If Spider-Man: The Musical taught us anything, it's that you can never have too many airbags on hand. For their new Vegas show, Cirque du Soleil is using the largest one of its kind.
During the 1977 filming of Hooper, stuntman A.J. "Big Brass Ones" Bakunas set a world record when he leaped 232 feet (71 m) from a helicopter onto an airbag below. That feat's even more impressive if you take into account the fact that the airbag he landed on had a nasty tendency to bounce you as high as 30 feet in the air if you hit off-center. "A performer would hit the bag, and if they were deep [too close to a wall or cliff] or off to the side, the bag would collapse, or the bag would lift up and bounce the performer out," says veteran stuntman and inventor of the Precision Stunt Air Bag, Scott Leva.
Last-generation air bags were usually made of super-lightweight parachute material with two stacked air chambers, each inflated by a separate air pump. Upon impact, velcro-sealed air vents at the side would pop open to release pressure and absorb the shock. But to prevent bounce-outs, stunt crews would often have to time shutting off the air pumps with the moment the performer leaped, not exactly the safest or most precise method.
The Precision Air Bag's air vents, on the other hand, are closed with bungee cords that stretch depending on the weight of the stuntman and the bag itself features adjustable fans that vary the volume of air in the bags, like a giant
Tempur-pedic Select Comfort mattress. Air circulates upward, rather than laterally, in Leva's design, allowing the bag to fill evenly and prevents it from cartwheeling away in high winds. What's more, the Precision bag is built from lightweight vinyl that won't tear when someone lands on it, even if the bag was already cut.
Leva developed the Precision bag in 1996 after his good friend, veteran stuntman Paul Dallas, died after the bag he fell into failed to arrest his fall. "I said, 'Something is wrong,' so I literally started taking the air bags apart," says Leva and by 1997, he had a functioning prototype capable of catching a jumper from as high up as 200 feet and supporting up to 6,000 pounds of impact force. The newest version "catches multiple performers if they are off-center," Leva explains, "If two people jump and one person jumps before the other, the bag is still going to lift you but doesn't bounce you high." These bags are so effective that Cirque Du Soleil had a custom one designed and built specifically for their new Las Vegas show, KA'. This bag can catch multiple people from heights up to 70 feet.
You can keep up with Andrew Tarantola, the author of this post, on Twitter or Facebook.