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!

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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. 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 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. It showcases extreme acts. Those include acrobats rappelling from a 15-foot towers, BMX riders, high-wire performers, contortionists and Bengal tigers.

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."

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 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 will appear in other cities.

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. She 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 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, 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 80 times

  • ella4572
    2/17/2015 - 01:08 p.m.

    I think that I might want to do this or something close to this job because I like to try dangerous things. Also the passage really inspired me to do something that boys think girls can't do and blow their minds when I finally did it.

  • karterh-Sch
    2/17/2015 - 01:26 p.m.

    The main idea is that the girl got shot out of the cannon. The reason why is because they shot her out if it. You would have to be brave.

  • Addie-Arm
    2/17/2015 - 02:01 p.m.

    I've always wanted to fly through the air like a bird. You know how you jump off something and say "I believe I can fly," imagine that except for about 45 seconds to 1 minute! I would be scared, but excited if I ever got a chance to do this!

  • Brenna-Arm
    2/17/2015 - 02:13 p.m.

    It is so amazing that they have the technology to shoot a person out of a cannon! Who would've ever thought that would be possible? Later in life, after her 2-year tour, Kirby might be a psychologist. According to the text, when they asked her to do the job, she was finishing up her bachelor's degree in psychology.

  • 19023jon
    2/17/2015 - 02:25 p.m.

    A girl that is a human cannon ball love to do what she does and few girls get to try this. she is hopping to notch 1,000 launches in the two year tour. As she is doing this she looks into the crowd at the little girls and hopping they can do what she can do.

    I think what makes it exciting is that she gets to be shot out of a cannon, and not many people get to do that in their life time.

  • 19042nez
    2/17/2015 - 02:27 p.m.

    This article is about a girl who went to college. Then she was offered to join a circus to be shot out of a cannon, and she took the job. Now she is working for the company and is doing well in the circus. She will do this until she is done with her career.

    What makes this story exciting is that a person is getting shot out of a cannon. It makes people more tense, but also excited to see people to do dangerous things.

  • 19053rod
    2/17/2015 - 02:27 p.m.

    Gemma Kirby is a woman who enjoys being shot out of a cannon. She has always wanted to be in the air. The cannon is made for her and her weight. When she is shot from the cannon, she experiences a G-force of seven.
    What makes this story so exiting is that she loves the rush of being in the air. She wants to be shot out of the cannon about 1000 times in 2 years.

  • 19020joh
    2/17/2015 - 02:28 p.m.

    Gemma Kirby is a circus performer. She started performing at the age of 7 by doing ballet. Then she found out it wasn't her favorite thing. She started in the circus at the junior level. She started on the flying trampolines. Then she got a call while working towards her bachelors degree. She got a call to be a human cannon.

    The detail about this story that's exciting is that she gets shot out of a cannon at 66 miles an hour.

  • 19012gar
    2/17/2015 - 02:37 p.m.

    Gemma is a girl who takes risks for Circus Xtreme, and people consider her a human cannonball. She started out as a performer at 7 years old, and she decided ballet was too strict and took up being shot out of a cannon.

  • samiram-Sch
    2/17/2015 - 06:19 p.m.

    I think it's really cool that Gemma Kirby is a human cannonball that can go as fast as 66 miles per hour and can land up to 104 feet away.

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