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In Conversation with Felix Baumgartner: Daredevil, adventurer

by Peter Chong on November 27, 2014

When Baumgartner set his world record jump from 39km above sea level, reaching an estimated 1,357 km/hr free falling, he became the first man to break the sound barrier without vehicular power, exactly to the day when Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier some 55 years earlier in the experimental Bell X-1 aircraft. Quite a feat. Now meet the man.

 

Felix Baumgartner, at the edge of his Stratos craft, which floated into position, some 39km above sea level by balloon. He was about to jump and create the world record.

Felix Baumgartner, at the edge of his Stratos craft, which floated into position, some 39km above sea level by balloon. He was about to jump and create the world record.

The Deployant team had the pleasure to meet and chat with him recently in Singapore, where he attended the Zenith Boutique opening in Marina Bay Sands. Zenith is one of the sponsors of team Red Bull Stratos, with whom Felix made the historic jump.

We found Felix to be an unassuming, youthful looking, rather handsome caucasian gentleman, despite being 45 years old, did not look a day older than 32. The discussion here took place in a car, which he was asked to drive from Marina Bay Sands to the Botanic Gardens. Interesting concept for an interview, we thought. And indeed his candid responses, while trying to get used to driving on the left side of the road, and negotiating the heavy Singapore traffic made it all the more interesting.

Driving the Audi A8 around the streets of Singapore, while answering questions.

Driving the Audi A8 around the streets of Singapore, while answering questions.

As this was the first time I had met Felix, the style of this article is more formal, question and answer type, instead of our usual “In Conversation” style.

D: How did it feel like when you actually crossed Mach 1 (the speed of sound is technically known as Mach 1)?

FB: Um, interestingly, there was no feeling. I wasn’t even aware that I had gone past Mach 1 except for what the instruments were telling me. In a base jump, I can see the sides of the cliff whoshing by me as I fell, in space, there were no reference points or landmarks to give me that sensation. I was falling, very fast and for very long, but I had no sensation of speed. I couldn’t see where I was falling to.  I had to be totally dependent on the instruments to tell me how fast I was going, and how far I have been falling, and of course, my Zenith El Primero Stratos chronograph, which told me how long I had been falling and when to deploy the parachute.

 

D: So you never felt any fear?

FB: Not the free fall itself, but I had to deal with claustrophobia when I was doing the practice trials. To deal with the low pressures in space, I needed to get into a space suit. It was a cumbersome affair…it constricted my vision and movement. I got major claustrophobia. It got so bad that it became a major obstacle. I had to get help, which came from Dr. Michael Gervais. He used a technique of breathing and self-talk to help me calm myself down. Fear is good, it prevents me from over stepping the line and do something totally crazy. But even better is to master the fear, and overcome it.

 

Felix, all suited up for the jump.

Felix, all suited up for the jump.

 

D: If falling from 39,000m is not scary enough, what scared you the most?

FB: The cave base jump into Mamet Cave in Croatia on Oct 17 2004. The jump was scary, even though it was only 190m, and I had spent the previous 2 weeks preparing for the jump by exploring the cave. I had to go from daylight to complete pitch darkness. That was scray. Damn scary.

 

The Zenith El Primero Stratos chronograph. The watch that Felix selected for his record breaking space jump.

The Zenith El Primero Stratos chronograph. The watch that Felix selected for his record breaking space jump.

 

D: Coming back to watches, what do you look for in a watch?

FB: The watch must look good. Look expensive. I prefer complicated watches and heavy watches. I needed a mechanical watch for the Stratos jump. I needed assurances that if all the electronics and computers I had on me for the jump had suddenly failed, I had one totally reliable, dependent source of information to tell me when to open the chute. I need a mechanical watch. I approached Zenith. I have the highest regard for Jean-Frederic Dufour, (the then CEO of Zenith) who immediately saw the potential of the Stratos project, and was on fire.

The project went almost immediately full speed ahead, and I wore the special watch – the Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Chronograph for the historic jump.

At that point we arrived at the Botanic Gardens, and we took some personal souvenir photographs and bid Felix farewell till the Zenith party later that evening.

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