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.