Skydiving is the act of jumping out an airplane or balloon at high altitudes and falling back to earth with the aid of a parachute. Most proponents of the sport love the adrenaline rush that only falling at great speed and flirting with death can provide.

Skydiving actually got its start in China in the 12th century, as evidence exists that the Chinese would amuse themselves by jumping from high places using rigid, umbrella-like structures. Leonardo da Vinci also drew a schematic of a pyramid-framed parachute in his notebooks, but he never built it. Fauste Veranzio constructed a device similar to da Vinci's drawing and jumped from a tower in Venice in 1617. In 1797, Andrew Garnerin made the first jump with a parachute without a rigid frame (the kind that are in use today) from a balloon at 8000 feet.

All of these early jumps were done with the parachute immediately opened, so there was no freefall. Scientists did not believe that the human body could tolerate freefall without blacking out. Georgia Broadwick proved them wrong in 1914, when she delayed the deployment of her chute for several seconds during a jump.

Skydiving was not used by the Allied Powers in World War I as an emergency exit for airplane pilots for fear that the chute would become tangled in the plane. Parachutes were issued to men in observation balloons. German airplane pilots were issued container-type chutes, and successfully used them during the last twelve months of the war.

In 1919, Leslie Irvin and Floyd Smith invented both the backpack parachute and the ripcord, allowing the parachute to become a compact part of a soldier's arsenal, and allowed them to make sure they were clear from the plane before deploying. These inventions were adopted almost immediately by every air force around the world. During the winter of 1939-1940, the U.S.S.R., in its campaign against Finland, became the first nation to use paratroopers. On April 9, 1940, the Germans first used paratroopers in their assault on Norway. On May 10, 1940, they invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg with paratroops and glider troops. American troops made their first combat jump during an assault on Casablanca in 1942. As the war progressed, paratroopers became a major part of almost every Allied assault, especially the invasion of Sicily and the attack on D-Day.

Throughout many wars, airborne troops have proven to be indispensable because their abilities allow them to be dropped behind enemy lines and take the enemy by surprise.

The world records for the highest skydive and the longest freefall in history are held by Joe Kittinger. His jump was part of a United States Air Force program known as Project Excelsior. By this time, high altitude planes had come into use and the project was an investigation of human exposure to stratospheric conditions and of parachute descent from extreme altitude. No one knew with certainty if a man could survive a bailout from several miles above the earth until it was tried.

On August 16, 1960, Kittinger rode a helium balloon up to an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,151 meters). Two hours before launch a team of doctors prepared him by decreasing the amount of nitrogen in his bloodstream. Kittinger wore two layers of underwear, quilted garments and a winter flying suit. The ascent, through temperatures that fell to 94 degrees below zero, took an hour and a half. Failure of his life-support system above 60,000 feet would have meant almost instant death, at that altitude your blood will boil and explode if you are not in a pressurized suit.

With that and other hazards in mind, he stepped out of the gondola and plunged through the stratosphere. Between 90,000 and 70,000 feet, he experienced great difficulty in breathing. At about 50,000 feet, his free-fall speed had dropped to 250 miles an hour in the denser atmosphere. He was suffering extreme pain in his right hand that was caused by partial failure of pressure in that glove during the ascent. Whether or not Kittinger broke the speed of sound is subject to debate, some sources claim yes, some say no. It is agreed that he did exceed 600 mph during the jump.

After he had fallen for four minutes and 37 seconds, Kittinger's main chute opened, and some eight minutes later he landed at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico with no permanent injuries but with three world records: the highest open-gondola balloon ascent, the longest free-fall, and the longest parachute descent. Kittinger had proved that man could function in near-space and that parachuting from very high altitudes was feasible.

After his jump, Kittinger went on to serve in the Vietnam War where he was captured and held as a P.O.W. for eleven months.

There have been two attempts to break Kittinger’s record. In 1962 Soviet colonel Pyotr Dolgov jumped out of his Red Army balloon too early at 93,970 feet. Right after he jumped, his suit instantly depressurized and he was essentially vaporized. In 1966 a man named Nicholas Piantanida made several flights using Kittinger’s balloon. During one try he reached a height of 123,500 feet, which is still the record for the highest flight by a manned balloon. Unfortunately, he couldn’t disconnect from the onboard oxygen and had to float back down. It is unknown what happened on his final flight, but it is believed that he didn’t breathe enough pure oxygen before takeoff, got the bends, and in his delirium ripped off his visor. After hearing his screams over the radio, the ground crew brought him back to the ground where he lapsed into a coma and died four months later.

Sports Illustrated, 4/29/02

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