Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane…known by most of us as a parachute jump…is something that the majority of us would probably not do. Still, there are many people that love to jump, and others who would love to try it. I would have thought that this was a rather new hobby, and a even fairly new way to fight fires or fight wars, but I would be wrong. The first parachute jump is said to have taken place in 1797…yes, I said 1797!! How could that be? There weren’t even any planes?
That first parachute jumper was André-Jacques Garnerin from a hydrogen balloon 3,200 feet above Paris. Military jumpers jump at altitudes between 15,000 feet and 35,000 feet…which seems a bit high to me, but what do I know. The lowest altitude to jump is an almost suicidal 100 feet. That put Garnerin’s jump on the low end of the safe spectrum. Garnerin first came up with the idea of using air resistance to slow an individual’s fall from a high altitude while he was a prisoner during the French Revolution. Although he never employed a parachute to escape from the high ramparts of the Hungarian prison where he spent three years, Garnerin never lost interest in the concept of the parachute. He thought that given enough height, he could have escaped from that prison.
After he was released, he continued to experiment with the idea. Then in 1797, he completed his first parachute. The parachute consisted of a canopy 23 feet in diameter, attached to a basket with suspension lines. He was finally ready. On October 22, 1797, Garnerin attached the parachute to a hydrogen balloon and ascended to an altitude of 3,200 feet. He then climbed into the basket and cut the parachute loose from the balloon. To say it was a perfect trial, would be an epic mistake. Garnerin had failed to include an air vent at the top of the prototype, and he oscillated wildly in his descent. Nevertheless, he landed shaken but unhurt half a mile from the balloon’s takeoff site. Unless you are an expert on parachutes, or even an amateur, you probably wouldn’t know about the vent hole. Nevertheless, it is quite important. I would expect that Garnerin’s wife would have been ready to choke him for trying something so crazy, but I would be wrong. In 1799, Garnerin’s wife, Jeanne-Genevieve, became the first female parachutist. I guess he married a woman who was as much an adventurist as he was. They continued on with their work, and in 1802, Garnerin made a spectacular jump from 8,000 feet during an exhibition in England. Unfortunately, he died in a balloon accident on August 18, 1823 while preparing to test a new parachute.
While people might not know that today, October 14 was the day that Air Force test pilot, Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier, many do know that it was Chuck Yeager who accomplished that feat. That was back in 1947, and it was an amazing accomplishment in speed flying…an activity common to test pilots, though not always safe or successful, and sometimes deadly. There was also another record that was broken on this day, but this one was back in 2012.
Felix Baumgartner was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1969, and he started skydiving when he was 16 years old. He was also a paratrooper during his time in the Austrian Army. After his time in the Army, Felix decided that he needed that kind of excitement in his life, and so he went on to perform a series of daredevil feats, including becoming the first person to jump from one of the twin 1,483 foot high Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, then the world’s tallest buildings, in 1999, and becoming the first person to skydive across the English Channel using a carbon-fiber wing, in 2003. His next record breaking jump was going to be his greatest feat, however, and it was five years in the making. It also involved a team of engineers, scientists, and aeronautic experts to custom design his equipment, including his pressurized space suit (intended to prevent his blood from boiling at high altitudes) and 6 foot wide, 2,900 pound, pressurized capsule. I’m sure that by now you are wondering why he would need such equipment, but I assure you that he did. In 2010 the project, which was financed by energy drink company Red Bull, hit a roadblock when Baumgartner started having panic attacks while undergoing endurance tests in his pressurized suit and helmet. A sports psychologist eventually helped him learn to cope with his claustrophobia. I find it amazing that a dare devil would have such a problem as claustrophobia, but remember that he was a sky diver, so he was used to wide open spaces. This project required that he have a capsule that was attached to a helium balloon to take Baumgartner to an incredible height of 24 miles above the Earth.
At this point, I’m sure you are curious about the planned jump. On that morning, October 14, 2012, a 550 foot high helium balloon made of 40 acres of ultrathin plastic lifted the capsule carrying Baumgartner, nicknamed Fearless Felix by the crew at the launch site at Roswell International Air Center. He was going to jump from the capsule at 127,852.4 feet and plunge to Earth. It would be the highest distance anyone had ever skydived from, and it would take nine minutes and eighteen seconds, of which four minutes and twenty seconds would be free fall…without an opened parachute…during which time he fell 119,431 feet. The prior record for high altitude skydiving was held by Joseph Kittinger, who jumped from an altitude of 102,800 feet in 1960. Kittinger was a former Air Force colonel, and was part of the team that helped prepare Baumgartner for his record breaking jump. Baumgartner’s top speed during that free fall was 843.6 miles per hour, or Mach 1.25, making Fearless Felix not only the record holder for the highest skydive, but now he was also the first person to break the sound barrier without the protection or propulsion of a vehicle. The capsule was equipped with cameras, to record the event, which was broadcast on the internet and on television, so it could be witnessed by millions of people world wide. After the jump, Fearless Felix landed safely in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico.