On February 29th, 2016 we learned about

When Capt. Kittinger fell farther to let us fly higher

It might seem obvious that gravity is important to anyone flying, but some of that importance is not directly related to the idea of falling out of the clear blue yonder. The same force that’s pulling on you or your aircraft is also holding onto all the air around you, compressing it more densely against the surface of the Earth than higher in the sky. At higher altitudes, there can actually be so little oxygen that your brain can’t function normally, potentially leading to a loss of consciousness or death. Commercial flights pressurize their cabins for this reason, but what do you do in situations where there’s no cabin to pressurize? This was a concern the United States Air Force started investigating towards the end of World War II, as pilots might need to eject from planes at altitudes where there wasn’t enough air to breath, or even fill a parachute.

Catching our falls up with our flights

Whereas our brains start to suffer from oxygen deprivation around at around 15,000 feet, by 1943 airplanes were reaching 40,000 (much like many commercial flights today.) Early tests by both live pilots and dummies found that to avoid hard jolts from immediately opening a parachute, it was safer for ejecting pilots to free-fall out of the stratosphere first. There wasn’t a clear protocol for survival though, and a test without automatic reserve parachutes, intended to more closely match the average pilot’s experience, lead to the Colonel Mel Boynton’s death. Nonetheless, airplanes were designed to go higher and higher, up to 60 and then 100,000 feet, and so a solution was needed.

In a series of methodical tests launched from the New Mexican desert, dummies were dropped from planes and later polyethylene balloons from as high as 89,000 feet. The critical problem that presented itself at this stage was spinning. Human body shapes seemed to act like rotors in freefall, spinning as fast as 200 revolutions per minute (rpm). This kind of movement would surely be fatal to the human brain, but fortunately a solution was found in small, stabilizing parachutes. These stabilizers successfully acted like rudders to keep the dummies from spinning, but there were concerns that a live human might not hold such a stoic demeanor in freefall, and that their flailing arms and legs would put them back in peril.

Lessons learned at 76,000 feet

The next rounds of tests, called Project Excelsior, then fell on the shoulders of Captain Joseph W. Kittinger. Kittinger was to be sent up in a balloon with a pressurized flight-suite and a multi-staged parachute system, where each stage would release a larger parachute designed to match the atmospheric conditions of differing altitudes and air pressures. If a parachute was deployed at the wrong time, it might not find enough air to fill and help slow Kittinger’s descent, allowing it to instead collapse and possible get tangled before doing any good at all. After more tests with dummies, Kittinger launched from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico sitting in a metal gondola under a 200-foot-tall helium balloon on November 16, 1959.

It was a rough flight, to say the least. The gondola rotated so that the sunlight poured in through the doorway, which, combined with the increasingly foggy visor on his helmet, left Kittinger unable to read or use any of his instruments. While he was supposed to jump from the balloon at 60,000 feet, he realized he had passed 65,000 feet by the time he started unhooking himself from the aircraft. He became stuck at one point, and in the small bit of chaos to move into jump position, he accidentally engaged the timer on his first parachute, starting the deployment sequence early.

The parachute deployed only 2.5 seconds after he’d left the gondola. Combined with the unintentionally-high altitude of 76,400 feet, Kittinger’s parachute didn’t have enough air to actually function, and instead wrapped around his neck. Without that stabilizing parachute, Kittinger found himself in an 80 rpm spin shortly before blacking out. Fortunately, an automatic reserve parachute deployed at 10,000 feet so that the apparently fearless pilot was ready for the next test of the system just under a month later.

Project Excelsior’s second jump was a grand demonstration of learning from mistakes. The helmet’s visor was improved to withstand colder temperatures, the gondola harnesses streamlined, and even the sun was blocked by a simple cardboard shade over the instrument panel. Kittinger jumped at 74,700 feet, landing safely with every parachute operating according to design. Which of course meant it was time to go higher.

Through the sky at imperceptible speeds

The third jump was from 102,800 feet in the sky. This is nearly 20 miles above sea level, higher than even the bulk of the ozone layer (but still lower than some weather balloons!) The gondola was fitted with a small plaque reading “This is the highest step in the world,” and from that vantage point Kittinger had the bewildering view of both the Earth during the day with the darkness of space just about his eyeline.

Kittinger didn’t have a lot of time to star-gaze though, as his right hand was in pain thanks to a loss of pressurization in his glove. Without normal atmospheric compression, his hand became swollen to around twice it’s normal size. While the pilot was well aware of this predicament during his ascent, he kept it to himself to avoid alarming mission commanders on the ground, whom he feared was order him to quit and jump early.

The jump itself was both spectacular and strangely calm. By the time he had fallen to 90,000 feet, Kittinger was moving at around 625 miles-per-hour, faster than the cruising speed of most modern jets. During the four-and-a-half minutes of freefall, this speed wasn’t really apparent. Inside his pressurized helmet, Kittinger could only hear his own breathing, with no trace of the increasing amount of wind whipping past him. From that altitude, nothing was nearby, and so there were no good reference points to demonstrate his movement. Aside from a glance back at the quickly vanishing balloon, he didn’t really witness his own record-setting speed.

A little over 13 minutes after jumping, Kittinger landed, receiving a bad bruise from landing on some of the equipment he was wearing. He continued to work with Air Force on research projects, served and was captured in the Vietnam War and then as a civilian returned to balloon aeronautics. In 2012, he helped advise the Red Bull Stratos project, in which Felix Baumgartner jumped from 128,100 feet in the air, breaking some, but not all of the records Kittinger set with Project Excelsior.

My first-grader asked: That’s amazing! And dangerous! Did he get anything for doing all that?

Kittinger was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Harmon Trophy for his work, as well as an induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. In addition to the swath of awards and honors he earned over the years, the biggest benefits of this work were advancing pilot safety, terrestrial flight and paving the way for later space exploration, as much of the data gathered by Project Excelsior was later used by NASA as they started the Mercury space program.


Source: Joseph W. Kittinger and the Highest Step in the World by Gregory P. Kennedy, Stratocat

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