atmospheric trivia roundup

Whether you’re riding a blimp, dirigible, zeppelin, or airship, or flying in a helicopter, autogyro, gyrodome, or rotor kite, or if you’re planning to throw your parachute out the plane then jump after it and put it on mid-air like that one Schwarzenegger movie, pull the ripcord on a high-altitude trivia roundup.

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1. Let’s discuss ballooning and parachuting pioneers, the Garnerins. André-Jacques Garnerin was the inventor of the frameless parachute and the Official Aeronaut of France. After meeting him at an exhibition, his wife Jeanne-Geneviève proved a ballooning natural. The pair planned a demonstration in which they would both ascend in a single balloon. This sparked a considerable moral panic: first over the idea that the lower pressure at altitude would harm delicate female bodies, then with the belief that a woman could not properly understand the risk or consequences of ballooning, and finally that the pair being alone in a confined space was itself immoral.

the Garnerins

Garnerin, unbowed, became the first woman to ascend solo in a balloon and the first woman to parachute, becoming a local celebrity. My favorite detail, though is that later in life, she befriended the famed French soldier Marie-Thérèse Figueur, a 22-year veteran of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and on the short list of the most women soldiers in history. They opened a restaurant together in the autumn of their years. This needs to be made into a buddy comedy.

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2. The first recorded manned flight of a balloon occurred in France in 1783. The balloon was designed and built by the Montgolfier brothers, scions of a papermaking dynasty, now progenitors of a ballooning empire that still exists today. The idea for a balloon came from watching embers float off a fire and through the air. Joseph Montgolfier wondered whether the same logic could be used to lift soldiers for an aerial assault. Of course, he had no idea the actual physics involved—he believed smoke itself was suffused with a buoyant “Montgolfier Gas,” and so his early tests involved simply lighting kindling on fire under a fabric dome. “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world,” he told his brother. The first test balloon was elaborately decorated:

early hot air balloon

It didn’t take long to realize that hydrogen made for a better balloon flight than a pile of kindling. Within two years, the first ballooning disaster: a balloon crashed in Ireland, destroying more than 100 houses; the town’s seal still features a phoenix rising from the ashes.

hot zeppelin action

The next great leap forward in balloon design came in 1852: dirigibles. Early prototypes were powered by an inefficient steam engine, though, and it took until the late 19th century for internal combustion engines to make the idea of a steerable balloon a practical reality. Blimps (non-rigid bags of gas) and dirigibles (rigid internal structure) were the bee’s knees in aerial transportation for decades. They were used for reconnaissance, troop movement, and bombing runs in the first World War; the Empire State Building had a dirigible docking mast on top; they were used for trans-oceanic travel; they were even used for advertising, at which they were probably quite effective because of their sheer size: the Hindenburg was FOUR TIMES the length of the Spruce Goose, which is a comically large aircraft on its own. Then the Hindenburg thing happened, and the USS Akron dirigible was destroyed in a thunderstorm in 1933, killing 73 crew, and airplanes became more trustworthy, and blimps just kind of faded away. Today there only about 20 blimps in the world.

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3. The parachute is an invention with an ambiguous origin. There’s circumstantial evidence that the Chinese were parachuting as early as the 12th century, but the first surviving drawing of anything resembling a parachute dates to the late 15th century. Even then, the chute didn’t come to fruition for centuries, because what use is a parachute if you can’t fly? There’s a story about Croation scientist Fausto Veranzio designing a parachute and testing it by jumping out a cathedral belltower in 1617, when he was sixty-five years old, but most historians think it never happened. Parachutes didn’t take off until balloons did: the end of the 18th century. In 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard tested a parachute by throwing his chuted dog off a hot-air balloon. It worked. He then tested it on himself; it worked again. By the 1939 World’s Fair, the “Lifesavers Parachute Jump” was a popular amusement park attraction. Fairgoers rode to the top of a tower, hooked into a chute, and jumped off. Someone got rich on that.

Some famous parachutists include:

  • William Rankin, who was forced to eject at 47,000 feet into a storm cloud. His parachute opened, but instead of descending, he was being tossed about by updrafts and slipstreams—the technical term is cloud suck, and it certainly does suck. He had the unique experience of watching lightning bolts form next to him, before he landed forty minutes after ejecting. Alive, somehow.
  • Franz Reichelt died jumping from the Eiffel Tower in 1911, when the parachute he was testing did not open.
  • Robert Cocking was the first person to die in a parachuting accident, in 1837. It somehow took fifty years for someone to die while testing a device that allows you to jump from lethal heights.

Famous non-parachutists include:

  • Alan Magee, a ball turret gunner forced to bail out of a tail-spinning B17 Flying Fortress at 20,000 feet. He fell through a glass cathedral tower and survived.
  • Vesna Vulovic, a Serbian flight attendant who holds the Guinness record for surviving a 33,000 foot fall without a parachute in 1972. She was later ousted from her job with the company for expressing discontent with Milosevic, possibly saved from political retribution by her status as a national hero.
  • Juliane Koepcke, at 17 the only survivor of a plane crash in the Peruvian rainforest in 1971. Despite her injuries she managed to find a stream and walk to safety, which took more than a week.
  • Nicholas Alkemade, who bailed out of a burning plane, landed in snow-covered pines, and suffered only a sprained leg.

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4. The cold war was a time when deep transnational paranoia had a threeway with military-grade budgets and olympic-level, judgment-severing nationalism, giving birth to mad science. The space race gets the press, but there were CIA mind-control experiments, bombs strapped to animals, bombs controlled by pigeons pecking at lights, listening devices surgically implanted in common housecats for purposes of espionage, weather control experiments. Or take Project Manhigh, an literally-named project which sought to answer perhaps the deepest and most profound of mankind’s age-old existential questions: how high can a person go by attaching themselves to a balloon? The answer, in the mid 1950s, was about 97,000 feet.

The person in that balloon was Col. Joseph Kittinger, an inaugural inductee into the Wall of Awesome and a man very clearly unafraid of heights. Kittinger’s real claim to fame was the sequel to Manhigh—Project Excelsior—which asked the obvious followup: what happens if we jump? Kittinger’s first jump was from 76,000 feet. An equipment malfunction made him pass out, causing him to end up in a flat spin at 120 rpm and experience 22 g, which he was luckily not awake to feel. His parachute deployed automatically, he survived, and was awarded the A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, the last of only eight ever awarded.

Kittinger, slightly worse for wear

This “accident” did little to dissuage Kittinger from attempting a further jumps, including one from over 100,000 feet. That one was a success (read his account here), even though a pressure seal on his glove failed during the ascent, causing his hand to swell to comic proportions. He later said that he didn’t mention it before jumping because he was worried they’d abort the mission. For years, Kittinger held records for highest parachute jump, longest free fall, and highest free fall speed (614 mph, though he said without a frame of reference it didn’t feel that fast). He later served three tours in Vietnam where he spent nearly a year as a POW. Upon his retirement, he took up private ballooning, in which he also set multiple records.

There’s an anecdote about Kittinger in Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. Guests at a dinner party on an air force base were horrified to see a man plummet out of the sky and into the street. They were subsequently even more horrified when Kittinger came by in a pickup truck, manhandled the corpse into the bed with no fanfare, and drove off. It was a dummy.

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5. Kittinger gets the press, but the flight surgeon/researcher behind those projects—and a man with an equal if not greater disregard for potential death—was Col. John Stapp. Probably it’s just that Kittinger’s more famous because he gets a badass picture of him jumping from the fucking stratosphere, whereas Stapp gets pictures of his jowls flapping while strapped in to an open-top rocket sled:

Stapp flapping

Stapp’s early research was aimed at preventing high-altitude pilots from getting the bends, but the bulk of his career was spent studying the effects of acceleration and deceleration on the human body. To that end, Stapp developed something called the “human decelerator” (that was the official name; unofficially, it was called the G Whiz). The decelerator was a 1500 pound sled fixed to railroad tracks, powered by rockets and stopped by a massive hydraulic braking system, purchased direct from JC McGillingham & Sons Rocket Sleds, who submitted the low bid. There had been a longstanding belief that 18g was a threshold of human survival, but that’s wrong: Stapp survived a rocket sled ride in which he experienced more than 45 g, still a record in which the acceleration was both (a) survived and (b) voluntary. Stapp rode the sled so many times that he suffered lifelong vision problems due to permanently burst blood vessels in his eyes, among the panoply of sprains, breaks, tears, and other assorted visceral trauma.

Stapp also conducted experiments on “wind blast.” This was critical in empirically demonstrating that a pilot’s face would remain attached to the rest of his body if the canopy of the plane blew off at 0.7 mach. His experiments are all even better and more ridiculous than they sound. Look at the the absolute dead stop the rocket sled comes to:

The rocket sled studies weren’t pointless. He found that backward facing seats are safer than front-facing ones in crashes, although commercial airlines ignore it. He devised many new restraint systems, was perhaps the first to use crash test dummies, and was instrumental in persuading LBJ to push for mandatory seat belt legislation. Also, he coined Stapp’s Law: “the universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”

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6. Best movie featuring skydiving: Point Break. RIP, Swayze.


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