Flight of the human cannonballs

Robin Valencia and cannon

Human cannonballs have been a feature of circuses for nearly 150 years, but today there are just a handful of performers - and two of them are a married couple.

"We were in love and wanted to do something together. So I thought, 'why not the cannon?'"

Robin Valencia had always known about the cannon. Her uncle - David Smith Snr - heads America's most famous human cannonball family, celebrated for stunts such as being fired across the Mexican border.

So when Robin married Chachi, a trapeze artist, she could see no reason why the couple should not adopt the career.

"You're completely unattached to anything," she says. "You're flying."

David "Cannonball" Smith flies over the US-Mexico border David "Cannonball" Smith flies over the US-Mexico border

Today 45-year-old Robin performs around the world as The Shooting Star. Dressed in her trademark outfit of a shiny catsuit and an open-face red helmet, a typical performance will see her climb up on to the cannon and give a final wave to the audience as she slides inside.

Then the countdown before Robin makes her explosive reappearance to the gasps of the crowd.

But ask how the feat is accomplished and Robin insists that it remains a "trade secret". Human cannonballs jealously guard the design of their cannon.

"I do use gunpowder," is all she will admit. In truth, gunpowder is only used to create the bang and puff of smoke. Modern cannons actually use compressed air or a bungee cord to propel a small platform which the "cannonball" stands on.

Video from Robin and Chachi Valencia shows the couple performing their human cannonball acts

"Your position inside determines your landing," explains Robin. "It's a mix of standing and the foetal position. You're trying to get your neck and your spine aligned and the balls of your feet in the right position."

Before each of Robin's performances, she and Chachi spend hours configuring the cannon. The idea is for Robin to land exactly in the middle of an airbag on the other side of the auditorium.

A sand-filled dummy is used to test variables such as the angle of the cannon and even the temperature of the venue.

Find out more

Robin and Chachi Valencia
  • Robin and Chachi Valencia were speaking to the BBC World Service programme Outlook
  • Outlook airs Mon-Thurs
  • Tells personal stories from around the world

With some cannonball performers reaching heights of over 20m (65ft), even a slight miscalculation could result in serious injury. The nerve-wracking task of pulling the trigger is always reserved for Chachi.

"I've never had anybody else shoot me out of the cannon in my career," says Robin. "We only really know being together as being cannonballs."

Robin and Chachi first met at a circus in Houston, Texas in 1988. Robin was there to watch her cousin, then also a human cannonball. Chachi, a Chilean immigrant, was appearing in the show as part of his family trapeze act, The Flying Valencias. The couple fell in love and were soon married.

As a child, she had lived next door to her uncle David Smith Snr. A former maths teacher and a trained gymnast, Smith was working his way to the world record for the longest distance travelled by a human cannonball. He agreed to build Robin her own cannon and, aged just 19, her life as a cannonball began.

"It was a dangerous thing to do," recalls Robin. "But I had seen my uncle have a safe and successful career. So I felt safe."

Twenty years later, in 2008, an injury to Smith gave Chachi his opportunity to become a cannonball. Smith landed standing up and broke his foot and needed someone to fulfil his contract to the show's promoters. By chance, Chachi was in the audience.

"Something inside told me that I would have to do this cannon for him," Chachi says. "He called me over, waiting for the ambulance, and he asked, 'Do you think you can do the cannon for me?' And that was the start of my cannon career."

Just days later, The Rocketman Valencia took his first flight.

"I think I actually flew with my eyes closed," says Chachi. "I knew that if I didn't turn over I was going to land on my head. I didn't see the net at all."

Chachi Valencia at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics Chachi Valencia at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics

Today, Chachi uses a cannon 11m in length which shoots him a minimum distance of 30m. Last year he was watched by an estimated 750 million people worldwide when he performed in the closing ceremony of the London Olympics as the finale to Eric Idle's rendition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

World-beating cannonballs

  • 1877: Rosa Richter, known as Zazel, is the first recorded human cannonball with a shot of 6m (30ft) at the Royal Aquarium, London
  • 1940: Emanuel Zacchini, one of a family of cannonballs, sets the world record at 53m
  • 1995: David Smith Snr breaks that by flying 55m
  • 2011: He is overtaken by his son David Smith Jr who flies 59m in Milan

Source: Guinness World Records

So what does it feel like to be fired from a cannon?

"Your mind isn't fast enough to react," says Chachi. "It takes a split second to realise, 'OK, now I'm out', then another to realise, 'I'm flying'. That's the feeling that always gets me, how quick you come out of that barrel."

Despite a human cannonball being one of the highest-paid acts in a circus, one estimate puts the number currently working in the world at fewer than 10.

"There aren't many left," says Paul Archer, tour director of the Moscow State Circus. "We had one with us five years ago and the publicity factor was worth the cost of his act alone. You need to be brave, but you also need the physique and skill of an acrobat."

"You need to keep your body in a very straight line at the time of the shot otherwise the force can cause you damage."

Chachi and Robin in action Chachi and Robin in action

Robin and Chachi now spend much of the year based in Paris and perform on both sides of the Atlantic. Each has their own cannon.

"Chachi goes three times further than me," explains Robin. "But I have a really short cannon which makes the impact of my shot more intense."

Despite the "5-6Gs" that Chachi estimates his body is exposed to as he leaves the cannon at nearly 100km/h (60mph) - a force that could cause black-outs in the untrained - the bigger fear for both performers is when the other is being fired from the cannon.

"I'm actually more nervous shooting Robin out than being shot myself," says Chachi. "You feel a lot more responsibility and I know she feels the same way."

"It's a lot of pressure for a human to take," concedes Robin. "Your calculations need to be exact. Anything in your flight path like a tiny cable would be detrimental."

The history of the human cannonball is filled with serious injury and fatalities - a man died in the UK in 2011 when his safety net collapsed at a show in Kent.

Circus poster The first human cannonball was Rosa Richter - aka Zazel - in 1877. She used a spring-powered cannon
Circus poster The Zacchini family were famed for the invention of a double cannon in the 1920s
Circus poster Hugo Zacchini - aka The Human Projectile - is considered to be the greatest human cannonball in history
Hugo Zacchini performs at a fair Hugo Zacchini's act included a flight over two and sometimes three Ferris wheels
Victoria Zacchini Victoria Zacchini joined the family business in 1943
Mary Connors' River Avon attempt Mary Connors attempted to cross the River Avon in Bristol in 1974. She failed.
Circus poster The human cannonball was a regular feature of British circuses until the 1990s

The pioneers of the human cannonball worked with crude equipment. In the 1870s, the Canadian showman William Leonard-Hunt - aka The Great Farini - built a spring-powered device whilst working at London's Royal Aquarium. A 14-year-old acrobat, Rosa Richter - Zazel - was chosen to be fired out of it and became the first recorded human cannonball.

"The Victorians would travel anywhere in search of a good show," says Prof Vanessa Toulmin, director of the University of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive. "The human cannonball act became one of the main staples of large outdoor shows, attracting upwards of 15,000 spectators."

Chachi Valencia and cannon

Zazel later performed in the large tented circuses of PT Barnum and appeared in France and the US. In 1891, her career ended in New Mexico after breaking her back in a fall, possibly sustained during a performance of the cannon or her other speciality, the circus high wire.

Then in the early 1920s the Zacchinis, an Italian family who moved to America, revitalised the act with the introduction of a double cannon which fired two human cannonballs. Their shows sometimes involved as many as six brothers and two sisters.

But in 1940, one of the brothers, Mario, was forced to retire after an accident at the New York World's Fair. Thirty years later, his niece Linda broke her neck after colliding mid-air with her husband Emanuel.

The Valencias credit their survival to rigorous preparation and daily training to keep their muscles strong. It is a way of life they see no reason to give up.

"My uncle retired at around 70, so we know that it's possible," says Robin. "Just as long as we stay in shape and stay fit."

"For our kids, it's just normal - mum and dad going to work," says Chachi. But he says their two teenage daughters have have no desire to be in the circus. "And we're very happy about that."

Robin and Chachi Valencia were speaking to the BBC World Service programme Outlook. Listen to the interview here

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