French skydiver fails record freefall bid

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The skydiver’s balloon that was to carry him into the stratosphere separated from his gondola and drifted away before the take off.

28 May 2008

NORTH BATTLEFORD - French skydiver Michel Fournier's bid to set a new altitude freefall record was scuppered Tuesday when the balloon that was to carry him into the stratosphere separated from his gondola.

The balloon had been scheduled to take off at around 4:30 am (1030 GMT) from North Battleford in western Canada's Saskatchewan province, but somehow detached from the gondola and drifted away, leaving the 64-year old parachutist behind on the ground.

It was the latest in a string of unsuccessful efforts by Fournier to enter the record books by plunging 40 kilometres from the edge of space to Earth.

He had been attempting to break four world records: fastest freefall, longest freefall, highest jump, and highest altitude reached by a man in a balloon.

"It's a blow," Fournier told AFP. "But we'll try again and we'll succeed."

He said it was his life's dream to make the jump, which would have begun at a point four times higher than the cruising altitude of a commercial jet.

On Monday, strong winds forced Fournier to postpone the launch.

He had two earlier unsuccessful attempts too, in 2002 and 2003. His balloon tore in 2003 and he had bought a new one for this trial, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The new balloon, inflated with 600,000 cubic meters of helium, escaped minutes before its scheduled take off and floated aimlessly into the sky above vast fields of wheat.

Fournier had been nestled inside the capsule for several hours, inhaling pure oxygen to purge his blood of nitrogen to avoid an embolism at varying atmospheric pressures.

He was wearing a pressurised suit capable of withstanding temperatures of minus 100 degrees Celsius, and had planned to wear sophisticated camera equipment during his fall to record the event, including the moment he broke the sound barrier.

If Fournier lost consciousness during the jump, his parachute was to have automatically opened, although it would have been impossible to eject from the balloon during the ascent.

"I was excited, I was certain, all of the conditions were perfect, the balloon, the big bubble, everything looked well and then suddenly I see the balloon pass in front of me," he said, unable to hide his disappointment as he retreated to the hanger.

Fournier had planned to land some 40 kilometres southwest of North Battleford, where a helicopter was to have picked him up. The remote location was chosen because it is sparsely populated.

After escaping on its own, the balloon was retrieved several kilometres from the launch site, and cannot be reused. With no spare on hand, Fournier will have to wait several months to try the jump again.

Before Fournier, in 1960 American Joseph Kittinger jumped from 31,333 metres as part of a medical experiment, and in 1962 Russian Evgueni Andreiev jumped from 24,483 metres to set a world free-fall record.

Fournier borrowed the idea for this jump, his 8,600th, from his work in 1988 with the French defence ministry, where he tried to prove that astronauts could, in an emergency, eject safely from a space shuttle at 38,000 metres.

Project S38 was part of the European Space Agency's Hermes space shuttle programme, motivated by the destruction of the US space shuttle Challenger. But it was soon abandoned by the ministry.

Undeterred, Fournier continued the project on his own, with private financing.

[AFP / Expatica]

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