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Sunday, 8 September, 2002, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Frenchman ready for daredevil dive
Michel Fournier, PA
Michel Fournier: His dream nears reality
Frenchman Michel Fournier is preparing to embark on breaking four extraordinary world records.

The retired army officer will attempt to make the highest ever parachute jump - from 40 kilometres up (131,200 feet).

It's astonishing that anyone is prepared to do this

Hannah Cameron
In so doing, he will fall further and faster than any jumper before him, reaching supersonic speeds between 1,200 and 1,600 kilometres per hour (between 745 and 1,000 mph).

Just to get into position to make the attempt he will need to break the world altitude record for a balloon flight.

Fournier was hoping to jump on Sunday but unfavourable weather conditions over Saskatchewan, Canada, mean the launch has been postponed for at least 24 hours.

"Michel is ready and he is feeling great," project spokeswoman Diane de Robianot told BBC News Online.

Special techniques

The 58-year-old Frenchman is calling it Le Grand Saut - The Super Jump.

He has been working towards his goal for more than 10 years and will rely on state of the art technology to take him up safely and bring him down alive.

A British launch team left London on Friday to prepare the enormous helium envelope that will take Fournier high into the stratosphere.

The canopy, designed and manufactured by the famous balloonist Don Cameron and his company in Bristol in the west of England, weighs three-quarters of a tonne and will swell to more than half a million cubic metres at its maximum altitude.

"It's astonishing that anyone is prepared to do this," said Hannah Cameron of Cameron Balloons.

"And it has presented a number of problems for us. For example, we couldn't glue the fabric of the balloon together because of the extreme cold up there. It would just come apart.

"We've had to use specialist welding techniques on the fabric", which Cameron describes as a plastic not unlike the material used to make freezer bags.

Leap into the unknown

Slung beneath the balloon will be a three-metre-high pressurised capsule that will protect the Frenchman from harmful solar radiation and the tremendous cold at 40 km up.

Totally controlled from Earth, the capsule contains flight data recording instruments, including sound and image recording equipment.

Joe Kittinger, US Air force
Col Joe Kittinger set the current, unofficial altitude mark
And to protect him from the extreme low pressure and temperatures down to minus 100 Celsius when he leaps out of the capsule, Fournier will be wearing two suits: a special woollen undergarment and an adapted airtight, pressurised space outfit.

"These two suits have been completely modified and reconditioned for my project," he says. "They enable me to survive for one complete hour in a local air pressure of one hectoPascal (one millibar), which is 1/1,000th of normal air pressure on the ground."

But it is fair to say that the adventurer will be entering the unknown when he hurtles down from such a high altitude and breaks the sound barrier.

"There is not a great deal of knowledge about supersonic flows around a shape like the human body," Vince Hibbert, a military parachute systems advisor with technology specialists QinetiQ, told BBC News Online.

The competition

Hibbert believes the Frenchman's key objective will be to maintain a correct attitude and prevent his body from going into a spin and blacking out.

"The kind of controllability he will have from moving his legs and arms won't be quite the same as he has experienced at lower altitudes, and it is just possible his protective suit may restrict his movement."

Super Jump Firsts
The highest parachute jump - 40 km
The highest human flight in a balloon - an unofficial mark
The fastest freefall of all time - between 1,200 and 1,600 km/h
The longest freefall - about 6 mins, 25 secs
The current altitude record for a parachute jump is held by Colonel Joe Kittinger of the US Air Force. In 1960 he jumped from 31,333 metres (102,800 feet). But his mark was set during a military test and was not sanctioned by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

Likewise, even if Fournier takes the balloon to 40 km, the mark will not be officially recognised by the authorities because the record requires the balloon to be brought down by its pilot.

This leaves a QinetiQ-backed project free to take this particular world best. A team is currently waiting for a weather window above southwest England that will allow it to launch out over the Atlantic.

If Fournier fails to get the correct conditions this September, he is likely to postpone the Super Jump until next year. But then there will be the pressure of competition, with at least two other teams preparing similar projects.

See also:

22 Jan 02 | England
09 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
03 May 02 | Science/Nature
05 Mar 01 | Science/Nature
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