success. But it was also the beginning of a new direction in his career—a stunt meant to create a beautiful image and inspire rather than be death-defying and anxiety-inducing. For many around the world, and especially one 9-year-old girl in Page, that, too, was a success.
But how does one go from being a relatively inexperienced jumper to performing “Ascension” in little over a year? For Blaine and Aikins, it was a rigorous training period, and they took no shortcuts.
It helped that Blaine had some skydiving experience. To prepare for his 2002 stunt “Vertigo,” which concluded with a 100-foot leap into a stack of cardboard boxes, he needed to learn to control his body in the air. He chose to go through the AFF program. “There didn’t seem like any better way to learn,” said Blaine, who went through the program under the instruction of the late Pat McGowan at Skydive Perris in California. What followed was a long hiatus from the sport, but he had gotten the itch.
With “Ascension” in mind, Blaine began training with stunt skydiver Scott Smith at Perris in July 2019. After 99 training jumps, the two were confident that the planned balloon jump could be successful. Smith would remain part of Blaine’s team throughout the preparation for the stunt.
The following year was intense, with due diligence paid to safety standards, Federal Aviation Administration regulations, physical fitness standards and USPA rules. The planned event—originally set to occur in New York City—had strict requirements, and the team worked hard to adhere to them all. Under the tutelage of ballooning master Bert Padelt, Blaine earned his FAA Pilot’s License with a private-pilot certificate and a balloon rating. He reached out to Luke Aikins, who after hearing Blaine’s vision was eager to join forces. “I only join on to things that I’m passionate about,” said Aikins.
The two trained together at Skydive Arizona in Eloy and then California, splitting time between Perris and Skydive Elsinore, and would jump as many as 15 times per day. Blaine kept in close contact with his daughter, Dessa, who lives in France. “I sent her videos, and when I could, I’d Facetime her between jumps,” he said. Quickly, Blaine earned his C license. “We jumped through all the hoops,” said Aikins. “This was about doing it the right way.”
The next step was to prepare for the high altitude and threat of hypoxia. Blaine, who in 2009 set a then world record by holding his breath for more than 17 minutes, was no stranger to the breathing exercises needed to properly oxygenate his blood. He practiced those techniques in hypobaric chambers designed to simulate high-altitude conditions and at Aikins’ home drop zone, Skydive Kapowsin in Shelton, Washington. The two made high-altitude jumps in a Cessna 208 Caravan, ascending at a sluggish 500 feet per minute in order to mimic the ascent speed of the balloon cluster. With practice, Blaine was able to keep his blood oxygen level within the range of normal (95-100 percent) even above 18,000 feet MSL.
Because Blaine would be drifting at the mercy of the wind, he also spent a great deal of time practicing landing out with no wind indicators. Not all those landings were smooth, but were done for a purpose, and Blaine praised Aikins’ attention to every detail, saying “If I wanted to land [the stunt] without ending up in the hospital, there’s nobody better than Luke.”
All preparation was done with the expectation that the event would occur in New York City, and therefore Blaine and Aikins did many of their training jumps in urban settings. They spent significant time studying potential landing areas on both sides of the Hudson River, so that they would be prepared for any scenario … or so they thought. 10 days before the event, due to concerns with weather, logistics and FAA permissions, the team made the decision to relocate to Page, Arizona. “I’ve been working diligently on this with the best team in the world,” said Blaine in a YouTube video update, “but because of the complexity of this project, I’m not going forward with my plans to do New York City at this time.”
The desert of Page, Arizona, sitting at 4,200 feet MSL, posed much different challenges than the Big Apple, and the team had only 10 days to adjust. The first and most pressing issue was Blaine’s pilot’s license; in the final few days before the flight, the FAA determined the publicity he would receive was a form of payment, and therefore a private pilot certificate would be insufficient. For four days, he flew and crammed for the 100-question written and practical exam for his commercial certificate, which he passed on his second try. It wasn’t until September 1,
the day before the event, that he received full FAA permission for the stunt, including permission to fly above 18,00 feet MSL into Class A airspace.
To ensure the success of the live-stream systems for YouTube, some last-minute tests on Blaine’s audio and video equipment needed to occur at full altitude. With the day of the event approaching quickly, Aikins called Skydive Arizona, and in less than 24 hours he was doing a solo test jump from their Twin Otter at 25,000 feet MSL.
The challenging terrain was also a concern. “Our planned landing areas [in New York] were mostly flat surfaces,” said Aikins. The canyons, rock formations and high-tension power lines scattered across the new event site were different types of hazards. Blaine took advantage of what little time he had to train, and Aikins coached him on the topography of the area up until minutes before the live event.
The goal...was to be "inspirational rather than scary, and it was all for her." Photo by Craig O'Brien.
Just before 9 a.m. local time, David Blaine’s feet left the ground. His harness, built specially for the event by longtime skydiver and rigger Mark Knutson, attached him to the 52 helium balloons above, each eight feet in diameter. The cluster was legally designated as an aircraft, and Aikins chose the registration number N947DB—”9” for Dessa’s age, “47” for David’s age and “DB” for their initials. Hidden in the balloons above him was a rig on a pulley system—Aikins’ idea—which Blaine pulled down to himself and attached around 7,200 feet MSL. In the event of an equipment issue, a tertiary round parachute was also hidden among the balloons, attached via static line.
56 minutes after Blaine lifted off, he guided his canopy in for final approach. Listening to instructions from Aikins via radio, he landed safely on the uneven terrain approximately three miles south of the airport. For the first time in history, a person had legally made a parachute jump from a cluster of balloons. It was an accomplishment 14 months in the making and was also the most successful YouTube Originals live event in history, totaling almost 22 million views at Parachutist’s press time. The skydive itself was unique, but Blaine’s adrenaline-fueled, gleeful shouting upon landing wasn’t—visit any drop zone on the weekend and watch for canopies to come down. You’ll hear it.
“It’s the only stunt he’s done that people say, ‘I’d love to do that,’” said Aikins. It’s true: Blaine’s last major stunt took place in 2012, in which he spent 72 hours standing atop a 22-foot pillar, surrounded by one million volts of electricity. He did not eat or sleep. His daughter was just a year old at the time and has been the reason he hasn’t been pursuing the dangerous endurance stunts for which he became so well known. The goal with “Ascension” was to be “inspirational rather than scary,” he said, “and it was all for her.”
Several hours after the jump concluded, the event team had packed away much of the gear and recovered every balloon. The sun fell lower in the Arizona sky, but for Blaine, this wasn’t the end of his vision. In fact, it was far from it. “This is the first step of something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time,” he said.
It’s not exactly clear what he means by that yet, but it seems that Blaine has started a new path for himself. Will that path continue to include skydiving, now that his stunt jump is done? You could’ve tried to ask him just a few days after the event. It would’ve been difficult, however, to catch him between loads at Skydive Perris, making fun jumps and enjoying the sky.