Unless you're Nik Wallenda. If the name rings a bell, it's because he's the seventh generation of the acrobatic troupe that came to be known as the Flying Wallendas, for decades one of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's most famous circus acts. When Nik Wallenda uses a truss, he's the one hanging from it, on his way to traversing the tightrope strung between two truss towers that average 50 feet off the ground and at times have reached as high as 90 feet, positioned and held in place by a team that can sometimes be comprised of as many as 40 riggers, depending on height, length and wind.
What Wallenda does up there is nothing short of amazing: he set a Guinness world record in October 2008 for the longest distance and greatest height ever traveled by bicycle on a high-wire - 150 feet out on a high-wire from the roof of Newark, N.J.'s Prudential Building, suspended 20 stories over the street and without a safety net. Other "stunts," as he calls them, include acts on sway poles, incline motorcycles, skywalks, silks, lyra, the cloud swing and, at one time, Nik even had a dog act on the high-wire. "We've performed nearly every circus or daredevil skill there is," Wallenda affirms. "And we have the riggings for every sort of apparatus stored in a warehouse to prove it."
In fact, for Wallenda's upcoming Discovery Channel reality show, Man Up, starting in August, the trusses he uses will very much be supporting actors in every sense of the word. "We often have to have heavily customized trusses; because they need to be portable, they need to be lightweight but still incredibly strong," he explains. "I can't go and just take a truss off the shelf."
28 Centimeters of Support
Where Wallenda does go is to Performance Truss, a division of Aerial Rigging. Michael Wiener founded Aerial Rigging in 1987 as rigging services companies providing rigging labor to the hotel, convention center, entertainment, theatrical, attractions, theme park and trade show industries. Notable projects included Super Bowl XXXV and Universal Studios theme park rides, as well as being the exclusive rigging services provider to many leading hotels including the Peabody Orlando, Hilton Orlando, Bonnet Creek Orlando Hilton, Waldorf Astoria Orlando, The Renaissance Orlando, Hilton in the Walt Disney Resort, Hyatt Regency Tampa, and the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. The company's convention work has extended to the convention centers in Las Vegas, Dallas, Los Angeles, and the Javits Center in New York.
"We worked for two years on the design of the Performance Truss, experimenting with various designs and configurations," says Wiener, who points out that the diagonal members used in its construction are 28 centimeters in diameter, versus the 20 centimeters that's more typical. "That makes a difference when you start reaching heights and lengths like Nik does," he says. Wiener brought Wallenda into his Orlando-area shop and says the aerialist immediately recognized how it would benefit his type of performances, which were becoming more extreme each time out, such as the 1,800-foot walk he took across the cove at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas last year, 35 stories above the water.
One of the things that Wallenda likes best about the Performance Truss is the horizontal cross-bracing, which give the truss a distributed load value of 2,024 pounds and a point load of 1,218 pounds, as well as making it much easier for him to climb vertically. (Performance Truss load factors were established by the Structural Entertainment Group from Cincinnati, OH). Even the vertical braces are thick - 38 centimeters, according to Wiener, who designed it with triangular braces on two sides of the box truss and horizontal "climbing" braces on the other two sides, giving Wallenda more flexibility in setting up his stunts.
No Clowning Around
Wallenda's trusses are advanced versions of what the circus has always used to support lights and sound under the big top. In fact, Wallenda emphasizes, circus spectators don't realize the sheer physics of truss construction and application; understandable, perhaps, since many of the people running around under them are wearing size 32 shoes and have red bulbous noses. "The circus has been looked down upon for many years, but what goes on in them when it comes to acrobatics involves an enormous amount of physics and engineering," Wallenda points out, adding that he has kept a full-time structural engineer on his staff for years. "There's a tremendous amount of science in what we do. The last thing I want when performing is to be concerned about the rigging." In fact, Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the Wallenda clan, fell to his death during a promotional tightrope walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1978 at age 73, not because of any infirmities, capabilities, or the wind that day, but, Wallenda's own website states, because of improper rigging. "That's our lives up there," Wallenda says.
Nik Wallenda's next planned gig is whopper: he'll be crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope with Discovery Channel watchers looking on live. But considering that he also proposed to his wife, Erendira, on a tightrope, even the Grand Canyon should be just a walk in the park for Nik Wallenda.
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