Birdman's daring descent sets cross-Channel record

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The Independent Online

An Austrian skydiver with a carbon fibre wing strapped to his back became the first man to cross the Channel in an unpowered flight yesterday.

Felix Baumgartner, 34, leapt from an aircraft 30,000 feet above Dover and took little more than six minutes to travel the 22 miles to France.

He landed by parachute in Cap Blanc-Nez, close to Calais, and emerged from a tangle of canvas to proclaim the experience a "great" one.

The jump, the culmination of three years' training, was not without hitches. The record attempt was delayed after a cameraman passed out through lack of oxygen in the jump plane and fell between Mr Baumgartner and the door.

Towards the end of the journey, the former mechanic was going too quickly when he deployed the parachute to drop into France and his leg became caught up in the lines. He whipped out a knife he kept in a holder attached to his ankle and cut away parts of the parachute so that he could land safely at the drop zone.

He said: "As I opened the chute I was pulled backwards and my leg got caught in the line. I had to get my knife and cut off a piece of the parachute."

The attempt - dubbed Icarus Two after the Greek mythological character - began shortly after 5am yesterday. But while Icarus's wax wings melted in the sun, Mr Baumgartner leapt from the plane into -39C temperatures.

He had thermal padding beneath his suit to protect him and oxygen to help him breathe. He was also equipped with cameras and hi-tech equipment to allow air traffic controllers to track him.

His support crew said that they spotted at least four jets flying above them during the record attempt. The wing enabled him to travel forwards four metres for every one that he dropped.

He travelled initially at a speed of 220mph before slowing to 135mph, and was accompanied by support aircraft that helped direct him to his target.

Vern Nobles, a member of the team on one of the support planes, said yesterday that cloud cover prevented the crew from seeing where they were heading. Using satellite positioning, they discovered that they were 10 degrees off target. The support team spoke to Mr Baumgartner by radio and he was able to readjust his position by tweaking the wing.

The success of the flight depended on a good tailwind, but winds were not as strong as expected. It was only when they got within nine miles of the French coast that the team was confident of avoiding crashing into the sea.

"We spoke to him four times," said Mr Nobles. "At nine miles out we knew we were going to make it and the guidance was good. He said: 'It was really cool - and I'm glad you're here'."

After he landed, Mr Baumgartner said: "For the last 2,000 metres I could see the other side and I knew I was going to make it. I have been preparing myself for three years for this day. It was great to see the other side. It's total freedom. At this altitude it's perfect with the sunrise at the beginning of the day." The crowd gathered on the cliffs cheered when he emerged through the clouds at the end of the journey. Within minutes of touching down he was smiling and posing for photographers. He said he was still numb from the cold.

He practised for the feat by being driven around at speed on the roof of a sports car while strapped into the wing, which was designed by scientists at the University of Applied Science in Munich.