The Disease of Jumping From the Sky

A history of aviation's wildest daredevils


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.

To Virgin mogul Richard Branson, author of the last year's other big aviation-obsessive book, Kittinger is a hero. Branson himself has a subclinical case of flying mania, and in addition to owning a formidable global airline, he has undertaken multiple record-setting journeys by balloon, including the first crossing of the Pacific. His book, which unlike Kittinger's acknowledges no co-author, is a suspiciously well-researched "personal history of aviation," with emphasis on the daredevil types who have pushed the state of the art by executing deadly jumps, flights, and launches.

The result is principally a catalog of folly, the print equivalent of those black-and-white films of men bicycling toward a take-off with paper wings that crumple before they generate a single newton of lift. Most of the pure successes are well known, and some, such as the Wright brothers' lift-off at Kitty Hawk and Steve Fossett's solo unrefueled circumnavigation of the globe, are recounted here. There is also a gallery of mad but ultimately successful showmen, such as Charles Green, the London fruiterer who in 1827 rode a pony on his hot-air balloon. ("How many swigs of laudanum," Branson asks, with a hint of jealousy, "does it take before flying among the clouds on a pony sounds like a good idea?")

But the failures are the main attraction. There's Henry Tracey Coxwell, the British balloonist who ascended to 35,000 feet, a mile above the peak of Everest, without a parka, throwing pigeons out of the gondola at regular intervals in the name of science; the pigeons "dropped like stones," and Coxwell shattered a tooth shivering, narrowly avoiding death himself. Or Marty Jensen, a pilot hired by MGM to fly a lion across the country, who ended up crashing and being trapped in a small canyon with the lion. Or Leo Valentin, the French "birdman" who outfitted himself with balsa wings and jumped from progressively greater heights, reasoning that "the higher you were, the longer you had to experiment to correct a mistake." He died after a 9,000-foot fall, Branson writes, one of 71 modern birdmen killed in action; "only four survived into retirement."

As plain records of fact, Kittinger's book and Branson's more than justify themselves. But there is also the small matter of the craziness, the depths of which these two come perilously close to forgetting. Branson slips into reverie over his pleasure in being able "to take the controls of an untested plane, fly on exotic fuel, and crash a dubious and homemade flying machine" -- as if these were pleasures most readers would covet rather than avoid. The authors are like a pair foot-fetishists who write about their favorite foot-parts (curling toes! luscious bunions!) without first explaining why they have been seized by the urge to dedicate their lives to feet in general.

And so the most riveting moments are, in fact, the ones that come closest to explaining what precisely is so attractive about these dangerous and senseless undertakings. Branson writes that it is the thrill of being "supremely powerless: human chaff, borne who knows where by the wind." And Kittinger, lapsing briefly out of the hard-ass mentality of his senior officer days, quotes himself expressing a similar sentiment in 1960 to his controllers 103,000 feet below. He told them he saw "a hostile sky. As you sit here, you realize that man will never conquer space. He will learn to live with it, but never conquer it."

Kittinger and Branson both show slightly controlling, micromanager qualities here and there; Kittinger spends long sections disciplining officers who wore their hair too shaggy, and one of Branson's boastful moments is when describing how through force of will he defied airline seat-arrangement dogma and configuring Virgin's business-class cabin in a herringbone pattern rather than in parallel rows.

But for both men, being up in the air seems to have been a kind of ultimate release, a liberation from their own hard-driving selves. When they describe flight, they relish the god's-eye view. "Inside the gondola, it was perfectly still, and I could hear every word of a conversation on the ground hundreds of feet below," Kittinger writes. "It was almost as if I was momentarily immune to the laws of physics or as if I had dropped in from another dimension to spy and eavesdrop on mankind."

And yet to achieve that omnipotence they choose the only mode of aviation that makes them truly powerless. All pilots have to manage dangerous weather, and are ultimately slaves of storm systems and vicious high-altitude winds -- but none more than balloon pilots. To be as gods and mortals, all at once: perhaps that's the combination that they've spent their lives seeking, and seem to have found.