Kittinger's daredevil feats Science

Sky dive… from the edge of space

With jet planes gaining speed and height in the 1950s, high-altitude escape systems became a priority for the United States Air Force. Get over 63,000 feet, and human blood begins to boil. Get past 90,000 feet, and the temperatures could go as low as minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The problem, in essence, was two-fold. If the chute was opened immediately after bailing out, the airman faced the risk of dying due to lack of oxygen and severe cold. If he tries to lower himself to liveable altitudes before opening the chute, there was the risk of flat spin — characteristic of aerodynamically unstable objects. Dummies dropped from a height of 100,000 feet attained up to 200 revolutions per minute (rpm), and it was known that reaching even 140 rpm could prove fatal for human beings.

In 1958, Project Excelsior was started to device a parachute system that would allow for a controlled descent from a high altitude. Air Force’s Aerospace Medical Division’s Francis Beaupre came up with a three-stage design that included altitude sensors to automatically deploy based on the height. The trio of chutes included a stabilisation canopy to prevent flat spin during free fall apart from the two conventional chutes. Beaupre’s parachutes were ready for manned testing.

The three big leaps

That’s where Colonel Joseph Kittinger stepped in, or should we say, was willing to step out. Three jumps were made as part of Project Excelsior — jumps that advanced safety technology for fighter pilots and established a record that stood for over half a century.

The first of these three jumps, however, was a catastrophe. Convinced that the chute was working fine and was ready for high-altitude tests, Kittinger jumped out of the gondola at 76,400 feet on November 16, 1969.

The timer lanyard of the stabilisation unit was prematurely pulled as a result of which that chute opened too soon and the cords wrapped around his neck. Even though Kittinger was rendered unconscious, the small chute broke away as per design and the main chute opened automatically, enabling him to land safely.

Kittinger’s belief in Beaupre’s ideas, however, meant that he jumped a second time in just three weeks, on December 11, 1959. Off from a height of 77,400 feet, Kittinger had a perfect jump as everything worked per the plan.

The third and final jump of the project was scheduled for August 16, 1960 with a target height of 100,000 feet. Encased in a pressure suit, Kittinger took his place in the open gondola of a huge helium balloon, after which his team cut the straps that kept the gondolo tethered to the ground.

At 43,000 feet, Kittinger noticed that his right hand was no longer feeling the same. He realised that the pressure seal in his right glove had failed, which meant that this limb would be exposed to the upper atmosphere, causing it to swell, lose circulation and feel extreme pain. Keeping in mind his previous experience and the fact that a lot was riding on this project, Kittinger decided against notifying his ground staff, for fear that they might call off the jump.

At the speed of sound

Ninety minutes after liftoff, Kittinger had reached an altitude of 102,800 feet - over and above his target. He clicked the cameras to life, realised the eerie silence that he was a part of and waited for the scheduled time to step out of his gondola. And then, he jumped.

His free-fall lasted for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, speeding at over 600 mph, close to the speed of sound. He experienced temperatures close to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. His parachutes worked without any errors and he reached the ground safely. He had not only proven that the parachute design worked flawlessly, but also that human beings could withstand the harsh conditions, paving the way for spaceflights.

After serving with his country during the Vietnam War, which also included a stint as a prisoner of war, Colonel Joseph Kittinger also went on to pilot the first solo transatlantic balloon flight in 1984. And in 2012, when Felix Baumgartner finally broke his long-held altitude record, Kittinger assisted him as the capsule communications chief. The record now belongs to Alan Eustace though, after he jumped from a height of 135,908 feet on October 24, 2014.

Reach A.S.Ganesh at

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 3:06:26 AM |

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