The real drama behind supersonic leap

Joe Kittinger, Colin Barr and Felix Baumgartner Joe Kittinger, Colin Barr and Felix Baumgartner

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More than eight million people were glued to YouTube as Felix Baumgartner leapt through the sound barrier earlier this month - but they missed all the action, believes Colin Barr.

'The world watched but they didn't see the real story,' says the producer of Space Dive, a BBC Two documentary that follows the Austrian basejumper in the years leading up to his 24-mile freefall to earth from the edge of space.

'We have all the material,' Barr says, 'and it's utterly different and far more dramatic than the jump.'

The live internet feed didn't divulge the doubts and delays that had nearly thwarted the record-breaking ambition, explains Barr, nor did it reveal the relationship that lay at the heart of the venture.

Baumgartner spent years training under Colonel Joe Kittinger, now 84. A command pilot in the US Air Force and career military officer, Kittinger famously set the original record when he fell 19 miles to earth over 50 years ago, in August 1960.

Felix Baumgartner before a test Baumgartner during a test session

The observational documentary is as much about Kittinger as Baumgartner, says Barr. Clearly, the pair share an adventurous spirit and a particular quest, but the programme unmasks two 'very different personalities'.

'Flurry of interest'

Peter Salmon, now director of BBC North, brought the idea for the documentary to the BBC back in 2008. Barr began filming in May the following year after a 'flurry of interest' had suggested the jump would take place that September.

It was the first of a succession of hold-ups, which saw Barr spend the next few years jetting off to the US between other commitments to chart the development of the technology and the transformation of skydiver into, effectively, test pilot.

'We had complete access,' he tells Ariel, 'absolutely open. We felt like we were almost part of the team.'

Most notably, the BBC crew was there when Baumgartner learnt how to freefall in his inflated suit.

'The first time he tried it on he wasn't at all sure about it,' remembers Barr. 'As a skydiver he needs to feel the air.'

His first test in the pressure chamber triggered an extreme claustrophobic reaction to the pressurised suit that was his only means of safe passage through the stratosphere.

Control issues

'It got to quite a chronic position and Felix had to leave the project for a while to get his head around it. As a base jumper he was used to being in control.'

Start Quote

He was tumbling so violently - I thought he wouldn't make it. It was terrifying”

End Quote Colin Barr Producer, Space Dive

On the day of the jump, Barr met Baumgartner at his hotel at 3am and accompanied him to the site - just as he had done before every previous test jump.

'He was tightly wound,' remembers Barr, 'more than before. He was questioning how many times he could do this. It had to be that day as far as he was concerned.'

The Austrian's patience had been tested by endless postponements to the perilous feat. Even in the days leading up to the attempt, unexpected winds caused a delay, while on another occasion the helium balloon which takes the capsule into space had collapsed.


The next time Barr saw Baumgartner was on his iPhone, when he was 10,000 feet up in a helicopter, beneath the balloon. 'Bizarre,' Barr admits. 'He was tumbling so violently - I thought he wouldn't make it. It was terrifying.'

The nine-minute descent - and successful landing in the New Mexico desert - will feature prominently in Space Dive, a co-production with National Geographic. The programme draws on footage from the specialist cameras belonging to sponsors Red Bull Strata, who the BBC advised on camera layout and production techniques.

There were cameras on the pressurised capsule from which the 43-year-old stepped, as well as on the skydiver himself. 'These cameras had to be in line with the scientific ambition,' explains Barr. 'They had to be capable of operating in temperatures of -70 degrees and in zero atmosphere as well as of falling supersonically. It was an enormous and very expensive technical challenge.'

Other lenses were trained on mission control, Baumgartner's anxious family, the curvatures of planet Earth and on the record-breaker himself.

'I hope the massive audience for the live YouTube stream will draw people to our film,' reflects Barr. 'They saw it in low resolution without any production - but there are so many different angles.'

Space Dive, BBC Two, November 4

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