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The men who fall to Earth

The quest to jump from ever-higher altitudes has gripped skydivers for generations, with varying results.Craig Williams weighs the latest attempt against those of the 'supermen' of the 1960s

 

From his vantage point, Nick Piantanida could see a sight few people have seen. He gazed out from his open gondola at the curve of the great ball on which we live. He marvelled at the strange rings of colour running from the blue of the troposphere to the deep indigo of the stratosphere to the empty blackness of space. It was 1966 and the New Jersey native - a long-haul trucker and exotic-animal dealer by trade - hung precariously from a gigantic, incredibly fragile plastic balloon, his spacecraft nothing more than a welded aluminium cage with styrofoam walls.

He was preparing for the final act of a great drama three years in the making. He'd risen to an altitude of 37.6 kilometres in just a couple of hours, and now he was higher than any human had ever been.

He released his safety belt. He would shortly stand - gingerly, so as not to unbalance the gondola - and leap into the void. He would soar into the greatest free fall ever attempted. At 27 kilometres, he would go supersonic: the first man to exceed the speed of sound, with nothing more than gravity as a power source. Although free falls are typically measured in seconds, he would fall for some five minutes: a human meteor. With 800 metres to go, he would deploy his parachute and glide to a landing. The 33-year-old would write himself into the record books, become immortal.

That was the plan. But Piantanida had a problem: he couldn't decouple his oxygen supply from the onboard tank. He was tethered fast to his gondola on the edge of space. He shared the maddening ordeal with his ground crew by VHF radio: "Isn't this a bitch? Can't disconnect the oxygen. I don't believe it. I can't separate the hose.

"I'll try one more time," he told the team. He had practised this manoeuvre a dozen times in a decompression chamber. "What a stinking … please make it come loose!"

Finally, flight director Ed Yost made a tough decision. They would separate the balloon from the gondola by remote control and bring Piantanida down under the 15-metre cargo parachute attached to the top of the gondola. The only problem was, nobody had ever tried anything remotely like this before. Would the cargo chute open in the near-vacuum? Would the gondola start to tumble? Piantanida couldn't refasten his seat belt while wearing bulky pressure gloves; could he hang on? The project engineers were worried. "We thought he might get pumped right out of that puppy," one said.

They had a countdown, and Yost blew the balloon. The gondola dropped like a stone. Piantanida's wife, Janice, huddled in front of the radio receiver along with the rest of the crew. She'd left their three young daughters with relatives back in New Jersey. As they waited for his voice, the silence over the radio was unbearable.

But none of them doubted that he would make it. Piantanida had once climbed the highest waterfall in the world. He handled king cobras with his bare hands. "He was like Superman," Janice said.

After a gap of nearly half a century, Austrian Felix Baumgartner hopes to achieve the free fall Piantanida had set out to do. Assuming he hasn't already (at the time of going to press, his team said they were waiting for ideal weather conditions) Baumgartner will ride a helium balloon to the rarified region above 99 per cent of the Earth's atmosphere and step off into history. But the saga of high-altitude parachuting is about more than just dreams and records. It is a fascinating but largely unknown story of ingenuity and pure guts.

DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR, ever more powerful planes flew ever higher. The first high-altitude jumps were made to find out if air crews forced to bail out at altitude could parachute down to Earth. One of the greatest early high-altitude jumps was made by a medical researcher in the United States Army Air Corps, Randy Lovelace.

In 1943, Lovelace jumped from a B-17 bomber at 12.3 kilometres and opened his chute straight away, inadvertently discovering the folly of an immediate opening at high altitude. He lost consciousness and nearly froze to death on the long descent. After this, pilots were taught to free fall to lower, warmer altitudes before popping their chutes. But there is a potentially lethal problem with free falling: the body's devilish tendency to spin and tumble.

In the 1950s, the US Air Force studied this problem by dropping dummies from high altitude. Project High Dive revealed that bodies can spin at up to 200 revolutions a minute as they fall. Such rapid spins produce very high g-forces on the body's extremities, and there is also a high risk of becoming entangled when the parachute is released. One answer is to learn how to control your body's spin during free fall, as French daredevil Leo Valentin discovered in the 40s.

The US Air Force devised a way to stop spin that did not require any training: a multistage parachute. A small "drogue" chute opens at high altitude to prevent spinning, and the main chute opens at a lower altitude. In 1958, Joseph Kittinger formed Project Excelsior to prove multistage chutes could be used for emergency escapes.

Kittinger had already been up 29 kilometres in a helium balloon as part of a space biology project, and he saw the gas balloon as the perfect platform for high-altitude bail-out testing. He survived three high-altitude jumps using the multistage parachute - the last one from 31.3 kilometres, in 1960. It was, and still is, the greatest parachute jump of all time, celebrated in books, magazines, documentaries and even a pop song by Swedish band Panter.

It also helped to save lives. In 1966, an SR-71A aircraft flying in excess of Mach 3 broke apart at an altitude of 24 kilometres. Test pilot Jim Zwayer was killed, but co-pilot Bill Weaver survived the deceleration and wind blast, landing safely thanks to a chute much like the one pioneered on Project Excelsior. Today, all US high-altitude military aircraft use multistage chutes.

The Soviet Union faced similar problems, and, in 1962, Peter Dolgov and Eugene Andreyev rode a balloon into the upper stratosphere to test an emergency escape system. They also hoped to capture the official record for the longest free fall. Kittinger had opted not to have his jump documented by the world sanctioning body, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, and his small drogue chute might have invalidated the free-fall record in any case.

Andreyev leapt out at 25.5 kilometres. He used his skills as a skydiver to avoid a flat spin and free-fell 95 per cent of the way before landing safely. Dolgov left the pressurised gondola at 26 kilometres, but, because of a pinprick hole in his glass face mask, his suit depressurised and he died before reaching the ground. The Soviets initially covered up Dolgov's mishap, but they did claim - and still hold - Andreyev's record for the longest free fall.

By the mid-60s, the American and Soviet militaries had both mothballed their expensive high-altitude jump programmes. High jumping moved from the realm of research into the realm of extreme adventure. Piantanida was the first to take up the challenge.

At the age of 10, he'd nearly killed himself leaping from the roof of an apartment block with a bedsheet as an improvised parachute. He made his first real jump in 1962 and immediately began plotting a free fall from the stratosphere, aiming to break not only the world free-fall record, but also that for the highest crewed balloon flight. It quickly became an obsession. Piantanida had been a semi-professional basketball player, a boxing champion in the army, a pilot and a world-class expedition climber. Competition and risk were more than diversions: they consumed him.

After trying to raise funds through a direct-mail campaign, he charmed an investment banker in New York, who agreed to partially bankroll his attempt, which was given the operation name Project Strato-Jump. After studying Project Excelsior, Piantanida began recruiting his team.

He convinced the world's leading manufacturer of high-altitude survival systems to donate a custom-made pressure suit. He talked one of the world's few providers of high-altitude balloons into constructing one for him. He took a job driving a truck at night to free up his days to work on his dream. In the space of 30 months, Piantanida created the world's first civilian space programme. On his first attempt, his balloon burst just short of seven kilometres. It was his second attempt, in February 1966, that left him stranded on the edge of space.

There he sat, higher than any human has ever been without the aid of a power source. When Yost blew the gondola free, 15 agonising seconds elapsed before Janice and the crew heard his astonished voice. "Do you read me anybody? Let me tell you, I'm coming down like a banshee!"

The plummeting gondola had tipped forward at a 45-degree angle. Piantanida, with his safety belt off, hung on for dear life. The cargo chute opened at about 29 kilometres with a tremendous wallop. He managed to stay aboard, but it was a long, brutal ride down with the gondola swaying crazily back and forth the whole way. Still, he survived.

Piantanida immediately began planning his third attempt.

The launch of Strato-Jump III was set for May Day, 1966, from Joe Foss Field, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Piantanida had proved he could reach previously unheard of heights. All that was left now was to get out of the damned gondola once he got up there. His team redesigned the oxygen coupling for quick release. They gave the gondola fresh white panels and a bright red sign with Piantanida's new name for the vehicle: Jadodide, an amalgam of the names of Janice and his daughters, Donna, Diane and Debbie.

Everything was going according to plan, with the gondola having reached 17.5 kilometres, when the ground crew heard a sudden whoosh over the radio, followed by Piantanida's startled voice: "Emergen …" He never completed the word.

Yost immediately activated a small explosive charge that blew the balloon free of the gondola, and Piantanida was once again falling back to Earth beneath the big cargo chute. He came down on a farm in Minnesota. By the time his crew reached him, he'd fallen into a coma.

Piantanida died four months later, two weeks after his 34th birthday. Investigations into the accident found no failure in the survival system. The evidence suggests that the most likely culprit was Piantanida himself. It is thought that he had prised open the face shield on his helmet to clear condensation or simply to refresh himself and was unable to reseal it, leaving his brain starved of oxygen. There were suggestions that Piantanida had committed suicide, but that made no sense. As Janice said: "Nobody on this Earth ever wanted to live more than Nick Piantanida."

Despite Piantanida's fate, a long list of high-altitude skydivers and daredevils have declared their intention of beating Kittinger's record. Most attempts have been publicity stunts rather than serious efforts, but one notable competitor has been Michel Fournier, now aged 68 and a retired French Air Force colonel, who has made several credible attempts since 2002. In each case, equipment failure has scuttled Fournier's balloon launches.

Baumgartner is the latest to try to beat the record, and he has one crucial advantage over Piantanida and Fournier: a mentor with experience of parachuting from the edge of space, albeit from 52 years ago. Piantanida had asked for Kittinger's assistance back in 1965, but Kittinger refused, saying Piantanida had a cocky attitude and lack of operational discipline. But, Baumgartner was able to convince Kittinger to join his team as a consultant. It was at Kittinger's insistence that Baumgartner would make three separate jumps, each progressively higher, in order to allow the team an opportunity to work out any problems before the final attempt.

In March this year, Baumgartner joined Kittinger and Andreyev as the only men to survive a premeditated skydive from the high stratosphere, when he jumped from 21.8 kilometres. Then, on July 25, Baumgartner landed safely in flight test No2, after having reached a free-fall speed of 864km/h as he dived from 29.5 kilometres.

If his final jump this year is successful and he bests both of his predecessors, he will put an exclamation point on a long and colourful chapter in the history of aeronautics.

Piantanida, however, set two records that not even Baumgartner is likely to equal: the highest crewed balloon flight and the longest descent under a parachute canopy - and he accomplished it for a fraction of Baumgartner's budget.

As Piantanida would attest, beating Kittinger's record is not going to be easy. The stratosphere is unforgiving. One little mistake, one microscopic hole or invisible crack in the pressure suit or helmet, one momentary lapse in judgment, and, in Kittinger's sobering words: "You're a dead man."

 

For confirmation of the date of Felix Baumgartner's final jump and other updates on the mission, visit: www.redbullstratos.com.

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