French parachutist aims for skydiving record

Agence France-Presse

NORTH BATTLEFORD, Canada -- French parachutist Michel Fournier, 64, will try Monday to break a skydiving world record by plunging from a balloon into thin air 40 kilometers (25 miles) above Canada's vast western plains.

The jump, beginning from the outer reaches of the stratosphere about four times higher than the cruising altitude of a commercial jet, is his life's dream and could someday lead to rescuing astronauts in-flight, he said.

Fournier and his team were making the final arrangements on Friday in the small city of North Battleford, Saskatchewan to send him to the heavens in a stratospheric balloon.

At 40,000 meters (131,000 feet), he planned to throw himself into the void wearing a pressurized suit capable of withstanding extreme temperatures of minus 100 degrees Celsius (minus 148 Fahrenheit), and become the first free-falling man to breach the sound barrier, hurtling toward Earth at more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) per hour.

Weather permitting, the former military officer will make the historic and dangerous jump at dawn Monday, his team told a press conference.

"This project is a great scientific and human challenge," said Fournier. "This is my baby, my dream. I just want to realize my dream."

If he succeeds, Fournier will actually break four world records: for fastest freefall, longest freefall, highest jump, and highest altitude reached by a man in a balloon.

Fournier is no stranger to high-altitude adventure. He claims more than 8,600 jumps to his credit and holds the French record for the highest parachute jump at 12,000 meters (40,000 feet).

His latest skydiving attempt, several years in the works, comes after two unsuccessful jumps in 2002 and 2003 and speaks to his determination. His balloon tore the last time, but he bought a new one for this trial.

The moment just after take-off promises to be the most perilous, as it would be impossible to eject during the ascent, his team leader Richard Correa said.

Thereafter, if Fournier loses consciousness during the jump itself, his parachute would automatically open, he explained.

If all goes well, Fournier is expected to land some 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of North Battleford, where a helicopter will be waiting to pick him up.

Pressed about his age, Fournier was quick to point out that American astronaut John Glenn returned to space at age 77.

"There is a heart attack risk up there, so we've done tests to ensure that his heart is capable of withstanding the pressure," said Henri Marotte, a specialist in space medicine at the University of Paris.

"He's in very good physical condition."

Before Fournier, in 1960 American Joseph Kittinger jumped from 31,333 meters (102,799 feet) as part of a medical experiment, and in 1962 Russian Evgueni Andreiev jumped from 24,483 meters (80,325 feet) to set a world free-fall record.

The area of North Battleford was chosen for Fournier's jump, he said, because it is scarcely populated and so there is less risk that his 1.6-tonne balloon and basket will fall and crush someone.

An alternate site in Kiruna in northern Sweden was considered but it is surrounded by lakes, and as Fournier explained, "with my full equipment on, I swim like a rock."

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