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!
Lexile

Plenty of performers have had explosive entrances. Some rise like meteors, soaring to new heights. Others find their moment in the spotlight fleeting.

Few have done all of this at once and quite so literally as Gemma Kirby, the 25-year-old human cannonball at Circus Xtreme. She hurtles out of a cannon at up to 66 mph and 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. "It's really remarkable to feel it completely untethered to any type of vehicle."

On Valentine's Day in Philadelphia, Kirby is expected to notch her 500th flight, 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 from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that showcases extreme acts acrobats rappelling from a 15-foot towers, BMX riders, high-wire performers, contortionists and Bengal tigers, to name a few.

It's part of what Nicole Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, hopes will "tap into that edge-of-your seat, thrill-seeking live entertainment experience."

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, even though her actual flight lasts only about 2.4 seconds.

"Gemma lives and breathes the thrill of being a human cannonball," said Feld. "And there's something about her that feels like a fairy tale superhero come to life."

Kirby, nicknamed "The Jet," hopes to notch 1,000 flights by the time the two-year tour ends. After Philadelphia, the circus hits states including New York, New Jersey, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Missouri and North Carolina.

Born in Minneapolis, Kirby fell in love with performing as a youngster and 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 and was hooked.

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

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

Last year, while working toward her bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota, she was contacted about possibly being shot out of a cannon for Circus Xtreme. She's a rare woman in a secretive, 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 and calculating the details of her flight, which includes everything from humidity to the arena's temperature.

The cannon, whose exact workings Kirby won't reveal, is calculated for her body, which means she can't gain or lose more than a few pounds. She relies on her aerialist background.

"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.

"Sometimes I'll come out of the barrel and I'll realize, 'I've got a little more rotation than is ideal' and I have to decide in a split second how am I going to stop my rotation so I don't over rotate."

Though her time in the air is brief, Kirby loves to see young women's stunned faces as she zooms through the air, 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 28 times


COMMENTS (19)
  • odalysr-Lam
    2/19/2015 - 04:06 p.m.

    The main idea in this story is that even though her job of being a human cannonball is so dangerous, she absolutely loves what she does! First, she has been wanting to do that since she was seven! Second, she knows it's dangerous but she still does what she loves! Third, she wants to feel one of a kind!

  • jamieu-Lam
    2/19/2015 - 05:42 p.m.

    Being a 25 year old woman doing stunts, like being shot out of a cannon every night, would be awesome. At such a young age, this is a wonderful experience. She's brave to do what she does today because it's very dangerous, and the measurements have to be precise in order to make her land on the air bag just right. A lot of people would love to be in her spot and be shot out of a cannon, but she was the lucky one and found something she loves to do that's both fun and enjoyable for others around her.

  • Ashleypatt
    2/20/2015 - 02:03 p.m.

    There is no way I would be able to do that. I'm kinda scared of heights. She is very talented for what she does. She is one brave person to get shot out of a cannon. People probably love to go watch her because it shows them how great and brave she is. Also it gets people nerves going because they will think that she will get hurt and it turns out that she did it without getting hurt. You never know something could go wrong and you get really hurt. So she has one brave soul to go in the cannon and get shot out of it in front of a lot of people.

  • CharismaM
    2/20/2015 - 02:08 p.m.

    It must be scary getting launched out of a cannon all the time. I would definitely be scared to especially since it's such a risk. Gemma is brave for doing it on a regular basis.

  • Js2001ege
    2/24/2015 - 08:50 a.m.

    Born in Minneapolis, Kirby fell in love with performing as a youngster and 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 and was hooked.

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

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

  • Larencia
    2/24/2015 - 10:23 a.m.

    Whoever is willing enough to get shot out of a cannonball must be really brave. I'm not afraid of heights but this is a whole new level. You have to always be on your P's and Q's .

  • ShaniaWentz-Ste
    2/26/2015 - 01:06 p.m.

    Now, I'm not someone who is afraid to step up to her fears. I will, 99% of the time, try to get over them. I used to be so afraid of heights, but now I'm not. However, I would NEVER fly myself out of a cannon. Even if the cannon was only 2 feet off the ground, I still wouldn't do it. That's just nuts. But, if she enjoys it, best of luck to her.

  • BrigitteA-3
    2/26/2015 - 10:34 p.m.

    The cannonball flying, aerial circus stunt woman, Gemma Kirby can be flying into circuses near you soon. She enters in on a huge cannon and lands on an air bag more than 104 feet away. The precise flight does not have any room for mistakes,and even the temperature of the arena to a few pounds lost by Gemma can result in a fatale crash. This aerial gymnast is working to inspire all of the little girls watching her to follow their dreams no matter what others tell them they can't do. I think that it would be amazing to be able to be shot out of a cannon, and inspiring a hundreds of little girls to do what they want to do.

  • 3MaddieMO
    3/12/2015 - 05:39 p.m.

    Response: State your opinion and explain it.

    I think this would be so fun to do, as long as you had the proper training. I love heights and things like roller coasters, so this would be really exciting. I would probably also be scared because it's so risky and pretty dangerous, but if I got trained or took a class it would be really fun to try.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment
ADVERTISEMENT