Whether you’re riding a blimp, dirigible, zeppelin, or airship, or flying in a helicopter, autogyro, gyrodome, or rotor kite, and whether you’re planning to strap in one of those two-person parachute harnesses for novices or to throw your parachute out the plane then jump after it and put it on in mid-air like that one Schwarzenegger movie, steel your nerves and pull the ripcord for a high-altitude trivia roundup.
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1. Jeanne-Geneviève Garnerin was a pioneering balloonist and parachutist. She met her husband, André-Jacques Garnerin (inventor of the frameless parachute and designated Official Aeronaut of France), while watching him perform an exhibition with an early hot-air balloon. They quickly entered a relationship and she proved a natural at, well, ballooning. A planned demonstration with the Garnerins ascending together in a single balloon sparked a considerable moral panic, first over the idea that the lower pressure of high altitudes might harm delicate female bodies, then that the woman could surely not understand the consequences of her actions, and finally that their being in such a confined space with no observers was scandalous.
Unbowed, Garnerin became the first woman to ascend solo in a balloon, and in 1799 the first woman to parachute, making her something of a local celebrity (her niece would later follow in her footsteps and achieve still greater popularity). My favorite detail: later in life, she befriended the famed French soldier Marie-Thérèse Figueur (22-year veteran of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and on the short list of most famous women soldiers in history). They opened a restaurant together in the autumn of their years. I desperately want to see this made into a buddy comedy.
2. The first recorded manned flight of a balloon occurred in France in 1783, with a balloon built and designed by the Montgolfier brothers, scions of a papermaking dynasty, now progenitors of a ballooning empire that still exists today. That first hot-air balloon had an amazingly ornate design:
A flight with a hydrogen balloon soon followed. It took less than two years for the first ballooning disaster, when a balloon crashed in an Irish town and destroyed more than 100 houses; that town’s seal still includes a phoenix rising from the ashes. It took an entire decade for a balloon flight in US airspace (1793; witnessed by George Washington).
Dirigibles (steerable balloons) came along in 1852, though that first impractical prototype was powered by an inefficient steam engine. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that internal combustion engines made blimps (non-rigid bags of gas) and dirigibles (rigid internal structure) a practical reality. And until about the Hindenburg disaster, blimps and dirigibles and zeppelins were the bee’s knees. They were used for reconnaisance, troop movement, and bombing runs in the first World War (the US Navy had a blimp squadron! “I am a blimp commander”); the Empire State Building was built with a dirigible docking mast at the top; they were used for advertising (because holy shit, they were massive—the Hindenburg was FOUR TIMES the length of the Spruce Goose, which is already a comically large aircraft); they were used for trans-oceanic travel. And then the Hindenburg thing happened, and the USS Akron was destroyed in a thunderstorm in 1933, killing 73 of the 76 crew, and airplanes became more trustworthy, and our skies are no longer blotted with blimps.
3. The parachute is one of those inventions with an ambiguous origin. There’s some circumstantial evidence that the Chinese began parachuting as early as the 12th century; but the first known drawing of anything resembling a parachute is from the late 15th century—Leonardo’s 1485 drawing is perhaps the first of a potentially usable chute.
The chute didn’t come to fruition for centuries, though, because what use is a parachute if you can’t fly (also the title of a Joan Baez song). There’s a myth about the Croatian scientist Fausto Veranzio designing a parachute and testing it by jumping out of a cathedral at the ripe old age of 65, but it’s almost certainly untrue. Parachutes didn’t “take off” (haha) until balloons did: the end of the 18th century. Jean-Pierre Blanchard tested out a parachute by throwing his chuted dog out of a hot-air balloon in 1785 (it worked); he later threw himself out (it worked again). “Modern” skydiving hit the scene with Garnerin’s and lady Garnerin’s exhibitions in 1797 and beyond. By the 1939 World’s Fair, the “Lifesavers Parachute Jump” was a popular amusement park attraction, and was just how it sounds: ride up to the top of a tower, hook into a parachute, and jump off.
Famous parachutists include:
- William Rankin, who experienced engine trouble in 1959 and was forced to eject at 47,000 feet over a storm cloud. His parachute opened, but he was being tossed to and fro by gales and updrafts (the technical term is cloud suck…and it certainly does suck) and pelted with hailstones, watching lightning bolts form next to him. He landed FORTY minutes after he’d ejected. Alive, somehow.
- Franz Reichelt, who died jumping from the Eiffel Tower in 1911 when the parachute he was testing did not open.
- Robert Cocking, who in 1837 became the first person to die in a parachuting accident. It took fifty years!
Famous non-parachutists include:
- Alan Magee, a ball turret gunner who was forced to jump out of his tail-spinning B17 Flying Fortress at around 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 vocally expressing discontent with the rule of Milosevic; some believe her status as a national hero is the only thing that prevented her arrest/disappearance.
- 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 his burning plane, landed in snow-covered pines, and suffered only a sprained leg.
4. The cold war often fueled research that meets every criteria for mad-scientist-ness besides “cackling over beakers and flasks filled with bubbling liquids, in a dungeon lit only by candlelight and sporadic flashes of lightning.” Sure, the space race gets all the press, but then there were CIA mind-control experiments, strapping bombs to animals, strapping listening devices to common housecats for the purposes of eavesdropping, attempts to control the weather… Or, take the literally-named Project Manhigh, which sought to answer one of the deepest and most profound of mankind’s age-old existential questions: exactly 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 made his real bones in Project Excelsior, which was the obvious followup: what happens if we jump? His first attempt was a bail-out at 76,000 feet, but an equipment malfunction made him pass out. He ended up in a flat spin of up to 120 rpm, experiencing up to 22 g, not that he was awake to feel it (luckily his parachute deployed automatically). For that jump, he was made the eighth and final winner of the A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, which is a thing that existed (A.L. Stevens was a pioneering balloonist and the first to fly a dirigible in US airspace).
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), and for years he held records for highest parachute jump, longest free fall (nearly five minutes), and highest freefall speed (614 mph, though he said it doesn’t feel fast because there’s no visual frame of reference). He made that 100k jump despite a pressure seal on his glove failing during the ascent, causing his hand to swell to comic proportions. Later, he suggested he didn’t mention the glove thing before jumping because he was worried they would abort the mission. Nice.
He later served three tours in Vietnam, where he was captured, tortured, and spent nearly a year as a POW. Upon his retirement, he took up private ballooning and set multiple records, including making the first solo Atlantic crossing in a gas balloon. There’s also an anecdote relayed in Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, in which guests at a dinner party on an air force base were horrified to watch a man fall out of the sky—then subsequently even more horrified to see a pickup truck pull up, Kittinger manhandle the corpse into the bed, and then drive off. It was a dummy.
5. Kittinger gets most of the attention, but there was a perhaps more interesting person (and one with perhaps an even greater disregard for potential death) behind those projects, flight surgeon 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 with the earth below him:
And Stapp gets pictures of his jowls flapping while strapped in to an open-top rocket sled:
Following a brief interlude where he helped figure out how to keep high-altitude pilots from getting the bends, Stapp’s primary research was the effects of acceleration and deceleration on the human body. There had been a longstanding belief that forces of 18 g would kill a person. Turns out, not so much—Stapp survived a rocket sled ride in which he experienced more than 45 g, which is still the highest recorded acceleration experienced by a human that was both a) survived and b) voluntary. He and his “volunteers” rode what was called the “human decelerator” (officially; unofficially it was called the “G(ee) Whiz”).
The decelerator was a 1500 pound sled on railroad tracks, powered by rockets and stopped by a massive hydraulic braking system, purchased direct from JC McGillingham & Sons Rocket Sleds and Embalming Supplies, Inc. Stapp rode the snake so many times that he experienced lifelong vision problems owing to permanently burst blood vessels in his eyes, among a panoply of sprains, fractures, bruises, and other visceral trauma. He also conducted experiments on “wind blast,” empirically demonstrating that a pilot’s face will remain attached to the rest of his body even when the plane’s canopy blows off at 0.7 mach. This is all even better than it sounds; watch the absolute dead stop the rocket sled comes to:
So he rode a rocket sled, who cares? For one thing, he found that backward facing seats are safer in crashes than frontward-facing seats, though that’s only used by the military and ignored by commercial airlines. He devised new and better restraint systems. And he recognized how his work related to car safety: he may have been the first to use crash test dummies, and was instrumental in persuading LBJ to push for legislation mandating seat belts in all new cars. Also, he coined Stapp’s Law: “the universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.” I’ve long been a Kittinger devotee, but I’m really coming around on ol’ Stappy.
Bonus: best movie featuring skydiving: Point Break. RIP, Swayze.