Felix Baumgartner is the first human to break the speed of sound in freefall, jumping to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere.
As a boy, Baumgartner could hardly pass a tree without climbing it. More than half of his childhood photos are of him at the top of one. “I loved watching the world from above,” says the man known as Fearless Felix. “The air is where I am at home.” Baumgartner has made over 2,600 BASE jumps in his lifetime. An acronym for Building, Antenna, Space, Earth, BASE jumping involves parachuting or wingsuit flying from a fixed object or landform. It is one of the most extreme and dangerous sports in existence, with a fatality and injury rate 43 times that of parachuting from a plane. It requires precise technique, lightening quick reflexes, and a considerable amount of courage. BASE jumping is not only dangerous, it is often illegal. Banned by the National Park Service as well as by most international cities, participants run the risk of injury as well as running afoul of the law. In 2004, Baumgartner spent six days in a Panamanian jail after illegally jumping from a bridge connecting North and South America. With 14 world records from BASE jumps throughout the planet, Baumgartner is a pioneer and has inspired skydivers around the world
Born in the beautiful alpine city of Salzburg, Austria, April 20, 1969, Felix was the elder of two boys born to a carpenter father and mother who was a farmer. At 16, he joined a local parachute club and started skydiving. Baumgartner joined the Austrian Army, where he spent five years as part of the Special Forces demonstration and competition team. After completing his military service commitment, he earned money repairing motorcycles before pursuing skydiving professionally. In 1988, Baumgartner began performing in skydiving competitions for the Red Bull energy drink company. In the mid-1990s, he found Tracy Lee Walker , a Texan who taught him to BASE jump. Within two years Baumgartner was competing internationally, and was named 1997 world champion after plunging off a West Virginia bridge.
In April 1999, Baumgartner set the BASE jumping world record by leaping off a window-cleaning crane on the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, 483 feet above the ground. That December, he set a world record for lowest BASE jump, when he dropped from the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. After five months of planning, the Austrian arrived secretly on Corcovado Summit in the middle of the night to hide from security. After firing an arrow attached to a steel cable over the right arm of the Christ statue, he affixed a rope to the cable and atop the statue’s arm. Just after sunrise, Baumgartner – who is a devout Catholic – left flowers at the statue’s right shoulder, moved carefully to its hand, and jumped. At a distance of 98 feet from jumping point to the ground, Fearless Felix had less than two seconds to open his parachute.
In 2003, the extreme sports fanatic jumped from a plane 10,000 feet above Dover. Wearing a customized suit with a carbon-fiber wing attached to his back, Baumgartner took six minutes and 22 seconds to glide the 22 miles through the frigid air above the English Channel. The following year, Mr. Baumgartner BASE jumped into 623-feet deep Mamet Cave in Croatia’s Velebit National Park. In June 2004, he set a record by jumping from the world’s highest bridge. The Millau Bridge, which spans the River Tarn in southern France, is so high the Eiffel Tower could fit under it. Guarded at both ends, Baumgartner avoided security by climbing a column beneath the bridge in the middle of the night. At daybreak, he performed his signature backflip as he jumped 1,125 feet to the river, where a boat awaited him.
Baumgartner visited Taiwan in 2007, where the recently-licensed helicopter pilot attempted a BASE jump from the world’s tallest building, the Taipei 101 Tower. On December 7, he leapt from the 91st floor, plummeting 1,669 feet to the top of a parking structure. Following months of preparation, the jump took five seconds. Less than five years later, Baumgartner, whose other passions include boxing, mountain climbing, motocross and auto racing, embarked upon the biggest challenge of his life.
In 2012, Baumgartner and a team of scientists set out to attempt the highest sky dive on record. On March 15, he completed the first of two test jumps from a high-altitude balloon and pressurized capsule, free falling from nearly 72,000 feet over Roswell, New Mexico. Baumgartner became the third person to leap from that altitude and survive, reaching speeds of more than 360 miles per hour during his fall. The second test jump occurred four months later, when the daredevil jumped from 18 miles above Earth. After taking 90 minutes to reach the target altitude, Baumgartner’s free fall lasted three minutes and 48 seconds before his parachute was deployed. Originally scheduled for October 9, the main jump was postponed until October 14 due to adverse weather. After reaching an altitude of 127,852 feet – more than 24 miles above the surface of the Earth – Baumgartner fell a record distance of 119,431 feet, reaching a top speed of 843 miles per hour. He reached Mach 1.25 and became the first human to break the sound barrier, and was in free fall for four minutes, 19 seconds.
After boarding a tiny capsule and floating by balloon to the edge of space, then hurling himself through the air faster than the speed of sound, Felix Baumgartner was named to Flying magazine’s “51 Heroes of Aviation” list in 2013. Mr. Baumgartner has been recognized internationally and has received several honors, including the Laureus, Bambi Millennium, Guy Choice, Steiger, and NEA Extreme Sports Awards. In 2013, he was named National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year.