Piano Freefall

This was our first stunt for season two. I had been out of commission for 4 months, recovering from my broken neck that I earned while taping the summer show. I was definitely a little gun shy about which stunts I would attempt right away. The other options were the BASE jump through the skyscraper window or the landing on the Vegas hotel roof. I knew I would get a little hammered on both of those, so freefalling with a piano seemed mellow. I could tell as we went into planning for this stunt that we were cranking up the intensity dial for the return of the show. Season one involved a lot of stunts that had been done before, but they were a first for me. Now we were drawing up stunts that had never been done before. Period.

I wasn't the only player involved on this one. We talked stuntman John L. Bennett into standing in the center of a target on the ground where I would be aiming the piano. The overall stunt was this: lift a baby grand piano up to 3000 feet under a cargo helicopter, then I would climb down the cable and sit on the piano, then release it and ride it down toward the target. Then it was up to John to stand in the center of the target and let the piano impact as close to him as possible. I don't know whose job was worse. This was one of the most equipment intensive setups we had ever encountered. With all the safety cables involved I was sure that something wouldn't go exactly right. 

The first thing we had to do was go through a bunch of tests. The piano had to be lifted by the heli on its own to see if it would even hang stable. With the strong rotorwash created by the chopper, we were worried that the piano might start oscillating out of control and possibly pull the helicopter down. On the first test lift, the piano sat perfectly stable, so we were OK with that. Then we had to hang the piano and let me crawl around on it to find the center of gravity and figure out how I would manipulate myself around all of the cables to get to the seat. It was sort of tricky on the ground, so I figured I would really have my work cut out for me up in the sky. My biggest fear was getting tangled up in the cables. There were a lot of them, and they could tear my body apart if things got out of control.

We loaded everything up and slowly towed the piano up to altitude. Once we were stable over the target, I climbed out and started my way down the 50 foot cable. I had thick gloves on, but the cable was so heavy duty that the friction started to burn my hands. I had to stop about 10 feet short to clear the release mechanism. I had to do this very carefully, because if my foot accidentally triggered this thing I would start freefalling with the piano and all the rigging. That would be bad. Once I eased my butt down on the seat, I was ready for phase 2 of this whole ordeal. I knew I was in for the ride from hell.

Pulling the cutaway handle started my gradual acceleration toward terminal velocity. I knew it would eventually get violent, but the first few seconds were tolerable as I slowly tumbled over, keeping a death grip on the piano. As the windspeed increased, it became more like riding a bull as the piano lurched back and forth and started to tumble forward. I couldn't predict what would happen next, but I was determined to hang on for at least 15 seconds. Once it became obvious that the piano was now just a ballistic projectile, I looked for my first opportunity to peel myself away without getting impaled. It was hard to tell what would be my best escape, and I was running out of time, so I just went for it and pushed myself away with all my force. I immediately started flying my body in one direction. For the first few seconds I cringed, waiting to get blindsided. Once I knew that I was clear and there was no chance of getting taken out, I turned around and watched the piano continue its plummet toward the target. It seemed right on. It quickly disappeared from my view and I went ahead and pulled my parachute. During the flight down, I wondered if John was successful in getting out of the way. 

As I was landing, I could hear everybody cheering on the ground. I guess John was OK. Apparently the piano smashed into the earth only a few feet away from John. I couldn't believe that the entire stunt went off without any problems. I had been expecting at least something to go wrong. I had no idea that this was only the beginning of a series of stunts with significantly increased risk factor, and plenty was about to go wrong.

Speed Flying