Sky no limit in bid for jump record

By Tony Paterson

He is about as close as humanly possible to being a real life Batman and he does it without capes, masks or the help of a Boy Wonder.

Instead he uses spies, disguises, sponsorship and a hefty supply of nerve to achieve his near-legendary reputation.

For years, Felix Baumgartner has taken to the skies in a way most of us can only emulate in an aeroplane. From skydiving to base-jumping, his endeavours have thrilled onlookers and frequently enraged the authorities.

But like most extreme athletes, Baumgartner has always been on the lookout for the ultimate rush - and now, it appears, he has found it.

His goal, which he hopes to achieve this year, is to make the highest parachute jump. It will be from well into the stratosphere. It will mean breaking the speed of sound. And, if it succeeds, it will break a record of 50 years.

The most recent attempt to break it was made in 2008 by a former French paratrooper, Michel Fournier, who spent years preparing only to have the balloon that was set to take him up break from its moorings and float away.

Luckily, Baumgartner has a former United States Air Force colonel, Joe Kittinger, to guide him.

Kittinger leapt from a gondola attached to a high altitude balloon in 1960 to fall from a height of 31.4km. He is the only man who can advise the challenger from experience. "He was my childhood hero," Baumgartner says.

The Austrian adventurer has come a long way from the boy who worshipped his Vietnam-veteran predecessor. Now Baumgartner is occasionally known as the "God of the Skies". His more prosaic nickname is "Fearless Felix". Seven years ago he skydived over the English Channel, starting high above Dover and flew without any external propulsion to Calais.

Baumgartner did it by jumping out of the back of a so-called "skyvan", a fixed wing aircraft, at 9750m with a 2m-span carbon wing and oxygen bottles strapped to his back. He flew the 35km to Calais in a mixture of free fall and gliding, reaching a top speed of more than 320km/h.

He finally opened his parachute at 1200m and floated gently down to the grassy cliff top of Cap Blanc Nez about seven minutes later.

The 40-year-old's Channel crossing had the approval of the authorities on both sides. It required no SAS-style covert activities. Base-jumping - the highly dangerous business of throwing oneself off high buildings - is Baumgartner's stock in trade, and authorities in most countries do their best to stop him.

Some say his most dangerous feat was a leap from the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro - a relatively small structure, but all the riskier as a result.

But Baumgartner says he conquered his base-jump Everest in December 2007, when he chucked himself off the 509m-high Taipei 101 Tower - the highest building in the world until this month. His free fall lasted five seconds before his parachute flew open. "I've finally fulfilled a dream," he exclaimed.

He had attempted to jump off the building on three previous occasions but had been caught each time by Taipei security guards. He eventually had to use spies to case the building in advance. They noted the positions of security cameras, smuggled in his parachute and hid it in the ceiling of a top floor lavatory.

Baumgartner dressed in several different disguises in order to inspect the building unnoticed before making his jump. Eight years beforehand he jumped off the 452m-high Petronas twin-tower complex in Kuala Lumpur, which was then the world's highest building.

Still, even those feats would pale in comparison to the altitude record that Baumgartner now hopes to set. His collaboration with Kittinger is a throwback to an era before the first American sub-orbital space trip and in the midst of the Cold War, when the goal was to provide data on the effect of high-altitude bailouts from aircraft.

Then, as now, the risks were considerable. A pressurised glove failed on the ascent, and his hand swelled up to twice its usual size. But Kittinger decided to go ahead with the jump anyway, falling at 988km/h, slowed only slightly by his drogue parachute.

His previous jump, a year earlier, nearly killed him. Falling out of another gondola at 23,300m in November 1959, Kittinger's equipment failed and caused him to lose consciousness. His body went into a terrifying flat spin that caused him to rotate like a propeller blade, turning at a speed of 190km/h. The G forces on parts of his body were calculated to be a staggering 22 times the force of gravity.

Fortunately the automatic parachute opener in his equipment functioned properly. It saved his life. So is Baumgartner scared? "Of course. I always use fear to my advantage, for focus."

The attempt is planned for an as-yet unnamed location in North America. Dressed in a specially modified, full-pressure suit and helmet, he will ascend to the stratosphere in a pressurised capsule attached to a 140m-high helium filled balloon. He then intends to jump out at an altitude he hopes will exceed 36.6km and make a descent lasting more than five minutes. Scientists say he will almost certainly break the sound barrier during his free fall and become the first human to do so without the aid of a machine.

The main challenge facing Baumgartner will be to stop his body going into the kind of consciousness-robbing flat spin that Kittinger experienced. Most scientists say it is almost impossible to pull out of a spin once it gains momentum. As a result Baumgartner, like his predecessor, will be equipped with a device which will open his parachute automatically should he black out.

Yet his jump is also an attempt to further space exploration. Baumgartner says it will help to make it possible to bring astronauts back to Earth alive, should their space capsules malfunction on entering the stratosphere.

"We want to prove that astronauts can make it safely back to Earth if they are forced to bail out at 120,000ft [36.6km]," he said.

Yet Baumgartner may find that he has got more than a 36.6km free fall and the threat of flat spins to contend with during his record breaking attempt. Michel Fournier has also pledged to have a go at beating Kittinger's record this year if he secures the right funding. A race for the sky could be on.

- INDEPENDENT

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