Daredevil flies through air with the greatest of ease Human cannonball enjoys the thrill

September 04, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

Sean Thomas decided he wanted to be a human cannonball after reading about a man who had broken his back being shot out of a cannon.

It wasn't the man's injuries that drew the 24-year-old, of course, but the sheer audacity, the daredeviling it took to join the circus as a human projectile.

Mr. Thomas, who arrives in Glen Burnie with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus next week, fulfilled his wish and now has a job that feels, he says, like getting hit by a car.

Twice a day, three times on Saturdays, he's propeled out of a cannon by eight tons of force. He shoots 45 feet up and 110 feet out, traveling 55 mph. He's still going 55 mph when he lands.

The circus is billing The Human Cannonball as "the most perilous and explosive of all circus thrills," and they can't be far wrong.

The man who owned the cannon and from whom Thomas learned his craft is paralyzed from a broken back. He was injured when he missed the airbag and hit concrete in Hong Kong while being shot out of the same cannon.

Mr. Thomas has devised an airbag with a net behind it, which he hopes would save his life and his spine if he crashed.

He's not sure if the net will hold, however; it's never been tested.

But the risk is what draws him. "It's addictive. It does it for me," he says. "It's an adrenalin rush. It gets me going."

As he shoots through the six-foot opening of the 30-foot cannon, Mr. Thomas takes the full pressure of 8 tons of gravity for only a moment. The impact, enough to propel him up and out, is The Hit. Mr. Thomas talks about it with awe.

"You take it for a split second -- 5-4-3-2-1 -- BANG -- and then you're gone," he says. "You get the adrenalin going; that's what helps you take The Hit."

The circus hasn't had a human cannonball in three decades, primarily because of the safety factor, Mr. Thomas says.

For him, the danger is simply fun. A daredevil all his life, the young man was working as a pool company salesman in Florida when he read a newspaper article about Elvin Bell, a former cannonball with Ringling Bros. who retired after breaking his back in 1986. Mr. Bell lived near by and had the cannon at his house.

Mr. Thomas visited, and asked Mr. Bell to teach him the trade. A natural athlete, about the right size for the cannon, he was also blond and blue-eyed, a plus with the circus people.

The first time he tried his new craft, Mr. Thomas flew just a few feet. "You have to learn how to fly," he says. "You have to have total control in order to fire [yourself] right. It's easy to break your neck. Going up, you have to keep looking up to stay on track."

A year into his exotic career, Mr. Thomas climbs daily into the gun and waits for the countdown.

Each shoot is different, depending on the evenness of the ground beneath the truck carrying the cannon. "It's really dangerous because you're not always on flat surfaces," Mr. Thomas explains. "You're on hills. Lots are crooked. If the barrel goes off crooked, it fires you off to the left or the right."

This requires advance work, says Mr. Thomas. He checks the scene ahead of time, planning in his mind where he'll need extra rotation, or need to pull in his body. "You don't just get in, press the trigger and go," he says.

When he does go with a loud bang, wearing a helmet for extra protection, Mr. Thomas doesn't think about the danger.

"If you think about it, you're in trouble," he says. "You just concentrate, double-check and triple-check things and make sure there's no possible way you'll crash unless the machine malfunctions. I don't want it to happen to me if I could have prevented it."

After a shoot, he emerges. "I'll have a lot of energy, a lot, then you lose it, you like come down," he says. "It wears you out, you know. The adrenalin wears you out."

He's constantly sore from hitting the ground at 55 mph. "My back is sore, my ankles and hips." Doctors informed him recently that all his bones are out of joint.

"You get used to it," he says. The pay is comfortable and he enjoys the crowd's enthusiasm. He doesn't work all day long. "It's not like a regular job. There is lots of freedom in it," he says.

Mr. Thomas hopes to continue as the cannonball for as long as possible. His family applauds him. "They knew some day would be like this and I'd do something like this," he says.

Last week he was shot out of the cannon across New York's Central Park.

"Some guys can sit down and read an encyclopedia. I can get in a cannon and do this."

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