The sky is a hazy swirl of sun and clouds. It is hot but not unbearable, breezy but not unmanageable. It is, says the woman in the diamond-studded black shorts and helmet, a perfect day for flying.
Only this isn't the usual "put your seat backs in the locked and upright position" kind of flying. This is about sliding feet-first into the barrel of an eight-metre long cannon tilted to a 40- to 45-degree angle so it can launch its human cargo through the air with the greatest of ease.
This is what Jennifer Schneider does four times a day at the Calgary Stampede, three of them on her own, and a fourth firing that closes out the evening with motorcyclists and flames. She is, after all, the Cannon Lady; a woman who has been flung from here to there and back.
For 26 years, Ms. Schneider has soared indoors and outdoors at circuses, small-town fairs and festivals. While her daily jumps at the Stampede are well within her safety zone, the Cannon Lady, who hails from the show-me state of Missouri, holds the women's world record for flying the longest distance without a carry-on item, or even a plane – some 44 metres in all.
It is one of several records set then reset by America's first family of cannonballing. Ms. Schneider's father is Dave Smith. He retired four years ago at the age of 86. He had the men's world record for distance, 56.3 metres. Then along came Dave [The Bullet] Smith Jr., who went 59 metres to claim top billing.
"As far as women as cannonballs, there is a very, very small group of us. Maybe 10," Ms. Schneider says as she readies for her afternoon blasting. "I was born into it. I grew up in circuses. I was a performer and I had shows to do. It just evolved from trapeze and aerial acts to being a human cannonball."
Mankind's history of being cannon fodder supposedly dates back 138 years to Zazel, a 14-year-old girl who became a circus attraction. Her legend has become murkier over the decades. Some have said Zazel was actually a man dressed in women's clothes. The certainties are she toured with P.T. Barnum until she fell and suffered a career-ending back injury.
Ms. Schneider has endured her share of aches and scrapes, too. Once, at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, she bounced off her landing net and hit the ground, shattering her left elbow. Two months later, she fell again and broke her right wrist in three places.
The difference between walking away unscathed, or being taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, has everything to do with the landing and not the takeoff. Ms. Schneider constantly checks her catching net, which measures 5.7 metres wide and 55 metres in length and could trap an elephant.
When she's not adjusting the net's support poles, her husband, Rob Schneider, is giving everything the once-over before he climbs into the cannon's shooting compartment. (The cannon rests atop a customized Ford F-450 Power Stroke and can be taken almost anywhere.)
Inside the compartment, Mr. Schneider waits for his wife's countdown before unleashing the catapult-like system, complete with the obligatory flash and ear-punching explosion.
Mr. Schneider is no stranger to such performing arts. He used to do motorcycle jumps and tricks and also worked as a stunt man. He gave that up for something even riskier – blowing himself up. His stage name is Mr. Boom and he has a thing for aligning himself next to explosive material. Together, Mr. Boom and the Cannon Lady are a reality show in need of a network.
"When I meet people and they ask me what I do for a living, I know I'm going to get into a long conversation if I say I blow myself up," Mr. Schneider explains. "So I tell them I'm in the painting business."
Ms. Schneider remembers her first time she was ejected from the family cannon. She was 14 and all went well. Knowing what to expect made her second jump more unnerving but necessary. When her older sister said she was pregnant and couldn't do any more cannonballing, Ms. Schneider was "next in the saddle," so up and out she went. She hasn't stopped flying since, and likely won't any time soon.
"When the phone stops ringing [with job offers] or if I start feeling like a cannonball, then I'll stop," she says. "But I have an amazing life. I get to travel with my husband and our two kids. We've been to many different countries and each time we go we're usually there for a long period of time so you actually get to experience the culture and the people. That's remarkable."
On this day at the Stampede, the Cannon Lady addresses a full crowd inside the Bell Adrenaline Ranch. People have come to watch her reach a speed of 70 kilometres per hour in mere seconds – and Ms. Schneider doesn't disappoint. She is on cue and on the mark and can relax until the next show three hours away.
"I have a job I love and I'm always entertaining people," she says in a reflective moment. "I've got it good."