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Human cannonball

Rob W

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Human cannonball Diego Zeman is fired twice a day. Boom boom.


Shot from a four metre gun, the circus stunt man flies through the air at speeds of up to 60mph, his mind always firmly set on that distant safety net. The crowds roar, wide-eyed children clamour for his autograph and the hours aren't bad. But it's not an easy life.


"I always feel nervous," he says. "I have to concentrate, everything has to be 110% perfect." Get the timings wrong and it's not just your job at risk. For 24-year-old Diego, the circus life was always going to be a career option.


His Brazilian father and Hungarian mother were part of a big top acrobatic act based in Eastern Europe. The young Diego grew up around the performers and started training when he eight. "I was born into the circus and started with the trapeze and high wire," he says. Moving on to the job of human cannonball was therefore, for Diego at least, an obvious next step.


Diego starts his act at Cottle & Austen circus to the strains of Rocket Man, the dimmed lights suddenly turned on to reveal him standing on top of his cannon. It's then a question of clambering inside the barrel and standing on a platform three quarters of the way down. Air is pumped at high pressure into the space left beneath his feet and, after final checks to make sure he is ready, his flight begins.


"I feel free when I'm flying - it's a nice feeling," says Diego. "It's a bit like bungee jumping."


To suggest it's easy work is to miss the point though. Diego is not just 60-odd kgs of human ballast - his task requiring more talent than the audience might realise. Apart from facing the strains put on his body by the sudden acceleration, the flying Diego must also perform something of an acrobatic feat mid-air.


"You have to fly straight, keep you body rigid and turn at exactly the right moment so that you land on your back," explains cannon trainer Marnie Dock, who was the world's first female human cannonball at the age of 16. There is also the small matter of making sure that Diego is not fired headlong into the big top's canopy, or the many wires strung-up for the circus' acrobats, says Marnie.


Every time the circus moves, the cannon's position and angle is precisely calculated.

A dummy model of Diego is test fired several times to check everything is okay before the man himself starts work.


Space centre


Anyone tempted to explore a career in human cannonballing themselves may also need to look more closely at what's involved. The pay isn't great - this is a job done "for the enjoyment, not the money" - and you have to live on site. And while your act may last just a couple of minutes, the circus requires your presence throughout the shows as part of the troupe. Diego also has to control his weight (lest those calculations get messed up) and spends an hour or two in the gym every day, to strengthen his knees and back. He has also been to the Guiana space centre in Brazil, completing a course which helped him prepare his body for the rigours of being propelled at high speeds.


Ironically it was his predecessor's fear of flying in planes, as opposed to out of a cannon, that led to the job coming up when he refused to travel to South America for training. Perhaps those with similarly nervous dispositions could plump for an easier job. Knife thrower's assistant anyone?

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One of my mates is a knife thrower. Why not be an assisstant?? They wouldn't have an assisstant if they weren't sure they were going to be 100% accurate 99.999% of the time. Yeh, accidents happen, but they're not going to risk hurting someone if it's a case of "well, i TEND to get the knife to hit in the right spot.... y'know... sometimes..."


I had an interesting chat with one of the circus trainers in Oz about human cannons. because if it's set up wrong then you could basically just smash the guy's feet up into his knees and break all his legs. I can't remember how they said it was done though... I should have paid more attention. I think the platform he's standing on moves.... rather than something coming up from the bottom and slamming into him to make him move. That way would knacker him up immensely.


I don't know any human cannonballs...... boo.. how dull!

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I had an interesting chat with one of the circus trainers in Oz about human cannons.  because if it's set up wrong then you could basically just smash the guy's feet up into his knees and break all his legs.


I have visions of five-legged Aussie men now... :blink:

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