“By this time he was sitting on the floor of the airport and crying. His sponsor, the Red Bull energy drink company, had spent untold millions employing dozens of engineers, physiologists, and technicians for three years on the project and he was failing them all. His daredevil career was over. ‘Fearless Felix’ had finally succumbed to the power of bad.” — The Power Of Bad, John Tierney & Roy F. Baumeister
In 2012, a man sat on the floor of the L.A. International Airport crying. It happened to be Felix Baumgartner, one of the greatest daredevils who ever lived.
According to Wired Magazine, this former paratrooper had conducted over 2500 jumps. Not your average jumps, mind you. Jumps from various crazy structures, such as Petronas Towers and the Taipei 101 skyscraper. He was also selected to make the most audacious jump any human being had ever attempted.
Baumgartner was in training to do the Red Bull Stratos jump. He would ride in a capsule carried by an ultra-light balloon 24 miles into the stratosphere. At the specified height, he’d jump and fall to earth for 5 and a half minutes, breaking the sound barrier with his body. He’d open a parachute at this point and glide to the earth. It’s just that simple.
Actually, it sounds terrifying. But the odd thing was, Felix wasn’t scared of things that would turn you and me into a crying puddle of jelly. Let’s examine some of the dangers Felix would face according to The Power Of Bad:
- · The balloon, which is the thickness of a plastic bag, could break and Felix could fall to his death. There was a specified area called a “dead zone” where a balloon break wouldn’t allow time for the parachute to be deployed.
- · If his suit became depressurized, his blood would literally boil.
- · If he opened his chute too early, he’d glide too long and run out of oxygen.
- · If he opened his chute too late — splat!
- · During the fall, one part of Felix’s body would break the sound barrier while the rest of his body was subsonic. No one knew what would happen when this occurs. It could result in turbulence that could cause the body to spin so fast blood would squirt out the daredevil’s eyes and he’d “red out” or pass out.
None of these items scared Felix. So, what waylaid the fearless one?
He was afraid of his suit — a modified space suit akin to what astronauts would wear.
“If you’re sitting in there for hours all by yourself, you create your own little world, and at a certain point it becomes, man, I don’t like this. I want to get out.”
— Felix Baumgartner, interview with New York Times
The Red Bull engineering crew created a suit specifically for Baumgartner, but this caused a strange problem. It was bulky and uncomfortable. This was perfect for keeping a daredevil alive in the stratosphere, but confining and clumsy.
In every other jump Felix conducted, he could feel the air on his skin. But, in the suit he felt nothing, and dreaded being in it. On the way to the testing facility, it was all he could think about. He spent sleepless nights thinking about being trapped in the suit. Even the smell of the rubber seal connecting his helmet gave him an incredible sense of unease.
On the day of the incident in the airport, Felix was scheduled to do a five-hour training test to mimic the entire time of the mission. Five hours in that suit? No way, thought Felix — he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t sleep the entire night before the test. He called the project director Art Thompson from the airport with the bad news. Felix booked a flight home to Austria; he couldn’t do the jump.
What To Do?
Too much was invested in the project to cancel it. Baumgartner met with the Red Bull engineering crew to figure out a solution. One of the members, Joseph Kittinger, currently held the record for highest free fall — 18,000 feet lower than the planned Stratos jump and done over 50 years before.
Baumgartner asked Kittinger and Thompson what pilots did to deal with claustrophobia. The answer wasn’t comforting. Basically, they’d fire the pilot and get a new one. Kittinger explained that there would be tests done before the pilots were put in that position. He had to be stuffed into a box and stay there for 24 hours. Some made it and some didn’t. There was no fix for Baumgartner’s problem.
Kittinger and the entire team now had serious doubts about Felix. They thought he didn’t have the right stuff after all. Eventually the team decided to try something radical. It wasn’t a physical problem they were dealing with; it was a mental issue. They’d call a psychologist to help the former fearless daredevil.
How To Fix A Claustrophobic Daredevil
The Red Bull Stratos team called in Dr. Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist that had worked with professional athletes encountering high stake situations. Gervais had Baumgartner face an empty chair, telling him to pretend he had a son and speak to him about what was going on.
Baumgartner thought this was bizarre but did it. The doctor analyzed the language the daredevil used and came to a conclusion: Felix deep down wanted to do the jump. If there was a true desire to do it, the anxiety could be conquered.
First, the doctor explained to Felix he couldn’t panic to death. Gervais also sought the trigger for the panic — it was happening before the suit was ever put on. It was being inflamed by Felix’s thoughts on the trip to the training facility. By the time Felix climbed into the suit, he would be in a total panic.
The doctor used a mix of minimization and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to work through the fear. Minimization is when a victim of trauma creates an illusion in their head to deal with an event. In CBT, a patient is taught different ways of thinking to deal with an event they are turning into a catastrophe.
The doctor reminded Felix his suit was custom made just for him — it was the only one in the world. This beautiful uniform would keep him safe. It fed him pure oxygen and kept his blood from boiling. It was his ticket to success and to go somewhere no other human had gone.
Felix repeated these thoughts whenever he felt anxiety. As he continually repeated them, they became more credible. The suit is made just for me and it would enable me to go somewhere none have gone before.
The doctor also had Felix concentrate on slowing his breathing while he was exposed in small doses to the suit. Within weeks Felix was spending hours in it. He’d eventually take the 5-hour endurance training in the suit and pass with flying colors.
Baumgartner went on to fall 24 miles to earth without panicking. His breathing didn’t even go awry when there were possible technical glitches with his helmet before he jumped. Felix handled it like a pro.
A Lesson For All Of Us
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 20% of Americans suffer from anxiety. However, less than half ever seek treatment. The Red Bull Stratos jump is an incredible achievement of engineering and bravery. But something got lost in the spectacular event. Much more than a record was shattered that day.
While the cameras were concentrated on the curvature of the earth and the technology that made this jump possible, another challenge was taking place. A mental battle was being conducted by Felix Baumgartner - a man said to be “fearless”. Despite his title, he suffered from anxieties like we all do. His just happened to be crippling and taking place during a death-defying leap from space.
We all face anxieties in our day to day lives: the fear of rejection, the fear of asking for a raise, the fear of heights, the fear of public speaking, and many other fears that limit us.
Felix had to face his fear of being trapped in that clunky suit. He’d also have to face his team that now doubted him. At the same time, he attempted something no human being on the planet ever attempted before. He did all these things without a raised heartbeat.
This daredevil did more than conquer the stresses of physics that day. He conquered the demons of his own mind. If Baumgartner could transform from that person crying on the floor into “Fearless Felix”, what can we be capable of?
Hopefully, a similar transformation.
We may not be daredevils, but we can be “fearless” in our own little way. The story of Felix’s Red Bull Stratos jump is something we should all take to heart. It was more than a death-defying leap; it was an example of how we can face our own fears and transform in the process.
I’d like to sincerely thank Maddy Zeringue for her help and Red Bull for giving me access to their photo pool. They were very kind and responsive to my requests. I can’t thank them enough for helping me complete this story!