By Dan Fiorucci
Channel 2 News
5:43 PM AKDT, October 15, 2012
There is only one other human being on this planet -- besides Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner -- who knows what it's like to stand nearly 20 miles high in the sky and leap off of a gondola dangling from a balloon.
He's retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger -- and 52 years ago he became the very first man to make a parachute jump from an altitude of more than 100,000 feet.
Kittinger didn't perform the jump as a daredevil stunt. At the time, he was a 32-year-old captain trying to solve a problem. The Air Force wanted to know how to save the lives of pilots who were getting killed trying to eject from the service's new, high-performance supersonic jets.
Kittinger says that when a pilot ejected at supersonic speed, he could survive the initial ejection -- but the shock of his main chute deploying at transonic speeds could inflict forces as much as 30 times the force of gravity on his body.
As a result Kittinger pioneered a new ejection technique, one in which a pilot would use a small, 5-foot-wide drogue parachute, to slow down and stabilize himself until his main chute could be safely opened.
The Air Force, however, didn't want Kittinger ejecting from a real jet, which would mean throwing away a multi-million-dollar aircraft. Instead he rode a helium balloon to altitudes of 75,000 feet, 76,000 feet and finally 102,800 feet, falling distances that accelerated his body to transonic speeds.
To this day, the drogue parachute techniques Kittinger pioneered are used to save the lives of test pilots and military pilots in high-performance jets.
Kittinger's altitude record was not surpassed until this past weekend, when Austrian Felix Baumgartner jumped successfully from 128,000 feet. On his way down to break Kittinger's record, Baumgartner heard a voice in his ear -- the 84-year-old retired colonel, talking to him from Mission Control on a radio feed.
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