‘Born to fly’ isn’t just a tattoo on Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s right forearm; it’s the maxim he lives by. In one giant leap one October, the daredevil made the highest (1,28,100 ft above the Earth) and fastest jump ever after hopping out of a capsule from the Earth’s stratosphere. In doing so, he broke the sound barrier (the speed of sound), which is 1,110 kmph. Baumgartner’s free fall to Earth was done at a speed of 1,340 kmph.
This was the first time in history that a human being travelled at such speed without being in a vehicle, like a jet or a spacecraft! The jump took all of 10 minutes. His outstanding achievement also provided important scientific data which hasn’t been available ever before, contributing to NASA’s emergency “escape from space project”.
Felix was also the first person in the world to cross the English Channel with a carbon fiber wing, the first to compete flying next to a plane… the list goes on. “Fearless Felix” as fans know him, has made 14 world records with his BASE jumps all over the planet.
He has numerous awards to his name; the Laureus Award, Bambi Millennium, NEA Extreme Sports Awards, Steiger Awards, National Geographic’s Adventurer of the year, CNN’s Man of the Year to name a few.
Since my interview with him a few years ago, Felix has been flying as a commercial helicopter pilot in Europe, after getting his license in USA. Apart from extreme flights, he does charity flights. He is a prominent advocate for the non-profit Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research Foundation and is currently developing his own personal humanitarian project, FLY 4 LIFE.
Here’s the man up, close and personal.
When did you discover your adventurous streak?
From the time I was a child, I wanted to see the world from above. My mother would always find me climbing trees. I wanted to be a skydiver so bad that I made my first jump as soon as I turned 16 — the legal age for skydiving in Austria. From that first jump, I knew this was what I was meant to do.
How did the supersonic jump from the Earth’s stratosphere happen?
There’s a fascinating backstory involving intense planning and disciplined preparations. Trying to become the first to break the speed of sound in freefall had been a lifelong dream for me. It took many years of preparation before I felt I was ready to pursue last year’s mission. In 2005, a team from Red Bull Stratos and I began planning the mission and got Art Thompson, an aerospace expert from California, on board to explore the options. Art assembled a team of top experts in science, engineering, and aerospace medicine. The long process of developing the highly-specialised equipment began in 2007.
The team put together a step-by-step flight test programme including wind tunnel training in the suit; bungee jumps to perfect my step-off from the capsule; jumps in the suit from helicopters and from airplanes; altitude chamber simulations that mimicked the stratospheric environment; and two test jumps from balloons in the actual stratosphere itself.
You flung yourself headfirst from Christ the Redeemer in Rio and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur as warm-up.
Well, technically I didn’t jump ‘headfirst’! But yes, since my first parachute jump at age 16, it took two decades of successively more difficult challenges before I felt I was ready to undertake a mission from the stratosphere. Those jumps included the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which in 1999 was the highest jump from a building.
Then I set a record for the lowest BASE jump in the same year, when I leapt off the right hand of the Christ the Redeemer statue (low base jumps can be equally dangerous as there’s hardly any time for the diver to open his parachute). I also made jumps from some spectacular bridges and deep caves. The moment I made the first freefall flight across the English Channel, using a carbon wing, was also special.
Any books or writers who have inspired you?
I am always inspired by stories of people who set goals and overcome challenges to achieve them. Astronauts like Neil Armstrong, for example — whom I was lucky enough to meet in person — as well as people like boxer Muhammad Ali. I had long admired Col. Joe Kittinger, whose parachute jump from 1,02,800 ft (31,333 metres) in 1960 was a landmark achievement. He’s quite a guy, and his autobiography, Come Up and Get Me, is truly inspirational.
Are you completely fearless?
No, I do feel fear. But that’s a good thing: fear keeps you from becoming complacent. The important thing is to manage your fear to your advantage – you can’t let it block you.
People call me ‘Fearless Felix’, but I’m not an adrenaline junkie. In fact, throughout my career, I have planned each one of my projects very carefully, always considering the risks. If the risks are too high, I don’t move forward.
Tell us something about Felix Baumgartner that the world doesn’t know.
A lot of people don’t know that I struggled with claustrophobia in the suit. Closing the visor seems like shutting out the world, and breathing becomes very different. I’m told the sensation is not uncommon for pilots as they learn to wear high-altitude gear, and for me it was complicated by the fact that a pressure suit limits movement. So after 20 years of sharpening my skydiving skills, I felt like I was starting all over again. I couldn’t manoeuvre in the ways I was accustomed to. I worked with psychologists to change my mindset. Eventually, I was able to stop viewing the suit as an obstacle and instead saw it as the ‘friend’ that would keep me alive in the hostile stratosphere.
How has life changed since that historic moment?
I had two dreams when I was a child: skydiving and flying helicopters. This jump has helped me take my lifelong dream to the next level. It has been an overwhelming experience. Besides being thrilled to achieve my dream, I am proud that we have been able to provide so much scientific and medical information for aerospace researchers: more than 100 million physiologic data points from the mission on October 14 alone! But as I continue to receive messages from people all over the world, I realise that the most powerful result of the mission may be the inspiration it has sparked in people from all kinds of backgrounds, of all ages.
OTHER ADVENTURES OF THE WORLD’S FASTEST MAN
- 2007: BASE jump into the second biggest cave in the world, ‘Seating of the Spirits’, Oman (396 ft)
- 2007: BASE jump off the world’s tallest building — 101 Tower, Taipei (1,669.95 ft)
- 2006: Felix earned his motorized wings as a helicopter pilot at Twin Air Helicopter School, Van Nuys, USA
- 2004: World record for BASE jump from world’s highest bridge, Millau Bridge, France (1,125 ft)
- 2004: BASE jump into Marmet Cave in Velebit National Parc, Croatia (623 ft deep)
- 2003: Became the first to cross the English Channel in freefall with a carbon wing
- 1999: World record BASE jump from the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (95 ft)
- 1999: World record lowest BASE jump from the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1,479 ft)
- 1997: World champion title for BASE jumping in West Virginia, USA
A version of this interview was first published in Times Life (Sunday supplement by The Times of India)