Luke in the Sky

The July issue of Red Bull’s new magazine, Red Bulletin, features part six of its series on the Red Bull Stratos project, focusing on the recent test flights and what they’ve learned. It also has an awesome bit on Luke Aikins and his growing roll in the Red Bull Stratos project. Way to go big, Luke! A sneak peek:

PD New Beginning

Luke in the sky
How to come down to earth again: skydiving specialist Luke Aikins on making Baumgartner’s fall from the stratosphere as safe as possible

Words: Werner Jessner

Felix Baumgartner (AUT) - High Altitude Jumps

Pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria performs during the high altitude test jumps for the Red Bull Stratos mission in Taft, California, USA on June 21, 2012. // Luke Aikins/Red Bull Content Pool

He jumped. 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 leaped 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 strong 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’s father is a pilot, and all his siblings fly. Other families go fishing or diving. The Aikins take 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’s 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 towards the success of the project. Guys who actually trial the scientists’ and technicians’ calculations and prototypes. Aikins’s other ‘clients’ are the elite soldiers of the US 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 familiarisation 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, two helicopters waited on standby to document Baumgartner’s first leaps in the pressure suit. What’s more, a 15kg RED-HD camera had been strapped to Aikins’s 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; 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 onboard then we 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.”

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