Shes a human cannonball! Gemma Kirby, the 25-year-old human cannonball performs at Circus Xtreme where she hurtles out of a cannon at up to 66 mph and lands up to 104 feet away in an air bag (AP photos)
Shes a human cannonball!

Assign to Google Classroom

Plenty of entertainers have had explosive entrances. Some rise like meteors. They soar to new heights. Others find their moment in the spotlight almost momentary.

Few have done all of this at once. Or quite so literally as Gemma Kirby. She is the 25-year-old human cannonball at Circus Xtreme. She hurtles out of a cannon at up to 66 mph. Then she lands up to 104 feet away in an air bag.

"It's a very intense sensation. Very few human beings get to feel that sensation, except for fighter jet pilots or an astronaut," she said recently.

On Valentine's Day in Philadelphia, Kirby is expected to notch her 500th flight. It should be a heart-thumping moment.

"I can never do this act half-awake or not prepared or warmed up," she said. "Every single time is a risk. Every single time is a bit of a mystery."

Circus Xtreme is a new traveling show. It is from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It showcases extreme acts. Those include acrobats rappelling from a 15-foot towers, BMX riders, high-wire performers, contortionists and Bengal tigers.

When shot from the cannon, Kirby experiences a G-force of seven. That is about the same as an astronaut re-entering the atmosphere. She has become one of the circus' highlights. Her actual flight lasts only about 2.4 seconds.

"Gemma lives and breathes the thrill of being a human cannonball," said Nicole Feld. She is the executive vice president of Feld Entertainment. It's Ringling's parent company. "And there's something about her that feels like a fairy tale superhero come to life."

Kirby is nicknamed "The Jet." She hopes to notch 1,000 flights by the time the two-year tour ends. After Philadelphia, the circus will appear in other cities.

Born in Minneapolis, Kirby fell in love with performing as a youngster. She danced onstage at age 7. She liked ballet, but began to find it restrictive and not creative enough.

At 13, she attended aerial classes at the youth-orientated Circus Juventasin. She was hooked.

"I knew right away I wanted to be in the air."

From age 17-22, Kirby was on the flying trapeze. She appeared with several circuses.

Last year she was going to school at the University of Minnesota. That's when she was contacted about possibly being shot out of a cannon for Circus Xtreme.

She's a rare woman in an exclusive world.

"Everyone in the circus knows the cannon is the most daunting, the most thrilling, the most daring of all the acts," she said. "It's just something I never thought in my wildest dream that would be offered to me."

Kirby and her team are constantly checking the specially designed cannon. They calculate the details of her flight. Those include everything from humidity to the arena's temperature.

The cannon is calculated for her body. That means she can't gain or lose more than a few pounds. She relies on her aerialist background.

Kirby will not reveal exactly how the cannon works.

"Being detail-oriented and being a creature of habit is really essential in this line of work. Consistency is key and every flight is a little bit different," she said.

Though her time in the air is brief, Kirby loves to see young women's stunned faces as she zooms through the air. She is like a missile in a sparkly silver outfit.

"I'm not saying that little girls should necessarily watch me and want to do exactly what I do. But I hope that some of them can see my performance and say, 'That's something I didn't realize girls could do,'" she said.

"For me, that's the most important thing: empower someone to believe in themselves."

Critical thinking challenge: Which detail in the article suggests what Kirby might do in the distant future?

Assigned 33 times

  • matthewn-Wre
    2/17/2015 - 01:18 p.m.

    I think its cool how they youse her as boolet.

  • AnthonyF-Saw
    2/20/2015 - 01:01 p.m.

    how does it feel when you get shot out of a human canon doesnt it hurt or does something just push you up really hard

  • AnthonyF-Saw
    2/20/2015 - 01:02 p.m.

    how does it feel when you get shot out of a human canon doesnt it hurt or does something just push you up really hard

  • VanessaC-3
    2/20/2015 - 03:25 p.m.

    A 25 year old Gemma Kirby was on the team of Circus Circus that made them more official and well known. By one of her best performances while traveling mostly all around the world by being shooted out of a cannonball that shocked everyone from time that they called her a human cannonball. From time she was like maybe the best person there ever once to ever do a trick like how she did to impress the audience.

  • KaysaunH-Mau
    2/24/2015 - 11:40 a.m.

    That circus is amazing i went there before i was amazed it was amazing i had a wonderful time.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment