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!

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

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    2/17/2015 - 07:49 p.m.

    I think that it is cool for a 26-year-old women to perform a human cannonball in the circus which is pretty awesome if you saw a person launching off of the human cannonball in the circus place where people perform their skills in front of everybody. Well if I perform in the circus by doing the human cannonball, I would be going to the other side of the circus like a landslide if I did it.

  • Jason0421-YYCA
    2/17/2015 - 09:02 p.m.

    I think that is is amazing for Gemma Kirby to be able to actually get launched by a cannon. I think that it is cool for someone to be launched by a cannon since people don't get a chance to get launched by a cannon. I believe that Gemma Kirby is really brave, and I also think that she is a bit risky. I think so since people wouldn't just risk there life for entertainment.
    Critical thinking challenge: Which detail in the article suggests what Kirby might do in the distant future?
    Answer: The article suggests that Kirby is going to keep doing risky things in the distant future.

  • SadieB-1
    2/17/2015 - 11:24 p.m.

    Gemma Kirby, also known as the Jet, is the human cannonball for Circus Xtreme from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Kirby knew she wanted to be a performer since she was seven when she started dancing on stage. She got involved in ballet but later decided it was to restrictive thought that it didn't let her creativity show. At age thirteen, she tried aerial arts and fell in love with it. she later joined the circus as a trapeze artist. WHile working for bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota , Circus Xtreme offered the cannon to Gemma. she accepted the offer and now gets shot out of the cannon that is specialized for her body only ever show for 2.4 seconds. Gemma wants to inspire young girls to do daring things and try new things. I never knew that human cannonballs were so famous and i would love to try it.

  • JackR-5
    2/18/2015 - 08:16 a.m.

    A human cannonball from the Wrangling the circus is very daring. She launches hundred feet. She experiences a G Force of seven. This is the same as an astronaut entering the atmosphere. On her two year tour, he hopes to be launched 1000 times. She wants to inspire girls that they can do whatever they want. They don't have to be limited to what they're supposed to do. I think that this is great that she inspires little girls. It would be very fun to fly through the air.

  • ariellew-DiB
    2/18/2015 - 09:04 a.m.

    Wow that must be really scary just having to fly out like that.. also that is really dangerous like they can get hurt from that but I guess they know what their doing.

  • GigiSylvester-Ste
    2/18/2015 - 10:05 a.m.

    I think this is really cool that she is a human cannon ball. This would be really fun, and something I would love to try. Even thought, I would want to try i would be very nervous.

  • kimj-boo
    2/18/2015 - 11:15 a.m.

    The detail about Kirby wanting to notch her 1000 flight through the air suggests what she might do in the distant future.She want achieve here goal before her 2 year circus tour is over.

  • stephanb-DiB
    2/18/2015 - 12:28 p.m.

    Its amazing how a human can become a cannonball for a circus. Its highly risky for the people to do this as well considering the risks that are associated with this. This is also challenging for some people considering the technique, and the position the person has to do.

  • AB2001blue
    2/18/2015 - 01:01 p.m.

    I think that cool that Kirby is a human cannon. she can go up to 66 mph and lands up to 104 feet away in an air bag. That is dangerous but I think it is very cool to do that.

  • MS01tumblr
    2/18/2015 - 01:05 p.m.

    I think Kirby should get big big bucks for this job! I personally am afraid of heights. I would never be thrown out of a canon. Plus its dangerous. You never know exactly were you are going to land.

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