Felix Baumgartner: First person to break sound barrier in freefall

An unprecedented eight million people went onto YouTube on 14 October 2012 to witness the game-changing moment Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner completed a parachute jump from a height of 38,969.4 metres, smashing through eight world records and the sound barrier in the space of just three hours.

Five years in scrupulous planning, the $20-million (£12.45-million) Red Bull Stratos project made history that day, signalling a huge leap forward in the world’s knowledge about the way the body copes with extreme conditions near space.

At 9:28 a.m. local time (3:28 p.m. GMT), Felix lifted off from Roswell, New Mexico, USA. Destination: the edge of space. Within the next few hours, Felix would be back on Earth having become the First human to break the sound barrier in freefall, completed the Highest freefall parachute jump (38,969.4 m / 127,852 ft) and achieved the Fastest speed in freefall (1,357.6 km/h / 843.6 mph).

Born to fly

Felix was born in 1969, but his journey truly began at the age of 16, when he completed his first ever skydive.

The thrill sucked him in and he continued to challenge himself with extreme parachuting. He soon took up BASE jumping, another seriously dangerous sport that involves parachuting or wingsuit flying from a fixed structure or cliff.

Felix went on to join the Austrian military, where he spent many years perfecting his parachute jumping and learned how to land on small target zones.

He later left the army and for a short while supported himself by repairing motorbikes.

But, Felix said, “The air is where I am at home.”

He has a tattoo on his forearm in Gothic font that says ‘Born to fly’.

The Red Bull Stratos mission

Felix went to Red Bull before it came to him – he approached the energy drinks company and asked them to sponsor him to do a BASE jump from the 860-ft New River George Bridge in West Virginia, USA. They refused him, but a determined Felix went on to do the stunt regardless.

Thirty-two BASE jumps later, Red Bull agreed to sponsor him, kicking off his career as a showman for the company.

He mastered the BASE jump and found fame by expertly throwing himself off landmarks and the world’s tallest buildings in front of cameras. But: “I mean, how many highest buildings in the world do you want to do? The concept was always the same.”

Felix sought after even greater heights and resolved to break Joseph Kittinger’s (USA) 52-year-old record for the highest freefall parachute jump. With that, Red Bull and Baumgartner’s ultimate challenge was set in motion.

84-year-old Joseph aided Felix throughout the mission and was his main point of contact during the record-breaking jump.
It took years of unthinkably expensive research, development and testing with industry experts to perfect the equipment.
One of the most important factors for the jump was Felix’s pressure suit, because if this failed he would almost certainly die.
Felix hated the restrictive suit that was designed for him so much that a psychologist was brought in to help him come to terms with being inside it.

By the time of the mission’s dramatic climax, however, every conceivable chance of a mistake or failure had been ironed out.

Records broken

Largest balloon with a human on board

A giant balloon, as tall as the Statue of Liberty when fully inflated and with a capacity of approximately 850,000 m³ (30 million cu ft), carried Felix inside a capsule to an altitude of 38,969.4 m (127,852 ft).

The balloon had around 5,097 m³ (180,000 cu ft) of helium inserted by the crew prior to its launch. This was enough helium for lift off, but did not fill the balloon envelope to capacity because they needed to leave space to allow the helium to expand while the balloon rose.

As the air pressure decreased with the balloon’s rising altitude, the helium inside it expanded, eventually filling the entire envelope to its full capacity of approximately 850,000 m³ (30 million ft³) at jump altitude.

The helium-filled balloon took Felix on his two-hour journey into the stratosphere.

The danger of the event was emphasised by the fact that the “live” broadcast had a built-in delay, allowing the public to be spared a gruesome spectacle in the event of tragedy.

After the long tension-building ascent, Felix could be heard running through the checklist with Col Kittinger and telling of the unexpected fogging of his visor. This issue was resolved quickly.

Felix Baumgartner

Highest altitude untethered outside a vehicle

After depressurising the capsule – the point of no return – Felix perched on its ledge for a few final moments before making his death-defying, multiple record-breaking leap to Earth.

“I’m going home now,” he said.

He started 99,000 ft higher than Mount Everest and it took him just 9:09 minutes to get back to Earth.

First human to break the sound barrier in freefall

Once he had landed back on solid ground, Felix said:

“First we got off with a beautiful launch and then we had a bit of drama with a power supply issue to my visor. The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. I thought I’d just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. I thought for a few seconds that I’d lose consciousness. I didn’t feel a sonic boom because I was so busy just trying to stabilize myself. We’ll have to wait and see if we really broke the sound barrier. It was really a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”

The speed of sound is 1,236 km/h (768 mph). During his stratospheric skydive, Felix reached a top speed of 1,357.6 km/h (843.6 mph).

“It was an incredible up and down today, just like it’s been with the whole project,” said Baumgartner once he was safely back on Earth.

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Most concurrent views for a live event on YouTube

Felix’s skydive not only set several high-altitude records, but also pushed the envelope for online video, with Felix and Red Bull breaking the records for the most concurrent views for a live event on YouTube and the largest audience for a livestream ad.

There were 15 cameras on Felix’s capsule with five attached to his suit, which provided an incredible viewing experience for those watching the broadcast.

A whopping eight million people watched Felix’s journey to space and descent back to Earth. The audience would have been even larger but demand out weighed YouTube’s server capabilities.

Aftermath

Following his amazing success, Felix’s name was added to Vienna’s Street of Champions alongside other Austrian and international sports champions in Vienna. He was also nominated for a World Sports Award and for two categories in the NEA Extreme Sports Awards. Felix says he is “officially retired from the daredevil business”, and now puts his efforts into his helicopter and public service as a firefighter.

More than an impressive stunt, Felix’s skydive was a scientific challenge during which a lot of useful data was collected. His incredible achievement has led to significant advances in research into the stratosphere and space, as well as spacesuits and safety equipment.

On 24 October 2014, Google executive Alan Eustace (USA) fell to Earth from 41,422 metres (135,898 ft), and broke Felix’s record for the Highest freefall parachute jump.

Each year our knowledge of once unreachable places keeps on growing. There is no telling where we may go next.

Skydiver breaks sound barrier

Extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner made a death-defying free fall that made him the first skydiver to break the sound barrier, according to organizers.

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‘The most exciting moment was when I was standing at the door above the world’

Skydive successful

Felix Baumgartner successfully landed after making a death-defying free fall, during which organizers claimed he broke the record for highest and fastest free fall, and the highest manned balloon ride.

Extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner made a death-defying free fall that made him the first skydiver to break the sound barrier, according to organizers.

In a journey that lasted over nine minutes, he fell at a speed of 1,342.8 km/h, which broke the sound barrier — 1,200 km/h. That amounts to Mach 1.24, which is faster than the speed of sound. No one has ever reached that speed in a free fall jump.

Baumgartner, now known as ‘Fearless Felix’, has broken the record for the highest free fall ever, the fastest free fall and the highest manned balloon ride, said organizers.

“Sometimes we have to get really high to see how small we are,” Baumgartner told reporters shortly after the jump.

“The most exciting moment was when I was standing at the door above the world.”

The Austrian man’s feat also marked the 65th anniversary of U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager’s successful attempt to become the first man to officially break the sound barrier aboard an airplane.

Baumgartner took off from a launch site in Roswell, N.M., on Sunday in a pressurized capsule carried by a 55-storey ultra-thin helium balloon and took nearly three hours to climb into the stratosphere.

“On the step I felt that the whole world’s watching. I said I wish they would see what I see. It was amazing,” said Baumgartner.

The jump from the edge of space was postponed on Monday and Tuesday because of unexpected winds, but the weather was deemed calm enough for his latest attempt.

Mission control was silent for the first minute as Baumgartner spun around on his way down. Before the two-minute mark, he stabilized and the crew on ground broke into cheers and whistles.

Baumgartner, 43, had been training for five years for the jump, during which he was expected to be in a free fall for some five minutes before opening a parachute at 5,000 feet above ground. However, he opened his chute around the 4:18 mark.

He spoke to mission control throughout his fall and glided safely to the ground — coming up on his knees and pumping his fists in the air. His family, at mission control, leapt to their feet and clapped in relief.

What is the sound barrier?

The sound barrier is the point at which an object starts to travel faster than the speed of sound. At sea level, this speed is about 1,200 km/h. Once an object reaches this sonic speed, the sound waves it produces aren’t fast enough to keep up with it. The air pressure in front builds, creating a shock wave — and the “cracking” sound known as a sonic boom.

The current record for a high-altitude skydive was set in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, who jumped from a balloon flying at 31,333 metres, Kittinger, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, fell for four minutes and 36 seconds and reached a maximum speed of 988 km/h before opening his parachute.

The Austrian athlete hoped to top that by exceeding 1,110 km/h — the speed of sound at the targeted altitude — and freefalling for five minutes and 35 seconds, from 123,000 feet above sea level.

The jump was more than three times the height of the average cruising altitude for jetliners.

Just short of the halfway point to the stratosphere, the temperature outside the capsule was -62 C.

To keep Baumagartner safe, a special suit was designed, similar to an astronaut’s and meant to withstand extreme conditions. Canadian space suit engineer Shane Jacobs spent the last three years building the pressurized suit.

Jacobs says one of the most dangerous things that skydivers at high altitudes face is going into a flat spin, in which the body rotates horizontally.

“This could create g-forces that can make you unconscious,” he told CBC News.

  • VIDEO: Canadian designed special suit

“When he’s jumping from such high altitude, even though he’s a very experienced skydiver and he knows how to position his body when he normally skydives from low altitudes, the atmosphere is so thin, that there isn’t enough atmospheric drag to really push against to control your body.”

When Kittinger jumped 52 years ago, he used a drogue parachute, in addition to the main chute, to gain stability. A drogue chute is a high-speed parachute which has smaller surface area than a conventional parachute.

“For this mission we didn’t want to nominally deploy a drogue chute because we want Felix to be able to hopefully break the speed of sound.”

There were safety processes in place to ensure Baumgartner’s safe return to earth.

“We have a system [which he wore on] his wrist that measures g-forces, and if they build up for a great amount of time it automatically deploys the drogue chute, which will stabilize him,” Jacobs said.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, Baumgartner’s medical director, had said the pressurized spacesuit will protect him from the shock waves of breaking the sound barrier.

Jacobs said a nearly invisible wire had been embedded inside Baumgartner’s visor to prevent it from fogging. The suit is airtight, but “breathable to water vapor to reduce his thermal burden and allow him to maintain his comfort whether he is in extreme cold or extreme heat.”

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The world needs a hero and today they got one,” said Clark.

When asked what his next venture would be, Baumgarner responded with an a nod to Kittinger.

“Honestly, I want to inspire the next generation. I would love to be here in four years and there a young guy sitting next to me because he wants to break my record,” he said.

Bullet planes, fatal crashes – and the top secret British project to break the sound barrier first

Days before Chuck Yeager’s fateful sonic boom in the Bell X-1, an ambitious British plan had already entered all too literal free fall over the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the vexed story of the Miles M.52 still has a place in history.

Aviation artist and former aerodynamics research engineer Rod Kirkby

Aviation artist and former aerodynamics research engineer Rod Kirkby’s impression of what a successful flight in the Miles M.52 might have looked like, had the project come to fruition. In a nod to the American pilot Chuck Yeager – and the British test pilot Eric Brown, who might have beaten him to Mach 1 – Kirkby titled it ‘For Yeager, read Brown.’ Brown bought the original painting.

On 14 October 1947, travelling 45,000 feet above the Mojave desert in California, Major Chuck Yeager of the United States Air Force broke the sound barrier.

He was flying the Bell X-1, which had been dropped from a modified B-29 bomber at 26,000 feet, before sequentially opening the taps on the aircraft’s four rockets. In the moments that followed, the aircraft – nicknamed, like all Yeager’s craft, ‘Glamorous Glennis’ after his wife – reached Mach 1.05, or about 700 miles per hour. He was the first pilot to control a craft beyond the speed of sound. But he wasn’t the first to try.

Six days before, a very similar-looking plane was dropped from a modified de Havilland Mosquito at 35,500 feet over the Atlantic ocean, west of Land’s End. This unmanned aircraft, the A.2, was in fact a 30 per cent scale model of a British supersonic prototype jet, the Miles M.52 – and was intended to prove concept. Powered by a rocket engine from the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, it was theoretically capable of between 800mph and 1,000mph, taking it well beyond the sound barrier.

It was not to be their lucky day: the A.2 ‘rolled slowly over on to its back, and when the rocket motor should have ignited 15 seconds after release it failed to do so’. ‘Four and a half seconds later, the chasing Meteor reported an explosion, and the A.2 disappeared into cloud. Its path as determined by the radar corresponded roughly to a bomb trajectory!’

The design of the M.52 featured short, straight wings and a bullet-shaped fuselage – attributes designed for high-speed flight, if not especially desirable at anything slower.

The man who wrote these words was Don Brown, the personal assistant to George Miles, the technical director of Miles Aircraft Ltd in Reading, which in 1943 was given ‘the most ambitious and advanced research project ever attempted in the history of aeronautics. the design and construction of what was to be the world’s first supersonic aircraft.’

As the project evolved during the final months of 1943, Miles was told to build a single-engined aircraft capable of reaching 1,000 mph in level flight: double the 500mph top speed of aircraft then in use.

The result was the top secret Miles M.52. But was it a doomed project due to poor execution – or a stunning design ahead of its time cut short before it could prove itself?

Rockets, wings and tails

The Miles M.52 was bullet-shaped with a pointed cone nose, cylindrical fuselage, razor-thin wings and powered by a Whittle jet engine specifically designed for supersonic speeds – due ‘to be in flight in early 1946’. Dennis Bancroft, the Miles aerodynamicist who died in 2015, oversaw the design of this revolutionary aircraft, and recalled: ‘The fuselage was based on the shape of bullets that firing tests showed [were] travelling at supersonic speeds.’

1947: The Miles A.2, a 0.3-scale prototype of the full-sized M.52, is loaded onto the running gear of a de Havilland Mosquito, used as a lifting aircraft. Shortly after launch, the model misfired and dropped on a ‘bomb trajectory.’ With the problematic rocket ignition system solved, a final attempt in 1948 with the A.3 was successful, reaching 1,074 mph with no sign of instability – not only vindicating the M.52 design, but outperforming expectations.

Challenges included rethinking not just wing technology but also how to accommodate the pilot and reducing drag from the nose. In the end biconvex wings were used and tested on a Miles Falcon trainer plane. These had ‘a very sharp leading edge and a thickness/chord ratio less than ever before attempted,’ wrote Brown in a memorandum about the project. ‘The finished wing caused the aircraft to be known as the “Gillette Falcon” after the famous razor blade of the time.’ Bancroft noted that engineers working on the wings kept cutting themselves on the leading edges.

Other hurdles were where to stow the fuel and where to locate the engine. In the end, the fuel tank was wrapped around the engine behind the pilot in the middle of fuselage – thereby increasing the diameter of the plane, but preventing centre of gravity problems. ‘It was decided, therefore, to house the pilot in a tiny conical capsule in the nose, the capsule being of smaller diameter than the fuselage, thus allowing an angular air intake immediately aft of the capsule. This capsule was far from ideal, but again it had to be accepted.’

The diameter was so small that the pilot was virtually lying down, ‘looking through the curved and tapering windscreen at a very flat angle’ with his feet very nearly at the same level as his shoulders. None of this sat well with the likely 160mph landing speed of the plane, but as Brown wrote, ‘there was no alternative’.

Perhaps most importantly, the Miles team had to devise a new approach to maintaining control as the plane reached high sub-sonic speeds. Significantly an all-moving tail was incorporated into the design from the outset, because at near sound barrier speeds the lifting centre of the aircraft shifting rearwards prompted a phenomenon known as ‘Mach tuck’ – forcing the nose of the plane down, with potentially devastating consequences ‘The controls had to be power operated and irreversible, and an all-moving tailplane was necessary instead of the conventional tailplane and hinged elevators,’ wrote Brown. ‘These things are commonplace today but in 1943 they had not been envisaged since the necessity had never arisen.’ Indeed all supersonic aircraft now use all-moving tail, if they aren’t delta winged.

A view of the M.52 cockpit. It was designed with a capsule that could be ejected with the pilot inside.

“The diameter was so small that the pilot was virtually lying down, ‘looking through the curved and tapering windscreen at a very flat angle’ with his feet very nearly at the same level as his shoulders.”

Next Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, oversaw the team supplying the engine for the aircraft. Since his Power Jet W.2/700 engine was insufficient alone, they developed afterburner technology, plus an aft turbofan, to boost its thrust and get the M.52 through the sound barrier. The craft also came with an escape capsule nose section for the pilot who would be unable to ‘bail out’ in the conventional fashion. Notably the only means of escape from Yeager’s Bell X-1 was to leave the aircraft by the side hatch, and risk been sliced in two by the wing.

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“Whittle’s engine was amazing,” says Rod Kirkby, a former future-projects aerodynamics research engineer turned aviation artist, who frequently presents talks on the M.52. “His design, which was part of the 1943 specification for the project, was a reheated turbofan which at high speed virtually became a ramjet engine – in a very similar fashion to the [Lockheed] SR 71 Blackbird spyplane. Unbelievable for 1943.”

Shot down

By 1946, the detailed design work of Britain’s first supersonic aircraft was 90 per cent done and the first prototype was more than half built – and due for rollout in early summer 1946. Successful tests of the ‘all-moving tail’ had been conducted on the fastest available aircraft, the Supermarine Spitfire (reaching Mach 0.86 in trials). Meanwhile, those razor-sharp wings had been proved effective too. The firm was on course to for a maiden flight in the summer of 1946 with ace test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown lined-up for the task.

But then, out of the blue, the government cancelled the project. ‘I was hopping mad,’ recalled the test pilot. ‘We were 15 months ahead of the Americans.’ Don Brown was damning: ‘Over two years of concentrated and dedicated work on the part of the two teams was thrown away, together with over £100,000 of the taxpayers’ money: and, by this cancellation, Great Britain threw away the honour of being the first nation to achieve supersonic flight.’

The fuselage of the mockup M.52. Intended to take off and land from the ground due to the unavailability of vast lake beds onto which pinpoint landing wasn’t a problem, the rocket plane would never fly, despite all components being available at time of project cancellation. The aircraft that did – the American Bell X-1 – is preserved in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C (below).

The Bell X-1. A formidable plane, Chuck Yeager actually broke through the sound barrier on just three of the aircraft’s four rockets. While propulsion evidently wasn’t a problem, stability at that speed was; with Miles ordered to share intel with the American company, some sources insist the Bell X-1 incorporated – at test stage – a baked-in element of the British M.52 design; the moving tailplane, designed to counteract a dangerous aerodynamic consequence of going supersonic. Without it, Yeager’s record-breaking speed would have been impossible.

When news of the cancellation broke the firm told the press that ‘practically all the items required to complete construction were in stores and the engine was already available.’

The project was passed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment and Vickers, and re-skinned as the R.A.E.-Vickers Transonic Rocket Research Rocket. In October 1946, The Aeroplane Spotter reported on the project and its cancellation, noting: ‘A decision at high level has been made to reduce this experimental supersonic work to the form of guided missile development, but probably the last of this Miles design has not yet been heard.’

High-speed controversy

These words were prophetic, for the shadow of the sonic boom of the Miles design was undoubtedly heard over the Californian desert on 14 October 1947.

How so? Because in 1944 the British government agreed to share the secrets of Miles’ designs and work with the Americans: Brown recalled that Bell’s ‘engineers and designers had, on the insistence of the Ministry, had access to all the drawings, calculations and design data relating to the M.52.’ At the time Bell had already begun work on its own design and was wrestling with many of the same issues as Miles, including all-important pitch (the vertical inclination of the nose) control. Crucially they had not achieved the breakthrough with the all-moving tailplane. But by the time Yeager climbed into the cockpit on 14 October – after Bell’s engineers had met with the Miles design team – they had.

Most of the theories concerning how much the Bell X-1 drew on the insights of the M.52 hinge around this tailplane. According to Rod Kirkby, Bell Aircraft decided to increase the power of the tailplane trimmer after talks with the Miles design team, on the off-chance it might be required. In test flights close to Mach 1 in the X-1 Yeager had found the aircraft’s pitch almost impossible to control. Fitting an electric switch that controlled the tailplane incidence – Kirkby calls the addition a ‘field fix’ – solved the problem.

Just how much the Miles design informed the X-1 is not known – despite much rumour – but there is no doubt that without the all-moving tailplane Yeager wouldn’t have broken the sound barrier, or lived to tell the tale. In his autobiography Yeager described flipping the switch for the tailplane “smoothed [the flight] right out. Grandma could be sitting up there sipping lemonade.”

One important design aspect they both had in common – those straight wings – points to another possible reason for the cancellation of the Miles project, aside from the parlous state of the public finances confronting the post-war Labour government. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Allies gained access to data from the Luftfahrtforschungsanstalt at Volkenrode, Hitler’s top secret aeronautical research and development centre. This showed that the Germans had conducted significant research into the importance of ‘sweepback’ wings in delaying the shock waves and the onset of aerodynamic drag in high sub-sonic speeds. ‘Orders were given to cancel immediately any high‑speed projects which did not incorporate sweepback,’ wrote Brown. ‘In vain Miles and his team pointed out that as the aircraft was designed for supersonic speeds. Furthermore, [Chuck Yeager’s successful] Bell X-1 did not have sweptback wings.’

“Dennis Bancroft knew about swept wings when designing the M.52,” says Rod Kirkby. “Swept wings are only useful for low supersonic speeds. The drag coefficient of a straight wing actually falls when passing Mach 1; for higher speeds, thin straight wings are best.” Kirkby points out the Lockheed F104 Starfighter, introduced in 1958 and capable of sustained Mach 2, as an example of this principle in full-fledged action.

The Bell X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, was the first plane to break the sound barrier.

Source https://guinnessworldrecords.com/records/hall-of-fame/felix-baumgartner-first-person-to-break-sound-barrier-in-freefall.html

Source https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/skydiver-breaks-sound-barrier-1.1176547

Source https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/science-and-technology/2021/01/britain-through-the-sound-barrier-first

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