High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps

Part I: 1. Roswell & 2. Mission Control | i68: August 2015
Part II: 3. Felix and 4. First Launch | i69: September 2015
Part III: 5. First Jump and 6. First Record | i70: October 2015
Part IV: 7. An Exclusive Club and 8. The Best Man | i71: November 2015
Part V: 9. Hogwarts and 10. Lost in Space | i72: December 2015
Part VI: 11. The Lost Records and 12. No Easy Days | i73: January 2016
Part VII: 13. Supersonic and 14. Records Are Meant to Be Broken | i74: February 2016

This is an account of the Stratos and StratEx high-altitude parachute jumps, reported by someone who had the good fortune to serve as Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Official Observer for both projects. In the interest of full disclosure, please know that this is a personal account, one limited by my own experiences, and not intended as a comprehensive exposition of the two projects from their inception. Each richly deserves its own book—a task I will leave to others more qualified.

First a bit about Planet Earth’s supreme authority for air sports, aviation, aerospace and astronautical records: the FAI. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale designates itself as “The World Air Sports Federation.” Founded in 1905, it’s “a non-governmental and non-profit making international organisation with the basic aim of furthering aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide, ratifying world records and coordinating the organisation of international competitions.”

The United States Parachute Association is the airsport organization that represents FAI in the United States (and the corollary, the United States in the FAI) for all parachuting activities. USPA is “a voluntary membership organization of about 36,000 members who enjoy the sport of skydiving.” USPA’s mission is threefold: “to promote safe skydiving, to ensure skydiving’s rightful place on airports and in the airspace system, and to promote competition and oversee record-setting programs.” It was in the fulfillment of the third purpose, as our nation’s authority for parachuting records, that USPA took on the task of controlling and certifying the record-setting high altitude jumps of Felix Baumgartner (Stratos) and subsequently, Alan Eustace (StratEx).

PD New Beginning

My role in the Stratos and StratEx projects was fixed when I became Director of Competition for USPA in March 2011. With 40 years in the sport, 10,000 jumps and nearly a hundred national and international parachuting competitions behind me, I was fairly well suited for the job (there were other candidates, equally qualified). This was essentially a third career, coming after 13 years of military service (USAF pilot) and on the heels of a 20-year career as an airline pilot (US Airways). I took the job as a way to give back to the sport that had given me so much, starting with my first jump in August 1971 at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I earned my jump wings as an Air Force Academy cadet.

From the beginning of Stratos to the end of StratEx, I felt compelled to bear true witness to these two courageous parachutists and their remarkable teams, fulfilling my supporting role with fidelity and integrity. I hope by the ratification of their six FAI World Records and now by this account, I will have witnessed their splendid achievements faithfully and well. It’s certainly been one of the more interesting adventures of my life, and for that I am deeply grateful.

—James L. Hayhurst
Official Observer, FAI