Plane & Pilot
Saturday, May 1, 2010

An Aviator’s Best Friend

Fifty years later, the next journey to the edge of space

Joe Kittinger (right) is helping Felix Baumgartner (left) prepare for a record-breaking free fall from space.
Fifty years ago, I stood at the edge of space and jumped. This year, Felix Baumgartner of Austria plans to make a jump from the edge of space, but from a height that’s 20,000 feet higher—an altitude from which no human has ever successfully completed a free fall. The mission is known as Red Bull Stratos.

I was lifted to 102,800 feet by a helium balloon, and Felix also will be lifted into near space by a helium balloon. I’m a fixed-wing pilot with an ATP rating, as well as a gas-balloon pilot; Felix is a commercial helicopter pilot and also a gas-balloon pilot.

I was protected in a near-space environment by a pressure suit, and Felix will be protected by the next-generation pressure suit. There have been many advancements in pressure suit designs in the last 50 years, and Felix will be testing these advancements.

For my jump in 1960, I had a team dedicated to helping me achieve my goal. I’m a member of the team preparing Felix, lending my past experience as he prepares for his stratospheric challenge.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 50 years: the hostile environment of near space. It’s a constant and imminent threat to survival for anyone who intends to face this unforgiving environment.

The differences in our approaches:
• When I took a leap of faith at 102,800 feet, it was my 33rd parachute jump. When Felix jumps from 120,000 feet, he’ll have made over 2,300 jumps.

• I reached a speed of 614 mph in free fall. Felix has the potential to reach supersonic, which would be about 690 mph at the predicted altitude of around 100,000 feet.

• I used an open gondola to ascend to altitude. Felix will use a pressurized capsule.

• As an experimental test pilot in the USAF, I didn’t make my parachute jump to break a record; I did it to gather knowledge for pilots and astronauts.

Felix and the Red Bull Stratos mission team also hope to gather valuable information regarding human exposure to the rigorous conditions that will be encountered during his extended free fall. The data acquired by the mission’s scientists can provide new standards in aerospace safety and enhanced possibilities for escape from near-space conditions. In addition, Felix is aiming to establish four world records:
1. Speed record as the first human to break the speed of sound in free fall (supersonic, exceeding Mach 1)
2. Altitude record for free fall (minimum 120,000 feet)
3. Time record for longest free fall (approximately five to six minutes, landing about 13 minutes later)
4. Altitude record for highest manned balloon flight (minimum 120,000 feet)

Everyone asks me what I experienced during my jump. The most fascinating thing is that it’s just black overhead. The transition from the familiar blue sky to black is very stark. You can’t see stars because there’s a lot of glare from the sun. I was struck by not only the beauty but also by how hostile the environment is: too little oxygen to breathe and so little air pressure that, without a pressure suit, blood “boils” with vapor bubbles. The glove on my right hand didn’t inflate, and I knew if I radioed the doctor, he’d abort the flight. I took a calculated risk that I might lose the use of my right hand during the jump.

When I jumped, I was thinking simply that it was the beginning of a test. I had done it a hundred times in an altitude chamber and a thousand times in my mind, so I was prepared and confident. But after I jumped, I rolled over and looked up, and there was the balloon just roaring into space. I realized, however, that the balloon wasn’t really roaring into space—I was going down at a fantastic rate! At about 90,000 feet, I reached approximately 614 mph. At that point, my altimeter was unwinding very rapidly, but there was no sense of speed because we determine speed visually when we see something go flashing by, and there were no visual cues. When my chute opened, the rest of the jump was anticlimactic because, other than the glove, everything worked perfectly. (My hand did return to normal.) When I landed, my crew was waiting, and we were elated. The preparation had paid off, and that’s why I emphasize preparation so strongly to Felix today.

People have been trying to break my records for 50 years, and some have died in the attempt. For half a century, this challenge has been waiting for the right team, with the right resources and the right pilot. I believe we have that with Red Bull Stratos. Updates are available at

In 1960, Joe Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet, hitting the lower atmosphere at several hundred miles per hour. The test pilot saw three tours in Vietnam, where he served as Squadron Commander. Joe has more than 16,800 hours in over 93 aircraft. His autobiography, Come Up and Get Me, will be available in May 2010.


Add Comment