Flying high in Austin

Published 9:53 am Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nothing seems to really phase David Smith.

Not the risk of death.

Not the sweltering Minnesota heat.

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Not kids telling him what he does is cool.

The 67-year-old Halfway, Mo. man is also known as the “Human Cannonball,” who twice nightly Thursday and Friday at the Mower County Fair will take position in a cannonball he designed and be shot through the air over one of the Midway’s ferris wheels.

He already did it successfully Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I don’t know what possessed me, I just wanted to do it,” Smith said about first getting into the business 35 years ago. “God gives us gifts, and I am a pretty good engineer.”

A former school teacher, Smith said he first entered the world of entertainment as a catcher in a flying trapeze act.

He said he was a part of a team that won the World Professional Championships in England in 1976.

From there, he simply envisioned building a human cannon and 9,000 jumps later, he’s still at it.

He’s featured at the Mower County Fair for the first time.

“What I enjoy most about it are the people,” he said. “For a few minutes, I get to give them something that is special and make them happy. I think giving is the key to life. And for a few minutes, I get to give something back.”

Here’s how it works.

Based on statistics Smith said he’s compiled for years, the cannon is placed 82 feet from the ferris wheel, with a safety net 15 feet behind the wheel.

At show time, Smith then stands on the barrel and when it goes up in the air, he waves to the crows before going in. After that, it’s 20 seconds before launch.

“There’s not much ‘here we go to it,’ ” he said

How the cannon is designed is a professional secret Smith won’t talk about.

“What I can tell you is that I’m in one place first and when I get shot out, I’m someplace else,” he said.

Smith has a little help with his stunt.

His assistant Rob Redfern, also of Missouri, has been helping with the attraction for a year, and the duo will have done 30 fairs and festivals by year’s end.

“My job is to fire the cannon,” he said. “I have the best job at the carnival. I get to fire my boss.”

Smith is the current world record holder for the human cannonball, which Redfern said was accomplished at the Steele County Fair in 2001 when Smith went 201 ft., four inches.

Smith said there’s other human cannonballers out there, but there’s only one him.

“I go farther,” he said.

Redfern said there is risk involved with the act and that problems can happen, such as a seal break in the hydraulics, which would likely lower the cannon and send Smith to the dirt.

“There are a number of ways I can kill him easily,” Redfern said. “However, he’s a really good man to work for, and I wouldn’t want to do it on purpose.”

Smith said there have been a few mishaps.

One time he bounced out and landed in a pond. On other occasions, the net hasn’t held, and he was simply lowered to the ground.

But the numbers speak for themselves. Smith said he’s had 9,000 jumps with no broken bones, although he does admit to still being scared on occasion.

“I was very frightened yesterday (Tuesday), and I cleared it by 15 or 20 feet,” he said.

Smith added that he’s funding his act on his own, with all of the donations and payment he’s receiving going to help a deaf Florida girl pay for a hearing operation.

Smith said that he met Rina, now 20, once at a carnival, has spoken with her family and wanted to help her out.

He said $40,000 is needed for the operation and said he’s already raised $13,500.

“Everything’s given to her,” he said.

On Wednesday, as people walked past the human cannon on way to other rides such as the Kamikaze, the Himalaya or the Starship 2000, a lot of buzz was about Smith and his act.

“I think it’s cool; that guy’s crazy,” said Austin’s Cory Loecher as he watched his son Jaxson on the ferris wheel. “I think it’s great he’s here.”

John Mueller, this year’s fair board president, agreed.

“Obviously he has an exclusive on his art,” Mueller said. “And he’s a draw to the fair and the Midway itself.”