Felix's Grand Adventure: Mach 1 Falls

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Red Bull didn't favor us with Felix Baumgartner's medical telemetry during yesterday's record Stratos skydive so I don't know what his heart rate was when he swung his boots over the door sill. Mine was about 140.

I had the unavoidable feeling that something wasn't quite right. His voice sounded slurred to me and he failed to respond to several of Joe Kittinger's challenge-response items on the checklist. Then I realized he may have been pressure breathing at that altitude, although I'm not sure if you pressure breathe in a pressure suit.

No matter. His incredible jump went off without a hitch. Well, almost. Just as some feared, he had a bout with either a tumble or spin—or maybe a short-coupled version of both—that took some seconds to skydive out of. But recover he did. From the ground camera footage, you can almost see the instant when he transitions through the wispy tendrils of the upper atmosphere into air thick enough to work with. The spin stops.

He did reach Mach 1 and then some—1.24, according to Red Bull. He also claims the record for the highest manned balloon flight, bettering Nick Piantanida's ill-fated Strato Jump project by some 5000 feet. At more than 110,000 feet of freefall, Baumgartner gets the record for the longest freefall in feet, if not in time. Kittinger, in drogue fall, may still own that record. Those records seem certain to stand for a long time as there is simply no compelling reason to break them and doing so will require vast sums of money. I haven't seen mention of Red Bull's budget on this project, but I'd guess it was at least $10 million.

I saw no mention of shock wave effects, either, but we might learn more about that later on. I'd also like to find out more about his body position during the initial acceleration. When he stepped off the porch, he went perfectly belly to earth, looking for all the world as Joe Kittinger had 52 years ago. The fact that Kittinger was a critical part of the effort on the 65th anniversary of Chuck Yeager's Mach 1 ride in the X-1 made for perfect bookends. Yeager himself, now 89, took a supersonic flight in an F-15 Sunday, 65 years to the minute after breaking the sound barrier in the X-1. The old lions still roar.

For all the interesting technical merit of the Stratos jump, what struck me most about it is how well it came off as a bright, shining perfectly executed bit of marketing promotion, which was, after all, the intent. Red Bull's live stream of the event was perfectly executed, even though Robert Hager kept mispronouncing Kittinger's name with a hard G. Fifty two years ago, Kittinger's Air Force team didn't know if he was alive until they found him in the desert. Now, we watch it live on the Web in almost real time.

Quite a good show it was, too. Such things has progress wrought.

Comments (31)

He was supposed to manually deploy his main chute at 5,000', but it seemed that he deployed it sooner. Perhaps it was because of his faceplate fogging and not knowing his exact altitude. Quite an accomplishment, regardless, and nice that Joe Kittinger retained one of his records.

Posted by: Manny Puerta | October 15, 2012 1:28 AM    Report this comment

I was beginning to wonder if Americans still cared about doing things like this. Pushing the limits and boundaries. Then again, isn't Felix an Austrian? I guess we're all self-absorbed with our 'smartphones' these days.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | October 15, 2012 2:42 AM    Report this comment

I wonder if we'll ever hear why Kittinger had to ask Felix repeatedly to answer questions, confirm checklist items, etc. There didn't appear to be any comm problems because when he finally answered, he could be heard clearly with no static or breakups, so was he not paying attention? The first few times I worried if he was hypoxic but when he replied, it was obvious he wasn’t.

Some will suggest he was distracted by what he was about to do and perhaps he was but for someone billed as a pro and the most qualified to do this, plus that he'd already made two practice jumps, one from 97,000 feet, being too nervous to reply seems unlikely.

To answer Paul's question, I don't think you pressure breathe in a spacesuit. It does affect how you speak but that's not what I heard in his voice. I’ve both heard others doing it and done it myself. Hearing astronauts on the moon and during spacewalks outside the ISS, they're not pressure breathing, either, at least not at anywhere near the pressure delivered in an oxygen mask in a fighter.

Despite all the claims about science, this was much more about marketing than about exploration and I doubt that very much at all was added to the body of knowledge beyond what Joe Kittinger's jumps had already provided half a century ago.

That said, I was surprised that the narrator of the TV coverage wasn't mentioning Red Bull in every sentence. He was very restrained in his mention of it and I for one appreciated that.

Posted by: Jeff Rankin-Lowe | October 15, 2012 2:50 AM    Report this comment

I made my first freefall about 4 yrs after Joe Kittingers epic Jump, and considering the difference in Equipment for me Joe Kittingers stands out, having said that ,I watched Felix's jump live and it was absolutely brilliant and he went out 10x higher than I ever did, tremendous achievement.

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | October 15, 2012 5:36 AM    Report this comment

It was exciting to watch, though I couldn't help notice how lame some of the comm was. The ground guy kept getting the wind wrong. Several times he declared it was from the north, then corrected it to the east. Later, he told him it was coming from the ridge, but that was wrong too.

Posted by: Robert Shapiro | October 15, 2012 6:53 AM    Report this comment

I think a lot of folks learned from this amazing historic event. The balloon moved eastward in the jet stream, up to 100 mph or so, then at higher altitude it turned back WEST and at moments had zero ground speed. And weren't those temperature variations something to see? Minus 100 degree for a while, then above zero (F) at 128,000, so there was sure lots of science. I hope a lot of kids were watching.

Posted by: John Holcombe | October 15, 2012 7:44 AM    Report this comment

Quite a feat, by any measure. It should remind us of how small is our livable space, a very thin film of air in which we have evolved to prosper. I would hope it would also help us to put politics and other pettinesses into proper perspective, but of course it won't.

Posted by: Thom Riddle | October 15, 2012 7:52 AM    Report this comment

I read that Mr. Baumgartner suffers from claustrophobia when in his pressure suit, a condition that is probably exacerbated when his visor fogs up. See for example http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/12/tech/claustrophobia-skydiver/index.html. I read that he was worked to overcome this condition. I think that helps explain the delayed responses to Col. Kittinger's checklist readouts. Frankly, I think Mr. Baumgartner deserves more respect for completing his jump in the face of this sort of personal adversity.

Posted by: Chip Fleming | October 15, 2012 7:57 AM    Report this comment

Well, the url for the CNN article on Felix Baumgartner's claustrophobia didn't make it into my previous posting. You may have to Google it.

Posted by: Chip Fleming | October 15, 2012 7:58 AM    Report this comment

What odds he deliberately did not break the time in free fall record as a 'salute' to his friend and mentor Joe Kittinger ? What a gesture if this were indeed so, but I guess we'll never know for sure.

Posted by: George Brown | October 15, 2012 10:00 AM    Report this comment

"What odds he deliberately did not break the time in free fall record as a 'salute' to his friend and mentor Joe Kittinger ?"

Interesting question and hardly impossible. On the other hand, I believe FAI might distinguish drogue fall from free fall. Baumgartner was skydiving, Kittinger was not. They are different categories.

As for the face place fogging, it is a problem. I've had it happen a couple of times on high-altitude big ways upon exiting into cold air. Whether you're claustrophobic or not, it's disorienting and anxiety inducing because control in freefall is definitely a hand-eye thing that requires crisp vision. Not much you can do about it, either.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 15, 2012 10:37 AM    Report this comment

"Yeager himself, now 89, took a Mach ride in an F-15 Sunday"

A "Mach ride"? How fast is that? It's like saying that I took an MPH drive in my car.

Yes, I think I know what you meant - that he broke the sound barrier. And yes, I know that this is a blog, not an article. But you are a specialist in the field, and I would hope that you would be more careful in your use of terms that relate to that field.

Posted by: Rush Strong | October 15, 2012 11:22 AM    Report this comment

"What odds he deliberately did not break the time in free fall record as a 'salute' to his friend and mentor Joe Kittinger ?"

I wondered this too, almost as soon as I saw the preliminary numbers on the screen - and I loved the thought. But according to the press conference, 5,000 feet was the target for deployment (I think he said that he pulled at about 5,200). If he'd slowed to a typical skydiving terminal speed of 125 mph (183 ft/sec), he would've had to deploy at well under 3,000 ft.

I also noticed that they qualified his free fall time as being a record for non-drogue (true) free fall, a distinction that you mentioned.

Posted by: Rush Strong | October 15, 2012 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Good point. How about supersonic? Nobody in aviation says "break the sound barrier." After all, Yaeger proved that it wasn't a barrier at all.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 15, 2012 12:50 PM    Report this comment

Dagnabbit, I almost did write supersonic! And I've never considered the etymology of 'sound barrier'. (I'm guessing the 'old lion' didn't, either.)

Posted by: Rush Strong | October 15, 2012 1:15 PM    Report this comment

As with Mr. Brogan, I've got one-fourteenth the number of jumps as Felix Baumgartner, the highest exit altitude being one-tenth of Felix's record-setting jump.

One thing we jumpers were always taught was that if you didn't know where you were, you were to wave off to warn anybody in your blind spot, then open your main (chute). With alacrity. No messing around. The usual causes of that for us were fogged goggles, rain to come out of nowhere and block your vision, or for instrument lighting to fail on a night jump.

Another thing that stood out for me was Col Kittinger actually being the mission commander. I wasn't sure if the title was an honorary one, but from what I could see he actually ran the thing. I hope I've still got my marbles to the extent he has when I'm in my eighties.

Was the effort only a marketing promotion? I don't think so, any more than the US and Soviet space programs were strictly for propaganda. Data from this jump will be used to advance medical knowledge as well as how to protect those who ride in commercial spacecraft.

And yes, there's there's a huge difference between drogue-fall and freefall. I tell tandem "jumpers" that they only experienced a couple of seconds of freefall, the period from when they exited the jump plane to when the drogue opened. They put on pouty faces; those who made it past high-school physics eventually admit I'm right. The remainder don't understand the difference.

Posted by: J. S. Janisch | October 15, 2012 2:22 PM    Report this comment

"I hope a lot of kids were watching."

My 6 and 8 year olds were. They thought it was pretty cool, but couldn't really understand the scale of it all.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | October 15, 2012 3:43 PM    Report this comment

J.S., where did you find Baumgartner's jump numbers? I looked all over for them and came up empty. Just curious. He's got a bunch of base jumps.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 15, 2012 6:37 PM    Report this comment

Where did I find Felix Baumgartner's total jump numbers? I think it was in a Red Bull magazine in my local barber shop; that article said 2500 more or less. Like you, I've looked on the web and can't find anything. I used that number against my 178 to get the fraction I used in my earlier post. In any case, he's got heaps more than I have.

Posted by: J. S. Janisch | October 15, 2012 7:14 PM    Report this comment

And me, had to stop years ago , due to family commitments and senior managements concerns, but I tell my Grandkids how cool it is, As for Felix Baumgarten isn,t he a Professional ? unheard of in my day !

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | October 16, 2012 5:15 AM    Report this comment

Felix Baumgartner my apologies.

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | October 16, 2012 5:16 AM    Report this comment

Pardon my ignorance, but doesn't the speed of sound vary according to altitude? Also, shouldn't Felix Baumgarten have felt a shock wave, if he truly broke the sound barrier. Or did he just break the speed of sound at sea level?

Posted by: Scott Cornwell | October 16, 2012 1:22 PM    Report this comment

Or should I say "did he break the speed which sound travels at sea level?"

Posted by: Scott Cornwell | October 16, 2012 1:23 PM    Report this comment

The speed of sound is governed by temperature, not air pressure. I've only known that for a few days. I didn't believe it until I'd looked it up and heard it from multiple reliable sources (NASA engineers, aircraft designers, F/A-18 drivers, etc.).

Felix Baumgartner exceeded the speed at which sound travels at the temperature he was experiencing at the time by a comfortable margin. In post-jump interviews he said that his pressure suit kept him from feeling a shock wave, or much of anything else. That included the air moving past him, which is how we skydivers control our position and speed during freefall.

What I'd be interested in would be if anybody on the ground heard the shock waves.

Posted by: J. S. Janisch | October 16, 2012 2:03 PM    Report this comment

"What I'd be interested in would be if anybody on the ground heard the shock waves."

No, no one on the ground would hear a thing. Wiki has a nice illustration of the sonic boom effect: wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonic_boom

The shock wave, and resulting sound, trail behind the supersonic object. In Felix's case, the shock wave was always above him; you would have to have been at altitude to hear anything.

Posted by: Rush Strong | October 16, 2012 3:04 PM    Report this comment

"A giant step for Felix Baumgartner, but a small step for mankind"

Posted by: Joe Wuensche | October 18, 2012 4:50 AM    Report this comment

Paul, thank you for remembering Nick Piantanida,a man who persevered with limited resources. My connection to his efforts; he thumped down adjacent to our farm that fateful day in 1966. I was second at the scene,at the time didn't realize the efforts of his endeavors.He was completely blue. I always wondered what happened to his family, wife and daughters and if they followed the red Bull Bull operation. Readers may be interested in a book by author Craig Ryan, "Magnificent Failure", I have tried to find the author by my efforts have not been successful.

Posted by: John NauerthIII | October 18, 2012 7:05 AM    Report this comment

I was very glad to see Mr. Kittinger was there. I remember seeing some old History Channel video of Joe's jumps recall two interesting things. 1) It was said that he had a small hole in one of the gloves in his suit that caused some cold injury to his hand. 2) When the recovery team found him in the desert the opened his helmet and gave him a cigarette. I am glad Red Bull skipped that part and "TIMES HAVE CHANGED."

Posted by: William Minton | October 18, 2012 7:43 AM    Report this comment

John -The author of "Magnificent Failure" is Craig Ryan; you can buy it here: tinyurl.com/8br6tnd (Amazon)

Posted by: Rush Strong | October 18, 2012 9:26 AM    Report this comment

Oops, that was a bit redundant.

Posted by: Rush Strong | October 18, 2012 9:38 AM    Report this comment

It was great to see Joe Kitinger so involved. Having met him in person myself back in the late 1990s, I can’t imagine anyone not immediately liking him.

I am, however, still waiting for the Apollo Mission deny-ers and the Chem-trail conspiracy nuts to tell us that yet another bi-pedal alien from space has left his flying saucer and landed near Roswell NM, and that the official government coverup is some cockamamie nonsense story about an energy drink company sponsoring a stunt. :-)

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | October 18, 2012 12:45 PM    Report this comment

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