A Giant Leap (for a Man)

by Andrew Stuttaford

Baumgartner! Kittinger!

The New York Times reports:

ROSWELL, N.M. — Felix  Baumgartner, the professional daredevil, jumped from a balloon more than 24 miles above the Earth on Sunday, and landed safely on his feet.

Just minutes earlier, Mr. Baumgartner stood on the edge of his capsule completing a final checklist before jumping into a near vacuum at above 127,000 feet, or more than 24 miles. He landed in the eastern New Mexico desert, and lifted his arms in victory. His support team and family cheered…

From the sky above the New Mexico desert he had hoped to make the highest jump in historyand become the first sky diver to break the speed of sound. Before the jump, Mr. Baumgartner went through a checklist with help from Joe Kittinger, 84, the retired Air Force colonel who in 1960 jumped from 102,800 feet, setting records that remained more than half a century later — and that Mr. Baumgartner was hoping to break…

One of the techniques Mr. Baumgartner developed for dealing with claustrophobia [in the ascent capsule] was to stay busy throughout the ascent. Mr. Baumgartner conversed steadily, in Austrian-accented English, with Mr. Kittinger, a former fighter pilot whose deep voice exuded the right stuff as he confidently went through a 40-item checklist rehearsing every move that Mr. Baumgartner would make when it came time to leave the capsule — tasks like sliding his seat forward, checking his parachutes, and carefully opening the hatch.

Mr. Kittinger, a former test pilot, set his records in a 1960 trip to the stratosphere. Early during that ascent, also over New Mexico, in an Air Force balloon, one of his pressurized gloves leaked, but he was so determined to keep going that he did not report the problem, even after his hand swelled to twice its normal size.

Ignoring the pain, he rode the balloon up to 102,800 feet and said a short prayer — “Lord, take care of me now” — before stepping off. He reached a speed of 614 miles an hour and spent 4 minutes, 36 seconds in free fall….

The original stratospheric jump by Mr. Kittinger was part of an Air Force program studying ways to help pilots survive high-altitude bailouts. It experimented with a small parachute, called a drogue, to prevent the jumper’s body from going into a flat spin — a hazard that almost killed Mr. Kittinger in a preliminary jump in 1959. When his drogue chute became entangled around his neck, his body spun at 120 revolutions a minute, causing him to blackout until his emergency parachute automatically deployed. An improved version of that drogue chute is now used by military pilots who have to bail out in the ejection-seats used by pilots.

What a story. That it culminates in a landing near, of all places, Roswell, is just perfect.

Congratulations Mr.Baumgartner — and thank you, Colonel Kittinger.

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