This is an account of the Stratos and StratEx high-altitude parachute jumps, reported by someone who had the good fortune to serve as Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Official Observer for both projects. In the interest of full disclosure, please know that this is a personal account, one limited by my own experiences, and not intended as a comprehensive exposition of the two projects from their inception. Each richly deserves its own book—a task I will leave to others more qualified.
First a bit about Planet Earth’s supreme authority for air sports, aviation, aerospace and astronautical records: the FAI. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale designates itself as “The World Air Sports Federation.” Founded in 1905, it’s “a non-governmental and non-profit making international organisation with the basic aim of furthering aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide, ratifying world records and coordinating the organisation of international competitions.”
The United States Parachute Association is the airsport organization that represents FAI in the United States (and the corollary, the United States in the FAI) for all parachuting activities. USPA is “a voluntary membership organization of about 36,000 members who enjoy the sport of skydiving.” USPA’s mission is threefold: “to promote safe skydiving, to ensure skydiving’s rightful place on airports and in the airspace system, and to promote competition and oversee record-setting programs.” It was in the fulfillment of the third purpose, as our nation’s authority for parachuting records, that USPA took on the task of controlling and certifying the record-setting high altitude jumps of Felix Baumgartner (Stratos) and subsequently, Alan Eustace (StratEx).
My role in the Stratos and StratEx projects was fixed when I became Director of Competition for USPA in March 2011. With 40 years in the sport, 10,000 jumps and nearly a hundred national and international parachuting competitions behind me, I was fairly well suited for the job (there were other candidates, equally qualified). This was essentially a third career, coming after 13 years of military service (USAF pilot) and on the heels of a 20-year career as an airline pilot (US Airways). I took the job as a way to give back to the sport that had given me so much, starting with my first jump in August 1971 at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I earned my jump wings as an Air Force Academy cadet.
From the beginning of Stratos to the end of StratEx, I felt compelled to bear true witness to these two courageous parachutists and their remarkable teams, fulfilling my supporting role with fidelity and integrity. I hope by the ratification of their six FAI World Records and now by this account, I will have witnessed their splendid achievements faithfully and well. It’s certainly been one of the more interesting adventures of my life, and for that I am deeply grateful.
—James L. Hayhurst
Official Observer, FAI
Part One: Stratos
You try to sleep during the day (good luck with that) to be ready for a long night that starts with the ride to the airfield at 11 P.M. I work in my motel room on USPA business for as long as I can stand the solitary confinement, then go out for a walk or a swim. The New Mexico Military Institute campus is only a few blocks from the motel and often I go there around 5 P.M. to swim. I love the indoor pool at NMMI; it has high, arching windows around the perimeter of the pool area that let in streaming late-afternoon light; the water is cool and clear, and the lanes relatively open. One hundred laps and 2500 yards later, I feel like a new man. The only problem is that swimming jacks up your metabolism, making sleep impossible.
So it’s back to the room for more work. Around 8 P.M., I’m able to lie down with a vague hope of catching some sleep, a catnap at the least. At 10 P.M., the alarm goes off. I shower and dress, preparing myself with layers of clothing in anticipation of bone-chilling temperatures on the flight line at five tomorrow morning.
Layered up, minus the outer jacket (not needed on a mild early spring evening in Roswell), I head next door to the IHOP for breakfast. The restaurant is filled with familiar faces of the Stratos team. I take a booth occupied by my co-observer, Brian Utley. Utley is a youthful septuagenarian or octogenarian (I’m not sure which yet), a white-haired man of vigor and intelligence and with a friendly twinkle in his eyes. Utley is from the National Aeronautic Association (our “parent” organization—more on that later), a GPS expert assisting USPA, and I’m glad to have his expertise. The Stratos gang—engineers, camera crews, ground chase team, medical team and the ubiquitous Red Bull marketers—strike me as a big happy circus family, joined by the common purpose of putting Felix Baumgartner higher into the stratosphere than any man has ever gone, and then getting him back down in one piece, while sharing the high-stakes drama with the world via live-streaming video.
This extended Red Bull family orders heart-stopping three-egg omelets and waffles laden with whipped cream, strawberries and syrup, eating like vacationers off their diets, consuming coffee and calories with equal abandon. They’ll be up all night with no guarantee of a balloon launch in the morning so they partake in the pre-mission breakfast ritual as a compensation for impending nocturnal tedium. It reminds me a lot of airline crews flying red-eyes on the backside of the clock—something I endured for years early in my airline career.
Evening breakfast is followed by an all-hands briefing in the Best Western’s ballroom and then we caravan down North Main Street to the airfield. The drive takes us past a host of motels and restaurants with space alien-themed signage and décor, including the only McDonald’s in the world built to look like a flying saucer. Roswell is in southeast New Mexico, with a population of 48,000. Passing through downtown what you notice are storefronts catering to “the alien trade.” The International UFO Museum and Research Center is a stone’s throw from the Roswell Police Department, suggesting the city fathers long ago surrendered to the tourism benefits derived from the famous 1947 flying saucer incident, which to this day defines public perception (outside of New Mexico) of Roswell.
On the five-mile stretch between the central business district and Roswell International Air Center, flying saucers give way to boarded-up storefronts, liquor stores and pawn shops, suggesting harsher economic realities. You don’t want to be out here alone at night unless you are in search of illegal substances and/or fleet of foot. The bleakness of the economic landscape reflects the closing of Walker Air Force Base in 1967. Once touted as the largest bomber base in the country, 45 years later the 4,600-acre airfield is mostly deserted, consisting of empty grassy blocks littered with crumbling foundations.
The control tower remains active, manned by FAA controllers who probably wish for more traffic than five-times-a-day airline service, a handful of agri-business jets and the odd private airplane thirsty for fuel (overnight parking is free!). In every direction, the vast concrete aprons where B-52s bombers once hunkered in wait of Armageddon have been replaced by hundreds of decommissioned airliners in various stages of disintegration; further out, the sprawling runway complex and surrounding desert make this an ideal site for launching stratospheric balloons.
So this is the unlikely stage where Red Bull has come to pull off what will be one of the biggest marketing coups in history, doing it right under everyone’s noses. In Roswell, that’s really not that difficult. The truth is, in this town, talk of another stratospheric balloon launch and some crazy fool making a high parachute jump produces one big collective yawn.
2. Mission Control
Red Bull Mission Control is situated inside a striking 5,000 square-foot, quarter-cylindrical shaped, steel and white-canvas covered prefabricated structure, erected on the western boundary of the airport property. It’s about as far from prying eyes as you can get, fronting a compound of double-wide trailers, porta-johns and the corrugated-steel hangar where they keep the capsule. About 300 yards away is an inactive concrete runway used as the balloon launch pad. Looking back from the runway, the face of mission control is a two-story wall of gray-tinted Plexiglas, with railed porches spanning both levels. My first impression upon arrival at the site is that Red Bull is sparing no expense on this project. My impression three days later: That’s an understatement.
At night, the first floor is dimly lit, with the vibe of a subdued, exclusive nightclub. Instead of a bouncer, there’s a friendly Red Bull gofer checking name tags. To the right of the entrance is the media area (by invitation only until the climatic jump). A big-screen TV loops videos of Red Bull extreme athletes in action, skiing down impossibly steep mountains, riding mountain bikes along the precipices of sheer cliffs, capped by the most famous Red Bull daredevil of all, Felix Baumgartner, jumping off the right arm of Christ the Redeemer high above Rio di Janeiro. Another video shows him gliding a carbon-fiber wing across the English Channel.
On the other side of the first floor, there’s an inviting, rectangular-shaped alcove furnished with plush couches. It’s intended for briefings of the inner elite, but unused most of the time and perfect for naps. At the rear of the building, where tubular-steel frames curve down to the floor, you’ll find a self-serve Keurig coffee machine and an assortment of snacks, flanked by a pair of waist-high Red Bull coolers filled with slim cans of the energy drink. Taking all this in, I think back on a thousand and one sleepless redeye nights, the dingy airline crew rooms that preceded them and the cramped Boeing cockpits that defined them. As far as long day’s nights go, this is as good as it gets. Welcome to Red Bull all-nighter heaven.
Upstairs, where I’ll spend a good portion of my time, the setting is completely different, all business . . . shiny Red Bull space-age business. In case you’ve lost your way or have any doubt about where you are, a large sign dominates the far wall:
ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO
The flags of Austria, New Mexico and the United States serve as a reminder that this is an international endeavor (Austrian stunt jumper and funding; American know-how and airspace). The control room strikes me as a throwback to early-sixties NASA, circa the Mercury program, the era of the “Right Stuff.” A bank of large flat-screen monitors at the front of the room face four rows of flight control stations. There are six stations per row, each one placarded with the occupant’s name and function. Next to each placard, a can of the ubiquitous Red Bull, even at the front-row station of “Joe Kittinger, Cap Com 1.”
“Colonel Joe” is Felix Baumgartner’s mentor. Half a century ago, in 1960, before there was such a thing as “The Right Stuff,” then-Captain Joseph W. Kittinger II jumped from an open balloon gondola 102,800 feet above sea level as part of Project Excelsior, a pre-space test project. Wearing an early-model Air Force pressure suit, with a standard aircrew parachute on his back and a survival kit strapped to his rear, and towing a drogue parachute for stabilization, he fell for four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour. He opened his parachute at 18,000 feet and survived the hard landing under his 28-foot round canopy with a few bumps and bruises. His right hand had swelled twice its normal size due to a failure of his glove on ascent (a painful fact he kept from mission control, knowing that if he mentioned it, they’d scrub the jump). Talk about the right stuff.
Kittinger went on to fly 483 combat missions in the Vietnam war. On his third and final tour, flying the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, he shot down a MIG-21. On what would be his last mission, he got shot down himself. He and his backseater survived, only to spend 11 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, Kittinger served in fighter-wing command positions before retiring with honors and military combat decorations too numerous to mention. After retiring, among many interests, he fell in love with ballooning and became the first man to solo the Atlantic in a gas balloon, an extraordinary story in itself that ends with a crash landing in an Italian forest. My personal observation: Kittinger is the center of gravity of this mission, its beating heart. And just in case you are wondering—no, Joe doesn’t drink Red Bull.
My only gripe about Mission Control is that I don’t have a seat in it, an awkward state of affairs I discover upon the day of my arrival. However, Brian Utley does. In fact, the placard at his station lists him as “FAI Official Observer.” I’ve tried to explain to various Red Bull officials that actually, no, I am the official observer representing USPA but this only confuses and frustrates them. They already have their official observer—it’s the white-haired, well-spoken, distinguished gentleman from the NAA (truthfully, central casting couldn’t do any better).
How this has happened is a bit of a story. It begins with my immediate predecessor at USPA, a fellow named Larry Bagley, who had arranged Brian Utley’s services in 2010 to use his GPS expertise for USPA to document the Red Bull jump. Utley had been certifying records for the NAA using GPS for over a decade. He served on the NAA’s Contest and Records Board, and was their “go-to” guy for all things GPS. Hence, he was the logical choice to assist USPA with the record, using GPS (instead of a flight barograph, a technology that had evaporated over the half-century since Kittinger’s jump) to certify the performance.
Shortly after I joined USPA in early April 2011 I discovered a “Red Bull Stratos” folder. Of course, I was intrigued. Thumbing through the files, I saw Mr. Utley’s name in a long thread of correspondence going back to 2009, but also noted the project was on hold due to pending litigation; apparently a California promoter named Daniel Hogan had pitched the idea to Red Bull in 2004 and claimed he owned certain rights. He filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the Superior Court of Los Angeles. Red Bull stopped the project until the case was resolved.
Among the documents I found a letter of agreement between USPA and Red Bull’s prime contractor, Sage Cheshire, Inc. (which, in addition to one-off aerospace projects, builds vehicles like the Batmobile for the film industry). The agreement was co-signed by Ed Scott, USPA’s Executive Director, and Mr. Art Thompson, founder of Sage Cheshire and the Stratos project technical director. A $3,000 non-refundable retainer had been deposited in USPA’s account.
So I called Thompson in Lancaster, California, and introduced myself, explaining that if the project resumed, I would replace Larry Bagley as the official observer. Thompson was hopeful the lawsuit would be resolved sometime soon. We chatted, comparing aviation backgrounds. I learned Art had worked for Lockheed and had helped design and fabricate the exterior stealth properties of the B-2 bomber. He graciously invited me to come out to Lancaster anytime and check out the mothballed Stratos capsule.
I called Utley to share what I had learned. After discussing the stalled Red Bull project, I asked him about a related subject, one that was rapidly bearing down on my event horizon as the director of parachuting competition in the United States: using GPS technology to measure distance and speed of flight in the fast-emerging discipline of wingsuit flying. We subsequently had a series of email exchanges on that topic. The Red Bull high-altitude jump faded from view until early July, when the news broke that the lawsuit had been settled out of court.
Felix Baumgartner blogged jubilantly to his fans, “I am struggling to find the right words to express my happiness, how relieved and motivated I am that it has finally come to an end. As you know, we stopped to work completely on this project for seven months . . . the next steps will require careful evaluation of the project across all areas.”
The project quietly started back up. I didn’t hear anything related to Red Bull until early December 2011, when one day I got a call from Mr. A.W. Greenfield, the Director of Contests and Records at NAA. He informed me Red Bull had contracted Brian Utley to observe an upcoming unmanned test drop, and USPA would need to handle the billing, since by NAA observer policy, Red Bull couldn’t pay Utley directly. The unmanned test drop was news to me, as was Utley’s direct involvement outside of USPA.
I fired off an email to Thompson reminding him that USPA selected the FAI official observer for parachuting records in the United States—not NAA. I explained to him that Brian Utley was serving as a technical consultant to USPA. I attached a revised letter of agreement, replacing the name of my predecessor, Larry Bagley, with my own as the FAI official observer. I concluded, “Please sign the letter of agreement and we’re good to go. I look forward to working with you on this project in the upcoming year; I know you are very busy right now, so no rush, but give me a call when you catch your breath.”
I didn’t get a response from Art Thompson until January, and we didn’t get the revised letter of agreement in place until early February 2012. However, on December 16, the day of the first unmanned test at Roswell, Brian Utley was there, analyzing GPS data from a telemetry pod dropped from 88,830 feet. So the Red Bull team had met Utley in person. He had presented himself as NAA’s official observer, which was true as far as it went, but the distinction that the FAI official observer would be provided by USPA and that Utley was strictly providing technical support to USPA was lost on Red Bull . . . and for that matter, on Brian Utley.
Now, three months later, I find myself having to explain my presence to various Red Bull officials and especially, to the Red Bull media people who want to keep mission control clear of unnecessary bodies. To them, I think it appears like some government agencies bickering over jurisdiction (and I sympathize: FAI . . . NAA . . . USPA . . . it’s one big alphabet soup).
It’s clear to me that Red Bull’s media team has written their script and picked their guy, and it’s Brian Utley of the NAA. I don’t want to create a stink, and I can’t imagine doing the record without Utley’s GPS expertise, so I decide to take the high road and deal with the situation as graciously as possible. After all, this is not about me, it’s about Felix’s jump and making sure it gets ratified by the FAI. The truth is, I can sit on a folding chair in the back of the room and do my job. But I have to admit, I feel a little like the uninvited guest at a party.
In Red Bull Mission Control, I’m the odd man out.
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