Born to Fly

'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 last 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 or 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. 
    ‘Fearless Felix’ — as the 43-year-old is known — tells us in a tête-à-tête what it feels like to stand above the Earth, and then take the plunge... 

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’ve 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. 

What keeps you driven? It’s in my nature – I am constantly looking forward to new challenges. I thrive on having a goal to push towards. And I like to experience things that no one has ever experienced before. 

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. 

Do you believe that some people are born to be superhuman? We are all human, aren’t we? But I think some of us are born with a passion for being in the air and others are born with other passions. That makes life interesting. 

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. 
    Now that I’ve achieved my ultimate goal as a skydiver, I’m ready to begin focusing on that other dream: I have already been flying as a commercial helicopter pilot in Europe, and I want to continue to use my piloting skills in ways that can help people. I’m looking forward to this new chapter in my life. 

WHAT IS BASE JUMPING? The term BASE jumping is an acronym for the four types of objects that jumpers leap from — buildings, antennas, spans (bridges) and earth. It is an extreme sport, much more dangerous than skydiving and is illegal in some countries. 

FELIX’S OTHER ADVENTURES 1997: World champion title for BASE jumping in West Virginia, USA 
2003: Became the first to cross the English Channel in freefall 
2004: World record for BASE jump from world’s highest bridge, Millau Bridge, France (1,125 ft) 
2007: BASE jump into the second biggest cave in the world, 'Seating of the Spirits', Oman (396 ft); BASE jump off the world's tallest building — 101 Tower, Taipei (1,669.95 ft)

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