He jumped. Then he pulled the reserve chute, and once it opened he severed the line and trusted that the main parachute would open. The next time he jumped, he opened the drogue chute and the reserve chute together. Or he leapt and began to spin on his own axis, faster and faster, until he became dizzy and the horizon turned blurry before his eyes. He did everything wrong that you can possibly do wrong -- and explored every eventuality that could threaten Felix Baumgartner in his Red Bull Stratos mission.
Twenty days after the birth of his son Logan, Luke Aikins jumped from Mandalay Bay, one of the largest hotels in Las Vegas. Don’t you ever start thinking about fear and risk, Luke? The giant with the broad smile shakes his head. “The second a strange idea enters my thoughts before a jump I’ll stop immediately.”
Aikins, 38, is a child of the skies. He grew up, literally, on Kapowsin Airfield in Kapowsin, Washington, where his grandfather founded a skydiving company, later to be taken over by his aunt and uncle. Aikins’ father is a pilot, and all his siblings fly.
Other families go fishing or diving. The Aikins clan takes to the air. At 12 years old, Aikins did his first tandem jump, but for legal reasons he had to wait until his 16th birthday to go solo for the first time.
Aikins’ skydiving logbooks recording around 15,000 parachute jumps fill half a bookcase. Alongside the scientists who stand behind Red Bull Stratos are true sporting professionals contributing crucial pieces of the puzzle toward the success of the project. Guys who actually test the scientists’ and technicians’ calculations and prototypes. Aikins’ other “clients” are the elite soldiers of the U.S. Navy SEALS. He shows them the finer points of skydiving.
Initially, Aikins was to have no real major role in the Red Bull Stratos project. He was booked as the airborne photographer, responsible for taking shots of Baumgartner during his pressure-suit familiarization in the wind tunnel and later during the first jumps from the plane. Aikins was not at all impressed with the original design of the parachute -- but he shut up and readied himself to become a flying guardian angel should Baumgartner become tangled up in the rather confusing layout.
The first test jumps in April 2009 were top secret. In California City, a couple of hours north of Los Angeles, two helicopters waited on standby to document Baumgartner’s first leaps in the pressure suit. What’s more, a 33-pound RED-HD camera had been strapped to Aikins’ helmet so that he could film Baumgartner during the fall. The mission was ill fated from the outset.
“It was too windy outside, which wasn’t particularly surprising,” says Aikins. “It’s no coincidence that the area around Cal City is full of windmills.” Two helicopters and a Cineflex camera waited on the ground, while the crew nervously twiddled their thumbs. Baumgartner began to feel out of sorts. It seemed jinxed. The waiting dragged on; time was running out.
So what did Aikins do? He called a friend in Taft, not 30 minutes away by helicopter, a small town whose location behind a ridge meant calmer conditions. He spun a story to the guys at the airfield -- something about filming a Red Bull commercial. Give us 500 bucks, they said, and you can come.
Baumgartner and the crew were happy: Well, lookie here -- the film/photo guy solves problems just like that. The day was saved, but not quite: In the original parachute design, Baumgartner’s drogue chute also deployed and flew away when he pulled the main chute cord. Aikins stood in the door ready to jump and indicated to the pilot of the second helicopter not to dive immediately in case the rotors got caught up in the parachute. Thinking about the safety of a helicopter isn’t typically among the core priorities of a skydiver. But Aikins did it anyway. Then he jumped out and filmed.
For Aikins, it’s simply normal to take the initiative and fix things. Technical project director Art Thompson, life support engineer Mike Todd, and Baumgartner were so impressed by the performance of the supposed cameraman that they wanted him on the team. But he hesitated. “I think your equipment is unsafe. If I should come aboard we will have to rebuild the parachute system.”
Originally, the drogue chute was to be fixed to the shoulders. Aikins thought “the risk that the ropes could wrap around Felix’s neck was much too high.” While others calculated and fiddled, Aikins was up in the sky trying something out for himself. “I hooked the drogue up simple and dirty on my parachute and jumped out of a plane and just threw it in my hand. An early generation drogue chute -- and it worked really good. So I sent them a video the next day.”
Derived from this and refined with input from suit handler Todd, Aikins put together a crude model for the parachute rigging. Aikins is -- and he says it himself -- “not a final-touch guy. It’s more about ideas with me.” The finishing touches were given to Kelly Farrington, founder of parachute specialists Velocity Sports. During many months of night and weekend shifts, he built the parachute rig that Baumgartner now uses in the Red Bull Stratos mission.
With his immense free fall experience, Aikins can perhaps best imagine what awaits Baumgartner in his fall through the stratosphere. “During the first half a minute he won’t notice any wind. For a skydiver it’s as if you are driving a car with four flat tires. I suspect he’ll tumble over a couple of times during the first 30 seconds. There is simply not enough air for him to work with. As soon as he feels enough air under his body, he’ll be able to assume his normal jumping position.”
“I think way up there, Felix shouldn’t even try to prevent himself from somersaulting. Nothing you do -- whether it’s flailing the arms or kicking the legs -- will change the position. That’s hard for a skydiver to accept, but in an atmosphere that is so thin that a feather falls to Earth as fast as a lead weight, you can only ride it out and wait for thicker air.”
At tests for Red Bull Stratos, a metal cylinder was released from 120,000 feet to see how it would react (the team dubbed this pod “Felix Bombgartner”). That it began to spin worried the technicians but not skydiver Aikins: “Where there’s air that allows you to wobble, then there’s air you can work with. We can do more with air than many aerodynamicists can imagine.”
“In 1960 when Joe Kittinger jumped, he had only completed 33 parachute jumps. Felix has done over 3,000. In 1960 the record for formation free fall was at eight people; today we’re at almost 500 who link hands in free fall. An insane amount has changed.”
And still, “no one has leapt from as high as Felix plans with Red Bull Stratos. There is only one way to truly know what happens during free fall from such a height -- someone has to do it.”
Aikins’ job is to investigate all eventualities, predict problems, and work on solutions. He has jumped more than 100 times with the Red Bull Stratos rig, testing every possible malfunction.
Suppose that Baumgartner jumps and the reserve chute opens accidentally: Baumgartner wouldn’t survive because he will be carrying too little oxygen to last him the slow descent. So he needs to be able to possibly cut the reserve chute -- an absolute no-go in normal skydiving. And this system needs someone who is prepared to test whether it actually works as planned.
Aikins doesn’t regard himself as a lab rat, and he’s no thrill seeker. On the contrary, he is arguably one of the most experienced and calmest skydivers in the world. And his respect for Baumgartner is huge.
“Felix has so much to do for this mission that it’s simply helpful to have a skydiver alongside to take on some of the test work. In racing there are test drivers. The mission pilot can’t do everything himself.”
During a trial run in Taft, a jump with the old parachute system almost went wrong. “Felix pulled on the wrong ripcord and the chute didn’t open. More than a few jumpers have been killed in such a situation. They panic and don’t yank on a ripcord until it’s too late. But Felix took half a breath and very calmly made another decision -- he pulled the correct deployment cord.
“Instead of waiting for someone to help him, he takes action. He makes decisions, he makes them fast and he makes them right. That’s what is special about Felix Baumgartner. A great athlete wants that opportunity to screw up -- just to show that they can do it. A lot of people shrink in that moment, but a champion wants that shot. Felix belongs to that second group.”
In Red Bull Stratos, Aikins sees above all the sporting value, the records, the quest to push the limit of his sport a little. “We want to show that it’s possible to jump through the stratosphere with a spacesuit and a parachute, to break the sound barrier and make a safe and controlled landing.”
What would Luke Aikins rate as a Red Bull Stratos success?
“Once the parachute is open and we see that Felix is moving, it’s all good.”
Check out the August 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands July 10) for more of the article. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.