Recently I read a New Yorker article about record setting parachuter Michel Fournier and was so impressed I thought I’d share it. A retired French Army Colonel, Fournier has made more than 8,000 jumps. For the past few years he’s been training for and attempting to set a new world record by jumping out of a balloon 25 miles up, about 3 times the altitude that commercial jets fly at.
As described in that article, at 50 thousand feet any gases trapped in the body expand to more than 8 times their volume at sea level, swelling intestines, rupturing lung tissue, etc. At about 63 thousand feet our body fluids begin to boil due to the thin atmosphere. In 1959, a Marine Colonel, William Rankin, bailed out of his fighter jet at 50 thousand feet and “barely survived the fall, bleeding from every orifice.”
The high altitude jumping record presently belongs to a crazy, death-defying former speedboat racer and test pilot, Joe Kittinger (who later flew almost 500 combat missions in Vietnam, was shot down by a MIG fighter and served 11 months in the Hanoi Hilton), who rode up in a balloon to 76 thousand feet in 1959 and jumped out at nearly twice the prior record altitude. He was delayed exiting the balloon, though, because his equipment had become wedged in hte gondola, so his first parachute, which was timed to open automatically, opened about 14 seconds early. Consequently, it failed to open properly and wrapped around his neck. His second chute opened automatically at 18 thousand feet (he was unconcious by then), coiled around his body and began spinning his body at 80 revolutions per minute. The third, reserve chute finally opened and saved his life.
Less than a year later, Kittinger jumped from 74 thousand feet. Within 30 seconds he had fallen 13 thousand feet and reached terminal velocity of more than 600 miles per hour. This time his parachutes worked perfectly. Near 40 thousand feet his thermometer read 98 degrees below zero, but his electrically heated pressure suit kept his body warm. Except that his right glove had failed to pressurize, so his hand on that side had inflated to almost twice its normal size.
Anyway, that’s the past. Fournier is attempting to jump from a balloon at 130 thousand feet. The trip up will take over 2.5 hours. The trip down less than 15 minutes. By the time he reaches Kittinger’s jump height he’ll be going more than 900 miles per hour – one and a half times the speed of sound. According to this BBC article, he’ll reach a top speed of between 745 and 1,000 mph (1,200 to 1,600 kph).
Here’s a few pics of Fournier and his gear. Incidentally, as you can see, he’s in his mid 60’s.
The capsule he’ll ride up in.
Past record holder, Joe Kittinger
And the big jump.
Here’s his Website: thesuperjump.org/site_en/homme1.htm