As a helium balloon carried Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner toward the pinnacle of his 128,100-foot vertical journey on Oct. 14, the Red Bull-sponsored BASE jumper received some final words of encouragement before his descent from the edge of space.
“Guardian angels will look after you,” the voice said before Baumgartner plunged from a record-breaking altitude, reaching a top speed of 833 mph and becoming the first man to break the speed of sound in free fall.
The voice belonged to retired Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger—the man whose world skydive record was broken by the very jump.
Kittinger, who served at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for five years, plummeted from about 19 miles above sea level in 1960, setting a world record that stood for 52 years. Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos Mission earlier this month trumped the jump by about three miles.
A former pilot and engineer, Kittinger said he joined the Red Bull Stratos team four years ago as an advisor and capsule communicator. The experienced high-altitude skydiver actively advised Baumgartner throughout the training jumps and the record-breaker in New Mexico through a direct communication feed, he said.
Baumgartner recruited Kittinger because he was the only man who had previous experience jumping from so high in the Earth’s stratosphere, Kittinger said.
“I felt like I was with Felix on every jump,” Kittinger said. “When you’re standing on the edge of space and you see all the different colors on the Earth’s horizon, that’s something only him and I have ever
Shortly after Baumgartner jumped from the balloon, he fell into a spin and had difficulty re-stabilizing in the air. As the capsule communicator, Kittinger said he spoke to Baumgartner several times throughout the nine-minute drop and advised him on how to stabilize himself.
“I called him about three or four times before he pulled the chute,” Kittinger said. “I had to tell him which way the winds were coming and his best options to get out of his spin in the air.”
Markus Rumpfkeil, an associate professor in the University of Dayton’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, explained the dangers of falling into a spin
“At that altitude, it’s like being on your own carnival ride,” Rumpfkeil said. “Besides being completely disoriented, your heart has to pump against all that force and maintaining consciousness becomes an issue. You could easily black out and there’s no one there to pull your chute.”
In addition to the dangers of falling into a spin, Rumpfkeil said Baumgartner could have also succumbed to equipment malfunction. The Austrian skydiver’s suit, which is being studied by NASA, could have had difficulty withstanding such drastic temperature and pressure differences, according to Rumpfkeil.
“Really, he could have caught fire against all that frictional force,”
Ultimately, Baumgartner’s suit withstood the force and he was able to regain control in the air under Kittinger’s direction before deploying his parachute. Kittinger said he was cheering Baumgartner on as he landed safely about 50 miles east of where he had set the previous skydive record.
“It was a real honor for me to be a part of both of these record-setting jumps,” Kittinger said. “It’s very humbling to be a part of