The Supersonic Man

How Felix Baumgartner became the first free-falling human to reach the speed of sound.

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  1. The Perris SkyVenture vertical wind tunnel is a hurricane in a can. Inside the core of a cylindrical building that looks like an air-traffic-control tower, air driven by huge fans whooshes upward at 100-plus miles per hour. The tunnel probably isn't the tallest building in Perris, California—a sprawl of malls and tract homes a couple of hours east of Los Angeles—but it feels like it. Near the top, two sets of doors open onto the column of wind. Customers walk through the doors, lean into the air as they spread their arms and legs, and are lifted off their feet. It's the sensation of free fall without the danger or rush: skydiving with its balls removed. If it's your first visit, a staff person helps steady you—in case you drift upward and panic or start bouncing off the walls like an air-popped kernel.

    Today is Felix Baumgartner's first visit to SkyVenture, but no one will be holding on to him. A photogenic 41-year-old Austrian, Baumgartner is a high-profile professional stuntman and BASE jumper. BASE is an acronym for "buildings, antennae, spans [meaning bridges], and earth [cliffs]," and Baumgartner has parachuted off all of these many times. You can go on YouTube and watch him jump off the outstretched right arm of the enormous Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro—or, more prosaically, the roof of the 20-story Warsaw Marriott. For most of his stunts, Baumgartner wears a skydiver's jumpsuit. In the Marriott video, he's dressed in business casual. He did this to pass through the...

Originally published in Outside, August 2010