Buy a reprint of this issue.
Part One: Stratos, continued
7. An Exclusive Club
Felix Baumgartner now belongs to an exclusive club. In fact, it may be the most exclusive club in the world—consisting of the people who have jumped from above 50,000 feet and lived. The founding member is Joe Kittinger, who did it first on November 16, 1959, as an Air Force captain with Project Excelsior, a test program to develop a way for pilots to survive high-altitude ejection.
Joe ascended under a balloon in an open gondola to an altitude of 76,400 feet, jumped, and was nearly killed when his stabilization drogue deployed prematurely and wrapped around his neck, putting him into such a violent flat spin that he lost consciousness. He was saved by the automatic deployment of his emergency chute at 10,000 feet.
Thus the “50K Jump Club” came into being, only just barely. The Excelsior team fixed the problem and three weeks later, December 11, Kittinger jumped again, from 74,400 feet. This time everything worked perfectly; stabilized by the drogue, he fell 55,000 feet before deploying his main parachute. This was the second time in history a person jumped from above 50,000 feet.
The club still only had one member.
Joe’s third and final jump was Excelsior III, Aug. 16, 1960. There were no FAI observers present for the occasion because this wasn’t an attempt to set a world record; rather, it was the validation of aerospace technology for aircrew survival, applicable to the next generation of high-altitude and high-Mach (U-2, SR-71) jets, not to mention future manned space missions.
At float altitude, Joe’s pressure altimeter showed 103,300 feet. The ground control radar at Holloman showed 102,800 feet, an altitude the Excelsior team later agreed was most accurate. Before he jumped, Joe transmitted a message to ground control:
“There is a hostile sky above me. Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it. The sky above is void and very black and very hostile.”
This time he fell 84,800 feet stabilized by the drogue, with a maximum speed of 614 mph. After 4 minutes and 36 seconds, the parachute deployed at 18,000 feet. This was Joe’s third and final jump from above 50,000 feet. He was still the only member of the club.
The Excelsior project took place against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Space Race, where another exclusive club was forming. The Soviet Union put Yuri Gagarin in space in 1961, making him the first member of this club after a single orbit of the earth. Not far behind, in May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to join—his 15-minute suborbital flight peaking at 116 miles above the earth. So now two men had been in space, a number that grew quickly in the ‘60s with the race to the moon. To date, more than 500 people have been in space.
Joe’s club got its second member Nov. 1, 1962, when Major Yevgeny N. Andreyev of the Soviet Union jumped from a balloon gondola over Engels Air Base, a bomber base near Saratov, Russia. Exit altitude was 83,529 feet (25,460 meters) above sea level. Major Andreyev freefell 80,380 feet (24,500 meters) before opening his parachute. He broke the FAI record held by Nikolai Nikitine, who fell 47,965 feet (14,620 meters) above Engels Field on Aug. 20, 1961.
On his jump, Major Andreyev was accompanied by the (then) most famous Soviet parachutist, Colonel Pyotr I. Dolgov, holder of several Soviet and world records. After Andreyev jumped, Colonel Dolgov stayed in the gondola, intending to break his own “highest jump without delay” record of 48,671 feet, which he had set in June 1960. Three minutes after Andreyev left, at approximately 86,000 feet, he ejected himself from his compartment and immediately deployed his parachute. What happened next will never be known with certainty. Dolgov may have been wrapped up in his own canopy during the first seconds of freefall, just as Joe was entangled by his drogue chute on the first Excelsior jump.
(Side note: To visualize the dynamics of a parachute deployed in a near vacuum, imagine someone in a bulky full-pressure suit, lying at the bottom of a swimming pool. He initiates a deployment. The pilot chute pops out and floats aimlessly, like a sea anchor without a current. Perhaps the bag or sleeve containing the parachute falls out of the container, drawing suspension lines with it. Now, if our aqua-parachutist pushes off the bottom to make for the surface, the disorganized mess of pilot chute, fabric and lines can easily entangle him. For a drogue and/or parachute to deploy properly in the near vacuum of a high-altitude jump, it needs dynamic airflow, which generally takes at least 15 seconds of freefall.)
Soviet news reports stated that Dolgov’s faceplate cracked on exit and he instantly lost consciousness and died in freefall. However, deploying his parachute in the atmospheric void of high altitude, it’s also possible that Dolgov became entangled with his parachute and fell, fully conscious, enveloped in a shroud of fabric and line, all the way to the earth, where his faceplate cracked on impact. However, this is speculation; let’s hope the official account of how Colonel Dolgov died is true, for the sake of a brave man and a hero of the Soviet Union.
Four years later American parachutist Nick Piantanida took on the daunting challenge of joining Joe’s club, and did it on his own without any government assistance. His project was called “Strato-Jump.” On the morning of February 2, 1966, launching from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he rose under a stratospheric balloon higher than Kittinger, higher than any human had ever been under a balloon, all the way up to 123,500 feet. Then, preparing for the jump, he was dismayed to find that the quick-disconnect fitting on his oxygen hose was stuck and wouldn’t release. The bulky pressure gloves kept him from manipulating the fitting. He fumed over the radio that all he needed was a crescent wrench. But he didn’t have a wrench, and nothing he did would free the unyielding fitting. Ultimately, his ground team was forced to send the signal to cut the gondola loose. Piantanida survived a harrowing ride back to earth under the recovery parachute, forced to ride inside the gondola all the way to landing.
Three months later Piantanida made another attempt. This time, inexplicably, as he climbed through 57,000 feet, the visor of his helmet opened—intentionally or unintentionally, it will never be known. (It was later established that Piantanida had previously cracked open the visor at lower altitudes to depressurize the suit and relieve symptoms of altitude-induced decompression sickness.) In any case, the air inside the helmet whooshed out; Piantanida made a garbled distress call and lost consciousness. The Strato-Jump team cut the gondola free but recovery efforts did not go well and by the time the ground crew got to Piantanida, it was too late to render effective medical assistance. He lingered in a coma for three months and then died.
While Strato-Jump was ultimately a failure, it was an extraordinary effort. But for a single jammed oxygen fitting on his first attempt, Nick Piantanida would be enshrined in skydiving’s hall of fame and his name revered in the annals of aerospace and parachuting history.
Membership in the “50K Jump Club” may have eluded Pyotr Dolgov and Nick Piantanida, but their names deserve mention with Joe Kittinger, Yevgeny Andreyev, Felix Baumgartner and Alan Eustace. Surely, they warrant the honor reserved for the bravest of airmen.
8. The Best Man
Luke Aikins oversees all skydiving aspects of the Stratos jump and is responsible for Felix’s safety from exit to landing. An expert skydiver and member of the Red Bull Air Force, Luke comes from a long skydiving heritage; he is third generation of the renowned Aikins and Farrington families of Kapowsin Air Sports in Shelton, Washington. I’ve known Luke since he was a boy; now he’s a man in his prime, a master of his profession. His role reminds me of the best man at a wedding, with the added challenge of having a serious crush on the bride. (Setting aside the fact that he’s several sizes too large for the groom’s suit, Luke knows the jump inside and out and could sub for Felix with ease.) In early June, Luke notifies me that the launch window for the second jump has been set for July 22-28.
A month later, I send an email to Luke, Felix, Art Thompson and Brian Utley, listing the long-standing FAI records held by Russian Yevgeny Andreyev. I am well aware that Red Bull marketing is operating on a script that climaxes on the third and final jump, with Felix breaking Joe Kittinger’s exit-altitude record (universally recognized yet unofficial by FAI rules); even so, I think it’s important to know what the actual FAI records are, especially since it’s likely they can be broken on this jump. Adding the 2-percent margin required by the FAI, the marks to beat are:
- Exit altitude: 85,200 feet (25,969 meters) above mean sea level (MSL)
- Distance of fall (“fall without stabilizing drogue”): 81,987 feet (24,990 meters)
- Vertical speed: 372 mph (599 km/hr)
Felix’s only world record claim from the first jump was the vertical speed mark—372 mph. We sent the record dossier to the FAI May 15, knowing it was likely that Felix would break it before it was ratified, but there were good reasons to file the claim anyhow. First, under the heading “low-hanging fruit,” it is a record class that didn’t exist when Andreyev jumped, so even if Felix never jumped again, he’d walk away with at least one world record. Second, we need to demonstrate that a GPS receiver works at high altitudes and in freefall, and establish the resultant data are acceptable to the FAI. Finally, we want to “prime the pump” and get all parties familiar with the process of homologation—in particular the Austrian Aero Club, which must certify Felix’s performances as Austrian National records before the FAI will recognize them as world records (this requirement has since been dropped by FAI).
It’s a good thing we rehearse the process, because as it turns out, there are some problems. First, when I receive Utley’s draft report, it’s immediately apparent we have a serious disconnect regarding his role in the project. I note that he has discarded the claim cover page that I had prepared (with USPA and NAA logos in the header, symbolic of our joint cooperation), instead plastering his own letterhead across the top of every page of the document:
Brian G. Utley
National Aeronautic Association
Reagan National Airport
If I have any doubt what this suggests, it’s dispelled early in the report when I read:
“The teams assembled in Roswell for the flight. I asked Jim Hayhurst, USPA Vice President, to represent the USPA and join me as an official observer. He agreed.”
So Utley asked me to join him? Ignoring the fact that I’m not vice president of USPA (and he has no excuse for not knowing this; he has my business card, we’ve exchanged many emails and worked together in person), I’m troubled by his self-serving spin on the situation. He’s not the official observer. He has no authority to invite a representative of USPA to join him. In fact, it’s the other way around: He was invited to provide technical services to USPA’s official observer (originally Larry Bagley, then me). Utley is affiliated with the NAA, our parent organization, but USPA has sole authority to witness parachuting records in the United States.
Any doubt I might have had about how Brian represented himself to the Red Bull team in December is dispelled; clearly, from the beginning he presented himself as the official observer. Infuriating as this may be, I try to see the situation from his perspective. He has been using GPS to certify national and world aviation records for the NAA for more than a decade, and now he finds himself invited to participate in the one of the most prestigious records in aviation history—one that requires GPS—naturally, he feels his name should be on the marquee, in bright lights.
As a practical matter, I have no problem sharing the role of official observer with Mr. Utley. With or without him, I know I need technical assistance to evaluate GPS data; there’s no way I’m sufficiently versed in GPS technology to do the job on my own (yet). Also, this is Red Bull’s show, and I know they like the distinguished, professorial image that Utley projects. In person he’s congenial and pleasant; I really don’t mind working with him as long as we get the job done. As for who invited whom, I’m willing to let that slide (and will later come to regret it) as long as we state the actual line of authority in the report. I edit the passage accordingly.
With that issue addressed, I turn my attention to a matter of greater concern: the unreliable GPS data during the ascent, exit and the complete gap in data for the first 17 seconds of freefall. I have already addressed my concern in an April 12 email to Luke Aikins, writing that it would be wise to have a dedicated GPS unit in the capsule. First, it would provide parallel data to authenticate the data coming off the chest pack unit during ascent and float. Second, it would be independent evidence of exit height. Even if there was a blank in the data during initial freefall, we would have independent evidence of capsule altitude. I go on to note the FAI rules don’t specifically state that the exit altitude must be determined by a unit on the jumper. As I read it, it can legitimately be based on data from a capsule-mounted GPS unit.
Luke does not respond to this suggestion. Later, I learn it’s because he is totally absorbed with a more important project, one dictated by his first responsibility: Felix’s safety. Those seven minutes when Felix was on the ground, location unknown, have haunted Luke. What if Felix had suffered a failure of his pressure suit or oxygen system and needed immediate medical attention? What if he had been injured on landing? Red Bull has assembled a world-class medical team to attend to Felix, but it does little good if they can’t get to him immediately. In the aftermath of the first jump, Luke locates the GPS system used to track Navy SEALs in the field, and goes to work with its designer to adapt the system to track Felix from opening of his canopy to landing.
Like me, Utley is concerned by the lapses in data. On May 8, he emails Art Thompson and Scott Loftin (the Sage Cheshire engineer responsible for the chest-pack avionics), addressing the incidents of loss of signal quality, including a complete loss of satellites. He suggests that some interference is causing this. He doesn’t point his finger directly at Holloman Air Force Base to the west, but the possibility has already been discussed in Mission Control—that the frustrating loss of signal may be a result of military testing or jamming from Holloman.
We never get a direct response from Sage Cheshire on this topic. Which is not surprising, as the team is busy with preparations for the second jump, and has already invested a significant amount of time into the chest-pack avionics, which were tested in live jumps up to 29,000 feet. The failures of reception (the Garmin 18X-5 unit) and telemetry (from the Garmin 15X unit) may just be an anomaly, a problem that may not repeat itself on the second jump.
In the record claim dossier to the FAI, Utley concludes his report:
“The analysis for determining the velocity was complicated by a loss of data at the time of exit from the capsule. Recorded video clearly shows Felix falling into an inverted position on his back as he exited the capsule. This placed the GPS receiver in a compromised position for receiving good satellite signals. Fortunately, the GPS unit resumed normal processing soon enough to establish a solid track prior to attaining the maximum velocity of the decent profile. In the chart below the observer has computed the descent profile from the most likely exit time based upon the anticipated acceleration rate potential at 70,000 feet. Using the unconstrained gravitational acceleration profile the calculated profile is within an acceptable and most likely range and bridges to the valid data points.”
Which is a fancy way of saying that Utley used a calculated freefall simulation, a predictive model, to bridge the gap between exit and resumption of data reception in freefall. However, the actual peak velocity has been captured by raw data, so it’s a question of whether or not the FAI record office will accept an incomplete record—that is, accept the absence of a continuous data log of the jump from an appropriate flight recorder, from liftoff to exit to landing.
What I find interesting is that unlike the dry, scientific paper I expected, Utley’s report is written like a magazine article, with a chronological narrative of the project up to the first jump, replete with photos of Joe and Felix, Brian holding the chest pack, Brian posing with Felix after the jump, a shot of mission control taken from the helicopter upon their triumphant return, two color-coded altitude-velocity graphs, all concluding with a “flight summary” table on the final page … the sum of which serves to portray the jump in the most favorable light while deflecting attention from the lapses in data, presumably making it more resistant to critical scrutiny.
If the task had been mine alone, I couldn’t have pulled it off. Given the incomplete data, I would’ve been forced to tell Art Thompson that we didn’t have sufficient evidence to make a claim, and let him consider the implications for the record jump.
But off the record dossier goes, sailing past the office of the National Aeronautic Association and the Austrian Aero Club without a whiff of objection, on safely to the shores of the FAI.
So maybe Brian Utley is the best man for the job after all.
Like this article?
Get more just like it every month, delivered straight to your mailbox. Subscribe today!