Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chapter Ten: In which I take the plunge (vicariously)

I must preface this entry by saying, in no uncertain terms, that I blame Guinness. (No, not the beer. I'm talking about the people who put out the record books.) The entire concept of setting records is a bit of a conundrum. Everyone likes the idea of actually setting a record. It's one of the ultimate "Hey! Look at me!" moments. And of course the setting of a record isn't any fun unless people notice it, hence the niche market that the Guinness people inhabit so well.

But it's a double edged sword. The downside of holding a world record is that people will immediately set out to best it. It's only natural, I suppose. Then, if it's a fairly high profile record garnering international attention, observers will split off into opposing camps of those who want the "old record" to remain in perpetuity and those rooting for the up and coming challenger.

Over in France there's a somewhat crazed looking ex-paratrooper who has his sights set on a very old record which is near and dear to my heart.
Skydiver plans head-first freefall from the edge of space in dizzying bid to break Mach 1

He will leap head-first from a weather balloon 25 miles above Earth and plummet at more than 1,000mph with only a parachute for company.

He will face external temperatures of minus 100c while inside his carbon-fibre suit it will be a stifling 65c - almost 150 fahrenheit.

And most amazing of all, Michel Fournier is actually looking forward to it.

It's not clear from the article, however, if Mssr. Fournier (age 63) has ever heard of Capt. Joe Kittinger. In my younger and far more foolish days, I was a skydiver myself. Capt. Joe is a legend in the skydiving community and likely will be for as long as people throw themselves out of planes at great altitude. You see, Joe Kittinger came from a group of supermen... living, breathing gods who walked the Earth among mere mortals. He was from the same exclusive club as Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager and the rest of those maniacs. They were hard drinking, filterless ciggie smoking lunatics who seemed to honestly believe they were immortal. These were the men who were called upon when someone was needed to test a new, experimental jet going past the speed of sound or to strap themselves on top of several tons of high explosives and be hurtled into space. Inevitably, some high government official would stroll by saying, "Ok... some daft guy in the lab came up with an idea after a few martinis last night we're thinking of trying. I should say ahead of time that if any of you are actually stupid enough to attempt this, you'll probably die, but..."

And that's as far as he would get before a fight would break out among these guys to see who would get to go. And this is why, on a clear summer day in the American Southwest desert, August 16, 1960, Joe Kittinger strapped on a barely tested, pressurized suit and climbed into the open basket of a gigantic helium balloon. He soared up more than 20 miles in the air, to the edge of space, (over 100,000 feet) and with cameras rolling, he stepped out of the balloon. Kittinger fell through the thin atmosphere for nearly five minutes. In the process, he actually blacked out at one point, then woke up a short time later and he was still falling. The pressurization failed in one of his gloves and his hands had very nearly frozen into claws. Plummeting toward the desert at terminal velocity he had to claw at the release cord and finally deployed a parachute, sailing down to the sand and into the pages of history. The sheer number of records he set that day, during the infancy of parachuting, was simply staggering.

In the nearly fifty years which have passed since then, even with all of the vast improvements in technology which have followed, a fair number of people have attempted to best Joe's achievement. Invariably, each and every one has wound up looking very silly or very dead (or both) in the effort. Michel Fournier is now 63 years old. Given his background he is doubtless very brave. He has the training and the temperament, it seems, but one has to wonder if this is the kind of task he should be attempting at this point in his life.

Some records may simply not be intended to be broken. And Joe Kittinger? He's 79 years old and he's still flying humanitarian aide delivery missions in South America. You'll have to kill him 'afore he dies.

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