May 24, 2008

French Skydiver Makes Final Tests for Record Free Fall Attempt Over Sask Monday


NORTH BATTLEFORD, Sask. - Michel Fournier began final preparations Saturday for a stunt that will, should all go well, end in the pre-dawn darkness Monday with him rising slowly in a helium-powered balloon pod until he can touch the very void of space - and then step off.

The 64-year-old French skydiver aims to free fall 40,000 metres (130,000 feet) from the stratosphere in a specially designed suit, helmet and parachute to advance the cause of science and, in the process, break four free fall records.

"The jump, based on weather conditions, is planned for Monday 4 a.m. local time," Francine Lecompte-Gittins, spokesperson for the jump, said in an e-mail Saturday.

She is one of an army of technicians, data crunchers, balloon and weather specialists who have arrived at this city of 14,000 near the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary for Fournier's third attempt.

The first two - in 2002 and 2003 - ended when wind gusts shredded his balloon before it even became airborne.

This time, the balloon is three layers thick and the plan is to go up before the sun comes up Monday - when the skies are expected to be clear and, hopefully, without a breath of wind.

Fournier, a former army paratrooper with more than 8,000 jumps under his belt, hopes to bring back data that will help astronauts and others survive in the highest of altitudes. He wants to also break the record for the fastest and longest free fall, the highest parachute jump and the highest balloon flight.

He'll be three-times higher than a commercial jetliner. A mountain climber would have to ascend the equivalent of four Mount Everests stacked one on top of the other.

It's expected to take him 15 minutes just to come down, screaming through thin air at 1,500 kilometres an hour, - 1.7 times the speed of sound - smashing through the sound barrier, shock waves buffeting his body, before finally deploying his chute about 6,000 metres above the prairie wheat fields.

When he does, if he does, the man whose record he is trying to eclipse will be sitting at his home in Altamonte Springs, Fla. - near Orlando - waiting for news.

Joe Kittinger set the record almost 50 years ago, in 1960. As a U.S. Air Force captain, he leapt from a balloon at 31,000 metres, about three-quarters of the height Fournier is now shooting for - as a research experiment for the space program.

The 79-year-old - now retired but working as a writer and consultant while still flying balloons and planes - said Fournier keeps in touch by e-mail.

"What I told him from the very beginning was that it's a very hostile environment needing elaborate protection and equipment and a good team," said Kittinger in an interview from his home.

"If the pressure suit fails, you die very quickly. It's not simply just making a skydive."

Fournier has made the jump his life's work at a cost of $12 million.

The French government had decided to experiment with ejections at super-high-heights and Fournier was chosen to do the jumping. But when the project was cancelled soon after, Fournier decided to continue his research privately.

He had planned to make the jump in his native France, but the government denied him permission, dubbing the project too dangerous.

He then came to North Battleford, an agriculture and transportation hub northwest of Saskatoon. The surrounding area has few lakes and lots of open land to go with an underused airport that serves as the perfect launch point.

"It's exciting," said Julian Sadlowski, the mayor of North Battleford, who made Fournier an honorary citizen this week.

"Saskatchewan is going to be recognized as the spot where they had the jump from the highest height by man."

Sadlowski said he's known Fournier for a year and said the man has the fire to succeed, even at great personal risk.

"He reminds me of a young boy who crawls up a tree and has to go right to the end," said Sadlowski.

"He's so passionate about this jump."

Sadlowski said he'll be out at the airport Monday for the launch.

By the zero hour, Fournier will already have been breathing pure oxygen for two hours to help his body adapt.

The balloon will then rise, taking more than two hours to reach its apex before he steps out to pierce the sky in temperatures plunging to minus 65 C and in pressures that, without a special suit, would quickly bring his blood to a boil.

He'll be tracked with global positioning trackers, radar, a helicopter and a Learjet. He expects to land within a 40-kilometre radius south of North Battleford. If he lands unconscious, his team will have 15 minutes to get to him before his air runs out.

Kittinger says should he reach the top, he'll be humbled by a panorama as spectacular as it is deadly.

"It's beautiful," he said. "But it's very hostile."