First Person: Chachi Valencia

Chachi Valencia has been fired out of a cannon 400 times, travelling at a speed of 55mph

I shut my eyes when the five-second countdown starts but the nerves still get me every time. The barrel of the cannon is 36ft long, so once I climb inside and reach the bottom, there’s no chance to change my mind and get out again. Then everything happens so quickly that by the time my brain reacts I’m already flying through the air, hopefully heading towards the safety net.

My cannon is capable of firing me more than 200ft but I feel more comfortable at 165ft. That’s the distance we marked out for the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, when I doubled for Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame. However, I never actually met Eric because we rehearsed at different locations. I wasn’t allowed to wear my usual costume and badly grazed my knee on the inside of the cannon during the launch.

I’m not sure there’s a conventional way into becoming a human cannonball. I was born in Chile, the fifth generation of circus performers in my family. The Flying Valencias were trapeze artists, travelling from town to town, sleeping in tents and performing week in, week out. We left Santiago and moved to Las Vegas when I was eight, taking the act to a wider audience in a new country.

I started performing when I was 12. Circus life was already in my blood, but it was really hard work on the trapeze. You have to practise every day to keep your muscles strong – if you become lazy then accidents happen. I met my future wife, Robin, when I was touring America. She was one of just a handful of female human cannonballs. After we married in 1988, I left the Flying Valencias and joined her as an engineer. Her cannon is 18ft long, but it’s still pretty weird being responsible for firing your wife into the air several times a month.

I didn’t start my career as a human cannonball until 2008. Robin is 43 and her uncle is David Smith Sr, probably the most famous human cannonball in the world. But in that year he was rehearsing for a show and broke his ankle, landing badly on the safety net. It was only 24 hours before he was due on for real and so I said I would do it. I had two practice shots and can still remember the joy of opening my eyes to see I was heading towards the safety net.

Since then I’ve been fired 400 times. There are obvious dangers but the force that sends me flying is created by hydraulics, not gunpowder. The explosion you see at the start of the act is really for effect and we never reveal what actually happens inside the chamber. The five-second countdown gives me time to get into the foetal position and stay as compact as possible. I’m travelling at 55mph and pulling about 5G when I leave the cannon, which is roughly the same force a jet fighter pilot feels, although I only wear a helmet and some light body padding.

Positioning the net correctly is crucial and we first fire a safety dummy that weighs the same as me. Wind direction and air temperature have to be taken into account because if the net is off centre, it’s very easy to land awkwardly and get injured. I’m 41 and so far I’ve been lucky – just minor cuts and bruises. I am insured, but it’s difficult trying to persuade some people that my job is safe. I travel a lot and passport officers tend to look at me closely when I explain what I do for a living.

People often ask me where the human cannonball idea came from. I understand it was started by the Italian army, during the first world war. They explored the idea of firing soldiers over enemy lines but soon gave up because of the lack of a safety net! Nowadays, Robin and I spend half the year based in Dallas, Texas, and then winter in Europe, where there is still a great circus tradition and more work. We have two teenage daughters, Madalena and Francesca, but they have no plans to follow in our career path. In fact, we are quite pleased that they’re hoping to have normal jobs.

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