Faster than the speed of sound: the man who falls to earth

Daredevil Felix Baumgartner, who made the first unpowered flight across the English Channel in 2003, now plans to skydive from the edge of space. Tony Paterson reports

Monday 25 January 2010 01:00

He is about as close as it is humanly possible to get to being a real life Batman and he does it without resorting to capes, masks or the assistance of a Boy Wonder. Instead he uses spies, disguises, sponsorship and a hefty supply of nerve to achieve his near-legendary reputation.

For years, Felix Baumgartner has taken to the skies in a way most of us can only hope to emulate in an aeroplane. From skydiving to base-jumping, his endeavours have thrilled onlookers and frequently enraged the authorities. But like most extreme athletes, Baumgartner has always been on the lookout for the ultimate rush - and now, it appears, he has found it.

His goal, which he hopes to achieve this year, is to make the highest ever parachute jump. It will be from well into the stratosphere. It will mean breaking the speed of sound. And, if it succeeds, it will break a record that has stood for 50 years.

Several others have attempted to break that long-standing record, which has stood for decades as marks for other altitude extremes have tumbled. The most recent attempt was made in 2008, by a former French paratrooper, Michel Fournier, who spent years preparing only to have the balloon that was set to take him up break from its moorings and float away.

Luckily, Baumgartner has a former US Airforce colonel, Joe Kittinger, to guide him. And Kittinger is not just any air force colonel. For it was he who leapt from a gondola attached to a high altitude balloon in 1960 to fall from a height of 19.5 miles. He is the only man who can advise the challenger from experience. "He was my childhood hero," Baumgartner says.

The Austrian adventurer has come a long way from the boy who worshipped his Vietnam-veteran predecessor. Now Baumgartner is occasionally known as the "God of the Skies". His more prosaic nickname is 'Fearless Felix". He is best known in Britain for his extraordinary feat of July seven years ago, when he skydived over the English Channel starting thousands of feet above Dover and flew without any external propulsion across to Calais.

The 40- year-old Austrian extreme sportsman pulled off the stunt 94 years after Luis Bleriot's first powered flight across the Channel, and his account of his experience was almost poetic: "While I was still at a high altitude, I flew into my own shadow, which the morning sun was casting on to a cloud together with a rainbow . I don't think anyone has experienced that before," Baumgartner said.

Yet his Channel crossing was a comparatively simple undertaking, mainly because it had the approval of the authorities on both sides. It required no resorting to SAS-style covert activities. Baumgartner's habit of base-jumping – the highly dangerous business of throwing oneself off high buildings – is his stock in trade, and the authorities in most countries do their best to stop him.

Some say that his most dangerous feat was a leap from the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro – a relatively small structure, but all the riskier as a result. But Baumgartner says he conquered his base jump Everest in December 2007, when he chucked himself off the 1,280 foot high Taipei 101 Tower - the highest building in the world until earlier this month. His free fall lasted five seconds before his parachute flew open. "I've finally fulfilled a dream," he exclaimed.

He had attempted to jump off the building on three previous occasions but had been caught each time by Taipei security guards. He eventually had to use spies to case the building in advance. They noted the positions of security cameras, smuggled in his parachute and hid it the ceiling of a top floor lavatory. Baumgartner dressed in several different disguises in order to inspect the building unnoticed before making his jump. Eight years beforehand he jumped off the 1,242 foot high Petronas twin tower complex in Kuala Lumpur, which was then the world's highest building. Batman eat your heart out.

Still, even those feats would pale in comparison to the altitude record that Baumgartner now hopes to set. His collaboration with Kittinger is a throwback to an era before the first American sub-orbital space trip and in the midst of the cold war, when the goal was to provide data on the effect of high-altitude bailouts from aircraft. Then, as now, the risks were considerable. A pressurised glove failed on the ascent and his hand swelled up to twice its usual size. But Kittinger decided to go ahead with the jump anyway, falling at 614 mph, slowed only slightly by his drogue parachute.

His previous jump, a year earlier, nearly killed him. Falling out of another gondola at 76,400 feet in November 1959, Kittinger's equipment failed and caused him to lose consciousness. His body went into a terrifying flat spin that caused him to rotate like a propeller blade, turning at a speed of 120 mph. The G forces on parts of his body were calculated to be a staggering 22 times the force of gravity. Fortunately the automatic parachute opener in his equipment functioned properly. It saved his life. So is Baumgartner scared? "Of course," he says. "I always use fear to my advantage, for focus."

The attempt is planned for an as-yet unnamed location in North America. Dressed in a specially modified full pressure suit and helmet, he will ascend to the stratosphere in a pressurised capsule attached to a 450-foot high helium filled balloon. He then intends to jump out at an altitude he hopes will exceed 120,000 feet, or nearly 23 miles, and make a descent lasting over five minutes. Scientists say he will almost certainly break the sound barrier during his free fall and become the first human to do so without the aid of a machine.

Baumgartner views his forthcoming attempt with a mixture of excitement and adrenalin-fuelled apprehension. "No one really knows what that will be like," he says. "The fact is that you have a lot of different air flows coming around your body. Some parts of you body are in supersonic flow and some parts are in transonic flow. What kind of reaction that creates, I can't tell you." Baumgartners' backers, the Austrian Red Bull energy drink firm, say that if all goes well, he should break the speed of sound some 35 seconds into his descent.

Colonel Kittinger, who is one of the few people to have experienced such high altitude free fall is quite clear about what the project entails. "It is extremely hostile up there and the further you fall, the friendlier it becomes," he said.

The main challenge facing Baumgartner will be to stop his body going into the kind of consciousness-robbing flat spin that Kittinger experienced. Most scientists say it is almost impossible to pull out of a spin once it gains momentum. As a result Baumgartner, like his predecessor, will be equipped with a device which will open his parachute automatically should he black out.

Yet his jump is also an attempt to further space exploration. Baumgartner says it will help to make it possible to bring astronauts back to Earth alive, should their space capsules malfunction on entering the stratosphere. "We want to prove that astronauts can make it safely back to Earth, if they are forced to bail out at 120,000 feet," he said.

Yet Baumgartner may find that he has got more than a 120,000-foot free fall and the threat of flat spins to contend with during his record breaking attempt. Michel Fournier has also pledged to have a go at beating Kittinger's record in 2010, if he secures the right funding. A race for the sky could be on.

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