PARATROOPER; PRO-SKYDIVER AND RECORD-SETTING BASE JUMPER; HELICOPTER PILOT; FIRST TO FREEFALL ACROSS ENGLISH CHANNEL WITH CARBON WING
TAMPA, FLORIDA, USA
AIR FORCE TEST PILOT, FIGHTER PILOT AND COLONEL; FIRST ATLANTIC SOLO CROSSING WITH HELIUM BALLOON; SET RECORDS FELIX WOULD TRY TO BREAK
why his Red Bull Stratos mission was taking so long – why he didn’t just jump and get it over with – that’s what he said.
People didn’t understand what it would require to make the highest freefall ever. They didn’t get that nobody, not even his own team, knew what the consequences would be if he managed to become the first person to accelerate through the sound barrier without an aircraft.
And the guy on the street certainly didn’t realize that, even if Felix didn’t go supersonic, he’d still be in an environment where equipment failure would render him unconscious in seconds, with his blood boiling and the air sucked from his lungs.
Felix couldn’t rush this program from vision to completion. The mission demanded preparation exponentially greater than anything in his record-setting BASE-jump career.
Otherwise, the team wouldn’t be able to accumulate the scientific data that they all were hoping would advance space safety, enabling bailout at higher altitudes than ever before.
And otherwise, he might end up like half of the other people who had attempted to set such records at the edge of space in the last 50 years: dead.
Felix described Joe as “a hell of a character,” and in Joe’s case, “character” seemed especially appropriate: his life was like something out of fiction. Growing up in Florida, where he was born in 1928, Joe hunted alligators and raced speedboats before joining the Air Force in 1949. Over the next 60-odd years he would log more than 16,800 hours in 93 different aircraft. He would shoot down a MiG, and he’d spend 11 months as a POW in Northern Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” He was a championship-winning balloon pilot and the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in a helium balloon.
But the thing that made Joe a legend – the feat that sealed his Lifetime Achievement in Aviation Award from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and his membership in the National Aviation Hall of Fame – was a jump from the stratosphere in 1960: a mission that opened the door for the space program.
In the 1950s, no one knew what would happen to the human body in the near-vacuum of the upper stratosphere. Joe’s Air Force missions helped researchers find out. In 1957 Joe piloted the “Manhigh I” balloon to an unofficial altitude of 97,000 feet before bringing the aircraft back down.
Researchers were also trying to solve challenges with emergency escape systems, particularly “flat spin” – a falling object’s tendency to tumble at high altitude. In 1958 Joe got permission to develop a research program, Project Excelsior, to seek the answer. This time, he would take a balloon to 100,000 feet, and instead of coming back down with it, he’d jump.
Despite a malfunction in an early Excelsior flight that nearly killed him, on August 16, 1960, Joe took his Excelsior III balloon up to 102,800 feet. His right glove didn’t pressurize, causing his hand to swell to twice its size in the low-pressure environment, but he jumped anyway.
It was not only the highest freefall ever, but the fastest, reaching 614 miles per hour, or nine-tenths of the speed of sound. Joe’s hand went back to normal, and the “drogue” stabilization parachute developed for the program is still used on every ejection seat system today. Further, with the space race in the starting blocks, he had proven that man could survive in space-equivalent conditions.
A half century later, Joe could still say, “My office is the sky.” He had been approached by numerous programs that wanted to best his 1960 records, but he’d never accepted until Red Bull Stratos came along. He could see that this was a serious mission with the talent and resources for a successful result. As he would counsel Felix, “In order to succeed, you need confidence in your team, confidence in your equipment and confidence in yourself.”
Art was lanky, laid-back and loquacious while Felix was compact, intense and laconic. But they trusted each other. When Felix got his helicopter pilot’s license, Art hadn’t hesitated to accept the invitation to be his first passenger. And when in 2005 Felix decided to pursue his dream of attempting to beat Joe Kittinger’s records, he, and Red Bull, had turned to Art.
Over the course of the mission, Art would assemble a team of insatiable problem-solvers, who in turn directed specialized teams of their own. The team members – including Joe – brought with them different skillsets, but they shared one overriding objective: bringing Felix back safe and sound.
With over three decades of experience in innovating design for historic aerospace milestones such as the B-2 “Stealth,” Art’s combination of drive, vision and excellence led Felix to entrust him with development of the Red Bull Stratos mission. “What we’re trying to prove is that if you have the proper equipment, you could survive decompression of an aircraft and make it down to a lower altitude.”
A six-time Space Shuttle crew surgeon whose wife had died in the Columbia accident, Jon dedicated his life to improving safety for aviators and astronauts. “The ultimate reason that I’m here is to validate that a crew can survive higher altitudes and higher speeds without ill effects. It opens up a whole new avenue for crew escape from spacecraft in emergency situations.”
Marle had been a Navy Commander, chairman of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Aerospace Engineering Department and an engineer for NASA. “They still talk about Colonel Yeager breaking the speed of sound in an airplane, but a human? I don’t think there are very many people around the world who think that is possible, and we’re going to prove them wrong.”
Mike worked for decades on secret projects in Lockheed’s High Altitude Life Support and Pressure Suit Division and suited Steve Fossett for a record-setting glider flight. He personally dressed Felix every time he wore the suit, and became like a second father to him. “Felix is depending on me to keep him alive, and I will do everything in my power to do that.”
The high performance director for Red Bull athletes globally, in his career Andy had helped everyone from corporate leaders to Olympic stars achieve their potential. He designed Felix’s physical and mental training program. “We have to dig deep to get ourselves up and move forward to the next step. That’s what new frontiers are about.”
With 16,000 skydives to his credit and a history of tackling unusual aviation challenges, Luke designed Felix’s airborne training sessions and spearheaded development of his unique parachute setup. “It seems like we are making history every day with the project – I think it’s inspiring a whole new generation of explorers.”
Felix’s bearing seemed so self-confident that it took the team a while to realize that he wasn’t as comfortable with the mission as they assumed.
The tattoo on Felix’s arm said it all: he was “BORN TO FLY.” As a child in Austria, where he was born in 1969, he dreamed of becoming a skydiver and flying helicopters.
Felix served on a military parachute team before carving out a civilian career. He set BASE jump world records and became the first person to make a freefall flight across the English Channel, with nothing more than a carbon wing on his back.
For Felix, a satisfying life meant finding challenges and overcoming them. He hated being labeled as an adrenaline junkie, because he was meticulous about planning every aspect of his projects.
But Felix was used to working independently. Those experts Art had found – the “old guys” with their specialized knowledge – he needed them if he was going to survive. But Felix wondered if they respected him.
The doubters from outside the team didn’t help his mindset. There were some who declared the mission a “stunt,” and others who told Felix that, like aircraft in the old days, he would break up trying to cross the sound barrier.
As Art and the team explained, while Felix might experience vibrations, he would be up so high that the thin air would minimize the shock waves. That’s what their calculations told them. But there was no way to be completely sure, because no one had ever accelerated through the speed of sound without an aircraft.
In the end, Felix could deal with all of that. What he couldn’t deal with, and what made him question himself, was the suit.
It’s a common thing among high-altitude pilots. A pressure suit creates sensory deprivation. Closing the visor closes out the world.
For Felix, being in the rigid suit was like being “in a cast.” The fine movements he’d honed over years of skydiving were impossible to execute. Despite the extra mobility that had been built
into the suit’s design, he felt like he was starting from scratch.
Felix began to dread putting it on. He left the team working in the U.S. and flew home to Austria to think things through. He never took on a project if the risks were too high. He had confidence in his team and in his equipment – did he have confidence in himself?
With the help of a new mental training program, Felix began to see the suit as a system that would keep him alive rather than the enemy that would thwart his best efforts.
In November 2011, Felix reunited with the team for tests in an altitude chamber, the closest thing to a stratospheric environment on earth. With the fate of the mission hanging on his performance, he and the team rehearsed in real time. Felix even stepped outside the capsule with only the suit between him and the deadly simulated environment. The tests “man-rated” the capsule as safe for human transport; but mostly, they evaluated Felix. And he passed.
An unmanned balloon and capsule dropped a metal pod withelectronics from 88,957 feet to simulate Felix’s freefall.
Second unmanned balloon and capsule dropped a metal pod with electronics from 88,957 feet to simulate Felix’s freefall.
A make-or-break milestone – the mission’s first flight with Felix aboard. Although originally planned for 60,000 feet, just below the level of the so-called Armstrong Line where low pressure causes body fluids to boil, Felix elected to take the balloon to 71,581 feet. His freefall reached a maximum velocity of 364.69 mph.
The last test jump. Felix jumped from 97,145.7 feet and reached a maximum velocity of 536.8 mph. However, the capsule – needed for the final flight – sustained a hard touchdown. Hopes for a final launch in August disappeared as the team re-verified every capsule component. Meteorologist Don Day advised that launching Felix’s final balloon would require perfect conditions – near cloudless skies and calm winds. And he warned that after mid-October, the chances of finding those conditions would be slim. Felix said, “I feel like a tiger in a cage.”
The team breathed a sigh of relief as the capsule passed a final simulation test at Brooks City-Base in Texas. The crew mobilized to Roswell International Air Center, where a compound including a high-tech Mission Control center rose out of the desert. Three hundred people, including media from around the world, would arrive for the planned October launch.
The team had worked throughout the night, preparing for final launch; but as the balloon inflated, the wind picked up, twisting the massive plastic envelope down to the ground. The risk was too great and the launch had to be aborted.
During the subsequent press conference, Art announced that there was only one backup balloon left. If the next attempt failed, the mission might have to wait until 2013.
The team could only hope that the coincidence augured well. Conditions would be not unlike those of the aborted attempt on October 9: the team would have to be ready to launch at a moment’s notice when the winds settled.
Felix arrived at the airfield between 2:00 and 3:00 am, examined the capsule, and headed for the silver trailer that was his inner sanctum. He had his final medical checkup and was suited up by Mike Todd to begin “pre-breathing” 100 percent oxygen to eliminate dangerous nitrogen from his system.
The team went through agonizing “weather holds” – waiting to see if the wind would cooperate. Finally, at 9:28 am Mountain Time, the balloon took off.
The crew cheered, and the world did, too. While live updates were broadcast on television internationally, millions more watched the webstream. Viewers could even hear the radio interchange between Joe Kittinger in Mission Control and Felix in the capsule.
That is, they heard it until the audio feed was cut to allow Felix and Joe to discuss a problem in private.
Felix was experiencing fogging in his helmet visor. Every time he breathed out, condensation appeared on the faceplate. There were 111 tiny wires incorporated in the visor to prevent fogging. Was there an issue with the power supply from the capsule?
The team discussed the problem while Felix continued to ascend. The procedures were clear – if Felix couldn’t see, he couldn’t jump, because he had to be able to spot the horizon to stabilize himself. If he couldn’t see, the protocol required him to ride the capsule down, despite the automatic safety features in his parachute rig.
But was the faceplate fogging significant, or was it normal condensation? They’d come so close. Should they really abort now?
The team offered Felix an option – disconnect from the capsule power so that the visor would be powered by the batteries in his chest pack. That’s what he’d have to do when he jumped anyway. When Felix tried and thought it was an improvement, the team told him that the decision to jump was his call. It was his life on the line.
Felix decided to go for it.
The capsule kept rising, going past the original 120,000-foot target to flirt with 128,000 feet. With the live viewers allowed to listen in again, Joe walked Felix through the final checklist and told him a guardian angel would look after him.
Felix says that the view when he opened the door and stepped outside was breathtaking – “the curvature of the earth below and a completely black sky above.” Aware that few people had ever witnessed such a sight, he commented, “Sometimes, you have to get up really high to see how small you are.”
He also was aware that he was in an unforgiving environment with only about 10 minutes of oxygen on his back. With the words “I’m going home now,” Felix jumped.
The step-off was perfect, exactly as he’d practiced. He accelerated at a rate that would shame a supercar… and then it started. The spinning. It was even tougher than he’d imagined. On their screens, the Mission Control team could see a small white oblong twirling helplessly. It was Felix’s form tracked from the ground by high-powered infrared cameras. The rotations continued – 16, someone later counted – before suddenly stopping. Felix had managed to straighten out without the help of the stabilization chute in his rig.
When the team saw a red-and-white parachute bloom on their monitors, the cheers mounted. The rest of the descent was remarkably like a normal skydive, with Felix landing on his feet in a casual jog. He sank to his knees in relief, but it wasn’t until the ground crews meeting him announced that they’d heard his sonic boom that he was sure he’d broken the speed of sound. Preliminary estimates indicated that he’d reached around 833 miles per hour, at least Mach 1.24.
Paradoxically, by going so fast, Felix missed out on a record. His freefall had lasted somewhere around 4 minutes and 20 seconds – but the longest-lasting freefall in history, although it covered a shorter distance, was 4 minutes, 36 seconds. That record belonged to Joe Kittinger. Felix had fallen farther than Joe, but so much faster that he covered the distance in less time. No one seemed to mind.
He’d done it. They’d done it. Felix really had become a hero. And Red Bull Stratos had made history.
Back at Mission Control, the “old guys” – the men who’d seen it all over decades of aerospace progression – were wiping happy tears from their eyes. As Felix’s retrieval helicopter touched down, they rushed out to congratulate him. Art and Joe couldn’t stop smiling.
“Felix started this program as a BASE jumper and skydiver and ended as a test pilot,” said a beaming Mike Todd, wrapping the new record holder in a big hug. “He was the perfect guy for the job.”
Although the mission is complete, Felix hasn’t changed. He still wants to see the world from above. He plans to use his helicopter piloting skills to fight fires, rescue mountaineers, and shuttle skiers and snowboarders to remote locations.
Meanwhile, the science team is sharing the new data at conferences and in journals. Red Bull Stratos proved that a human could survive acceleration through the speed of sound, and both government and commercial organizations are keenly interested in the mission’s safety innovations, including the next-generation pressure suit and parachute system, as well as medical findings and protocols.
But what the team members come back to over and over again is the way the mission seems to have inspired people all over the globe. “I think this touched the human spirit,” Jon Clark says. “This is a wonderful thing, and maybe the most enduring legacy of Felix’s efforts.”