QinetQ Flight by Tim Baggett

Last week I was following the QinetiQ flight preparations of Andy Elson and Colin Prescot (http://www.qinetiq1.com/) in the media. I began to recall stories of past manned balloon flights into the stratosphere; not including Phillip MacNutt's comparatively wimpy, yet exhilarating, flight to the base of the stratosphere at 32,000 feet.

Some media correctly reported that "The [current] altitude record for a manned balloon - 34 667m [113,740 ft] - was set in [May 4,] 1961 by United States navy pilots Malcolm Ross and Vic Prather in Strato-Lab, part of the US space programme." This flight was launched from a barge in the Gulf of Mexico, and also landed on the Gulf. One primary goals of Strato-Lab V was to test the new Mercury era space suits. Unfortunately, Prather died upon landing when his spacesuit filled with water through his open helmet drowning him.

The following are excerpts from my favorite book, "The Pre-Astronauts", (Ryan, 1995), regarding this flight.  "By 90,000 feet, with the sudden succession of emergencies behind them, Ross decided to raise the blinds on the front of the gondola. Temperatures were on the rise again as they climbed into the upper region of the Stratosphere and -40 deg F struck them as rather balmy. The front of the gondola's cube was constructed without aluminum cross bracing and provided an unobstructed 'picture window' effect as the blinds were hoisted up.

" Ross described the sensation: "I caught by breath as I looked out. The scene as we topped 100,000 feet was utterly magnificent. For long moments we drank in the beauty of earth, sky, and sea." As the gondola rotated slowly beneath the swollen balloon, which had assumed the shape of a gigantic onion, the two men looked out across a vast tableau. Their gaze took in half a million square miles of the southern Unites States. The could see from Texas to Florida, and they could clearly identify New Orleans; Mobile, Alabama; Vicksburg, Mississippi. Ross even thought he could pinpoint Cape Canaveral on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. They could also track the Antietam [their launch and chase barge] by her wake as they moved about in the blue Gulf.  Altitude records sanctioned by the FAI such as these require that the pilots land with their aircraft. Although Prather died in the landing recovery, they did fly the entire balloon down to the surface of the Gulf. However, five years later, a another manned balloon was flown even higher than Strao-Lab V - with the pilot remaining alive.

The goal of Strato Jump was same as Austinite Cheryl Stearn's StratoQuest (www.stratoquest.com) is in present day - to make the highest skydive, breaking Col Joe Kittinger's record of 102,800 feet set in 1960 over White Sands, New Mexico by project Excelsior III.  Although widely accepted as the record, Kittinger's Excelsior III jump was never submitted to the FAI by the US Air Force for sanctioning and therefore is not

officially recognized. Additionally, the FAI expressed concern because Kittinger's jump utilized a small stabilization parachute. As a result, the former USSR holds the official FAI world altitude record for a jump with Maj. Yevgeny Andreyev jumping from 83,500 feet in November 1962. Still, Kittinger's jump won him the honor of autographing my prized "The Pre-Astronauts" book.

Nicholas Piantanida's first attempt at claiming Aandreyev's (and also Kittinger's) record failed  on October 22, 1965. Less than half an hour after the launch of Strato Jump I, a six-knot wind sheared the top of the balloon off as it climbed through 22,700 feet. Piantanida bailed out of the craft and landed in the St Paul, Minnesota city dump. Piantanida's Strato Jump II balloon fared better as it took him to 123,500 feet over South Dakota on February 2, 1966. As Piantanida prepared to step out of his balloon gondola for his long freefall back to Earth, he found that he couldn't disconnect his pressure suit from the gondola's oxygen supply.

"The next task was to disconnect his on-board oxygen unit, which would effectively sever him from any physical connection to the gondola. But when he tried to turn the valve that would release the oxygen hose, he found that it wouldn't turn. He jiggled it an applied all the pressure he could to try to move it, but it was frozen. And with the pressure gloves on his hands, he did not have the dexterity to do anything very fancy. He kept cranking on the disconnect valve, but it would not budge.

"As he worked, he kept up a chatter with his ground crew. "Disconnect, having problem with oxygen...disconnect...Going overtime. Ground Control, do you read me? We've got problems."  "Piantanida's breath came heavy and rasping through the receivers on the ground. "Isn't this a bitch...Can't disconnect the oxygen....I don't believe it, I can't separate the hose."

Finally, the ground crew chief, Ed Yost, inventor of the modern day hot-air balloon, knew actions had to be taken. Piantanida would not be able to jump from the gondola as originally intended with the oxygen hose still connected. The only way to bring Piantanida home would be to separate the gondola with Piantanida in it, from the balloon and let it free-fall tens of thousands of feet into thicker air before opening a main gondola chute.

Piantanida, unable to strap his seat belt back on with his pressure gloves on, sat back onto his seat at 123,500 feet and braced his feet against the sides of the gondola. Ed Yost gave a countdown from ten to one over the radio before transmitting the command that would cut Piantanida and the gondola away from the balloon.

"The Second Chance [at skydiving from a balloon in the stratosphere] was falling like a rock. As he braced himself, Piantanida thought of his daughter, and tried to imagine her at age 18 as she opened the letter [he left for her in the event of his death]. The gondola was in freefall for a full 35 seconds, but to Piantanida's tremendous relief, there was no tumbling of spinning at all. The box just dropped straight down in the exact attitude it had assumed beneath the balloon. But his worries were far from over. The chute would open at 97,000 feet and he was prepared for a violent opening shock. He was falling at 600 MPH.

" Then it came. The chute was open and Piantanida was still in the gondola. He hadn't fallen out and he hadn't been blown through the floor. In fact, as it turned out, the shock wasn't really that much worse than the normal opening of a parachute in the lower atmosphere. "At 65,000 feet, Ed Yost broke the silence and asked how Piantanida felt. "I'm getting sick," was the answer. "These oscillations." As the gondola descended beneath the parachute, it swung wildly from side to side.  "At 46,000 feet, Piantanida was still feeling sick. "How could one tiny but of stinking equipment screw up like that?" he asked no one in particular. Piantanida landed safely in an Iowa cornfield. Later, during a press conference to discuss the failure of his plans to skydive from the stratosphere, Piandanida explained "If only I had a damned $1.25 wrench, gravity would have done the rest." Unfortunately, Piantanida, landed with the gondola, but not the balloon. He was therefore ineligible for the world manned altitude balloon record. Piantanida died on August 29, 1966 after enduring a severe explosive  decompression of his spacesuit on board Strato Jump III at 57,600 feet in his third quest to acquire the world record for a skydiving jump. As a result, Piantanida didn't get to autograph my "The Pre-Astronauts" book.

(Attachment shows Col Joe Kittinger jumping from his Excelsior III balloon at 102,300 feet.