Dave “Cannonball” Smith, 63, kneels at the opening of his 33-foot-long, star-spangled cannon. As the barrel elevates, he waves to the crowd at the Steele County Free Fair in Owatonna, Minn. (pop. 22,343), and slips into the steel cocoon that’s aimed toward a net 145 feet away. But first he must soar 60 feet into the air and pass over two Ferris wheels.
The crowd counts down: “five, four, three, two, one!” With a loud boom and a cloud of smoke, Smith hurtles out of the cannon. The force of 9 Gs blurs his vision and distorts his body until he eventually tucks his head and flips onto his back to prepare for landing. As he hits the net, he quickly grabs hold to keep from ricocheting off. Fortunately, Smith’s nearly 4-second flight ends safely with thunderous applause.
“I was dazed and amazed,” says Joe Slezinger, a Chicago resident who witnessed Smith’s aerial performance last year. “It’s scary enough just sitting on a Ferris wheel, protected by a bar from falling out. It boggles the mind that he flew over the top of the Ferris wheel with no protection from being killed if he misses the net.”
For the 30-year cannonball veteran, it’s all in a day’s work. “I’ve learned to live with the fears and emotions,” says Smith, who gives two dozen performances each summer, spending the remainder of the year at his 50-acre farm near Halfway, Mo. (pop. 176).
“It’s a very rewarding profession,” he says. “I have little kids wrap their arms around me and say, ‘I love you.’ They want to touch and talk to me. I enjoy making people happy.”
Smith’s high-flying career launched in 1970 when he joined a traveling circus as a catcher in a trapeze act. Ambitious to star as a solo act, he designed and perfected a human-launching cannon in his spare time.
In 1975, he took to the air, performing his first show in Saginaw, Mich. Since then he’s meticulously recorded the angles, humidity, distance and temperature of thousands of his shots.
“The gun is very accurate,” he says. “Given certain conditions, I can go right where I want.” Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. “I have just the length of the barrel to accelerate enough to go the distance I want. There’s enough power to turn me into peanut butter if anything went wrong.”
Smith’s daughter, Jennifer Schneider, of Boliver, Mo. (pop. 9,143), grew up watching her father perform as the human cannonball at corporate conventions, fairs and amusement parks. “It was just what my dad was,” she says. “I didn’t think it was strange until I was older. Then I did it too.” Schneider, who goes by the nickname “Cannon Lady,” is among three of Smith’s 10 children who are professional cannonballs, using cannons built by Smith.
The family performs together for special events such as appearances on the Today Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Otherwise, their separate careers take them around the world. Jennifer, 32, works at motocross events in the United States; Stephanie, 28, stars in Australia as “Lady Cannon;” and Dave Smith Jr., known as “The Bullet,” has blasted across the Grand Canyon and often performs in the Middle East.
In 1998, both father and son broke the 1940 record for the longest human cannonball flight, launching simultaneously in Pennsylvania’s Kennywood Park. Dave Jr. landed first at just over 181 feet, besting the 1940 record by 7 inches. A split second later, Dave Sr. outdistanced his son with a 185-foot, 10-inch flight, which stands as the world record.
“I live for those kind of moments,” the elder Smith says.
When he’s not performing, Smith usually can be found at his Missouri farm, where his barn holds farming equipment, as well as a trampoline, trapeze and a gym for off-season training.
“I’m doing something I like,” he says. “A lot of people can’t do that. I won’t stop until I keel over.”