The Disease of Jumping From the Sky

A history of aviation's wildest daredevils

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Reuters

For a small minority of its practitioners, aviation is not a hobby or profession but a disease. In these extreme cases, the desire to be thousands of feet above the earth, rather than safely upon it, is uncontrollable, a compulsion that began in childhood. United Airlines pilot Denny Fitch told filmmaker Errol Morris that when he saw flight as a small child, "I had dry heaves, I wanted it so bad." The US Navy pilot and prisoner of war Dieter Dengler (a particularly severe case, and author of Escape from Laos) wrote that as a child in Bavaria during World War II, he watched American fighter-bombers destroy his village. Dengler's neighbors might have cursed those pilots; Dengler just wanted to be one of them.

History is littered with the corpses of these maniacs. Icarus was only the first. In 1785, the pioneer of hot-air ballooning, Jean-Francois de Rozier, filled his balloon with hydrogen gas, which held him aloft beautifully until his furnace-flame turned his balloon into an enormous bomb. In 1912, Austrian-born Franz Reichelt became obsessed with designing a parachute that pilots in the newly invented airplane could use. He tested his prototype -- a billowy cloth frame barely bigger than his body -- by jumping from the Eiffel Tower. He expected to drift down like Mary Poppins, but he sunk like a torpedo to his death on the icy Champ de Mars below.

In the last half-century or so, as the occupation of "test pilot" has become somewhat more professionalized and scientific, it has become possible for certain aviation obsessives to accomplish extraordinary feats and survive at a higher rate than their predecessors. In the last year, two repeat survivors have written improbably interesting books about their exploits.

The first, Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger, previously wrote (with Martin Caidin) a remarkable book called The Long, Lonely Leap (1960), about his still-unbroken (until, perhaps, later this week) record for highest free-fall parachute jump, from a balloon-borne craft 103,000 feet above the surface of the earth. Kittinger was, in a sense, a Franz Reichelt of the space era, subjecting himself to immense danger to test a safety device that could potentially save the lives of other aviators. Parachutes were, in the first part of the century, woefully inadequate for combat situations. When an aircraft was shot down, the pilot needed to jump free of his plane. But in practice, Kittinger wrote, "his parachute invariably became snagged in the lacy entanglements of these old aircraft and plunged to earth trapped by the wicked combination of machine and parachute." So rather than endure just a fatal smack into the ground below, the pilot spent his final agonizing minutes tethered by his own safety device to a cartwheeling fireball of jagged metal.

Here's a newsreel of Kittinger's record-setting jump:

Kittinger pioneered testing of ejector seats to alleviate the parachute problem. But he is best known for the eponymous leap from the very edge of Earth's atmosphere, undertaken in 1960 as part of Project Excelsior. In the pre-manned-space-flight days, there remained serious doubt about whether high-altitude pilots could ever hope to survive catastrophic failure at altitude. Even if they could eject clear of their craft, they would be in a nearly airless atmosphere, with such low pressure that their blood would boil. Even if wearing pressure suits, they would fall not gently but would instead begin to spin at hundreds of rotations per minute, fast enough to knock them out or kill them. On the long leap, Kittinger and his colleagues tested stabilization parachutes, which permitted Kittinger's conscious and safe return to earth after over four minutes of free-fall.

Kittinger's present volume, Come Up and Get Me (named for his cheeky reply, when commanders on the ground ordered him to descend from 96,000 feet), is autobiography, much breezier and less ponderously written than his first book. Since his first book dealt entirely with that jump, this one functions more as a pastiche of other memories from a life spent either bored and miserable on the ground, or grinning widely up in the air.

The memoir reveals -- this should be no surprise by now -- that Kittinger was an airplane nut since childhood and followed the usual pattern of fascination with models and gliders up until his first training in the real thing. He describes a number of other test missions, including some of the first parabolic Zero-G flights, to see whether cats in mid-air orient themselves through gravitational cues or visual ones. (The latter, it turns out.) The sole intermission in the earthbound boredom is a chapter detailing his being shot down in a dogfight in Vietnam, then detained and tortured for 11 months in the Hanoi Hilton, where he was known and admired among fellow POWs as something of a hard-ass.

On release, Kittinger stayed in the Air Force just a few more years, finally retiring when warned that he would likely not get his promised command. His post-uniform life has, by his account, consisted almost entirely of going back up into the air, usually for frivolous purposes. He began a second career as a skywriter (awkwardly correcting a typo on his first assignment) and as a barnstormer or aerial acrobat. His abiding hobby is civilian ballooning, and much of the final chapters is about his landing in unexpected locations after record-setting journeys, and explaining himself to unamused US government officials, perplexed New York pig farmers, and slackjawed Italian lumberjacks -- the modern ploughmen of the Icarus story, only this time shocked to see the aviator landing safely instead of plummeting to his death.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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