Felix Baumgartner and 1969 Revisited
As we made our way east home from AOPA Summit at FL410, smoking along at 475 knots over the ground — it’s fast for a CJ — one airline pilot after the other on freq kept asking Albuquerque Center the same question: “Are they jumping today?”
“Yes, they are,” was all the word we got most of the time, though one controller added that the ascent was under way.
The “jump” in question was Felix Baumgartner’s leap from 128,000 feet — the edge of space — from a balloon, the goal of which was to establish the Austrian daredevil aviator as the first human being to go supersonic without the benefit of being in an airplane (or other craft). The “they” the pilots and controllers referred to was noteworthy. Although Baumgartner was alone in the balloon, he had a huge team and five years of planning behind him. Everyone on frequency seemed to know this.
That day, we were there with Felix, not just in spirit but in the air with him, only a few dozen miles away from where he would soon be attempting “the jump.” As we flew along through impossibly blue skies, 100-plus knots of quartering tailwind pushing us along, we scanned the skies over Roswell, looking for that alien craft rising above the desert terrain, making the earth rounder and rounder through its portholes as it squeezed ever higher.
We saw nothing, no traffic target — did it have a transponder? Wouldn't it have needed to? Was it too high already for ATC to see? How big an area of airspace did they dedicate to the balloon and the space dive? How long would it take for the craft to ascend? And how long for Felix to descend?
We wondered and flew, sipping coffee and snacking, ourselves flying high above the earth, sheltered from the lethal outside world, but in a way so common we didn’t really even think about it.
For Felix in these same skies, it was different. His voyage through the air was three times higher, infinitely less predictable and so dangerous. Not just hazardous but downright dangerous.
When we arrived back home, we unloaded our stuff and hurried inside. “The Jump” was on CNN, and we quickly gathered around in the pilot lounge and watched, completely entranced, putting ourselves in Felix’s pressurized shoes perhaps as only pilots can. The question was palpable. Would he live or would he die?
Beyond that, there were records, but no one was thinking of them as we watched the hatch open and the earth appear below, straight down.
As Baumgartner stood, the mission lead, Joe Kittinger, Baumgartner’s champion and the man whose records he was trying to break, talked the diver through the checklist. Baumgartner was nervous, distracted, unable to hear well or some combination of all of the above. The effect on us, the watchers, was profound. We were spellbound, in awe at the courage, the foolhardiness, the passion that Baumgartner was displaying. But he was, we quickly realized, committed. It didn’t matter if he wanted to jump or not. He was going out that hatch.
As he rose and hesitated while performing the checklist, Kittinger talked him through it — the most remarkably strong and tender exchange — being broadcast around the world and at the same time the most heartbreakingly immediate exchange imaginable, a mentor talking his charge through a process, step by step, of taking the biggest leap a person has ever taken, everyone fully aware of the gravity of the situation.
And then the camera switched to one mounted directly above the hatch, looking down. The effect on us viewers was immediate, and I can’t repeat the language that some used, but we were shocked at the view, at the look of the orb of clouds and light and texture below that Baumgartner would drop down to with a single step.
And he did, and we rose from our seats, mouths agape, eyes wide, spellbound by the spectacle of this madman’s plunge.
As he descended, we listened to him, scratch and distant, barely intelligible through the link. At one point did he say that he thought he was going to pass out? We watched as his glowing form cartwheeled down. Was his visor fogging up? At one point as the minutes passed and Felix was silent, Kittinger prompted him for response. When Baumgartner replied, seemingly aware of the tension in Kittinger’s voice, we all breathed for what seemed the first time in many moments. He was okay.
The cartwheeling straightened out — it was Felix in control. He plummeted and the speed built, up to 700 mph and beyond. We all wanted him to break the speed of sound, but truth be told, we all wanted him to survive. Anything beyond was gravy.
And the chute came out, early. Why? Had there been a problem? Was he too low? Was he exhausted? When he saw the "silk" start flying, Kittinger chimed right in, saying that he couldn’t have done it better himself, though his freefall record would endure for one more day.
Baumgartner then maneuvered his chute to land-no one seemed to be able to pinpoint the wind's direction, but it made no difference. When Felix touched down, it was perfect, a 10 out of 10 with the entire world watching. As he jogged to a halt and kneeled down in the New Mexico sagebrush, we cheered. He’d done it. And when he raised his arms in celebration, we raised ours right along.
For those of us old enough to remember the drama and glory of Gemini and Apollo, this was it all over again.What was the purpose? What was the sense? If you had to ask, you don't get it.
And for those of you who weren't around in those days, well, that's how it's done, kids.
And let’s all go flying.