Most of the time, one wouldn’t think of staying on the ground as any sort of skydiving adventure.
But for Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day, being grounded was the most important part of his most recent record-breaking skydiving adventure.
Day was one of six on an expert mission control team monitoring all the vital stats of the attempt, from balloon speed to human heart rates, as a new world record was set last week in Roswell, New Mexico. The record was for a four-man skydiving team holding a formation, referred to as HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) skydiving.
“The reason I was involved was in order for them to get the altitude they needed to break the record,” Day told Cowboy State Daily. “They needed to use a balloon for this, a hot air balloon, because it would be too dangerous to jump out of an aircraft at 38,000 feet doing 400 or 500 mph.”
What was unique about this jump was not just that it set a world record. It also was a huge charity effort funded by real estate mogul Larry Conner to raise $1 million while paying tribute to the world’s most daring skydiving team around, the U.S. Air Force Special Warfare Pararescue Specialists.
“They are specially trained to parachute behind enemy lines to provide medical assistance,” Day said. “And they skydive in. So, what (Connor) wanted to do is raise awareness and raise funds for the Special Operations Warrior Fund.”
The nonprofit raises money to benefit the spouses and children of pararescue specialists killed in action.
'Ground Control To Major Tom'
Day was one of six experts armed with laptops as part of the mission control team on the ground. They had GPS monitors on the balloon and on the people in the balloon, as well as many other gadgets sending them all kinds of data about what was happening way up in the sky at any given moment.
There was a tab for each panel of information coming in, but there was also a lead expert associated with each panel. Day’s two areas were all the balloon metrics, as well as all the weather information.
Though their official name was mission control, jokes including the famous lyric from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” — “ground control to Major Tom” — wouldn’t have been out of order for such an ambitious project.
Launching five skydivers at the same time from 38,067 feet, holding hands in a five-person skydiving formation for at least 5 seconds in the freezing cold, then breaking apart to all land a mere 14 miles away from the launch site is fraught with many perils.
The skydivers were so high in the air, a person could go completely hypoxic and die within about 30 seconds if something happened to the oxygen feeds.
It was also quite cold up there.
“To give you an idea how cold it was up there. It was actually only 80 degrees inside the hot air balloon,” Day said. “A normal hot air balloon is around 200 degrees roughly, Fahrenheit.”
There is a visual that shows just how cold it was in the video, Day added.
“You can see the video there, where it’s so cold their breath was sublimating and the byproduct of burning propane is water, so they basically created their own cloud,” Day said.
World’s Biggest Hot Air Balloon
Day was tapped for the jump because of his expertise with weather and with hot air balloons. The latter was a particularly challenging piece of the overall team effort.
“The balloon that had to be built for this was a custom-built balloon, the largest hot air balloon ever built in the United States,” Day said. “Honestly, hot air balloons are not designed to go this high, so that’s why the balloon had to be so big. It was 560,000 square feet, so that’s over 120 foot tall. I mean, it was giant.”
The size of the balloon was seven times that of a normal hot air balloon, but that wasn’t the only challenge.
“As we get higher and higher, there’s less air, and you need the air for combustion because you’re burning propane,” Day said. “So, we had to make some adjustments to how the balloon was flown at those higher altitudes than in the lower ones, and the skydivers had to adapt to colder temperatures and lower oxygen levels.”
That had them pre-breathing oxygen before their jumps, which began at 2:30 a.m. — zero-dark-thirty for most normal folks.
Six Test Flights
Day gets a lot of calls from would-be stuntmen asking him to do some pretty crazy skydiving things. Which is ironic, because Day himself not only has never skydived, he has absolutely no interest in jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Or hot air balloon.
Day doesn’t always say yes to these requests, either. He takes a very serious look at the safety aspect, and he has turned a lot of teams down.
“The thing that makes these work is you need serious people who are serious about doing it right,” he said. “Doing it right means having the resources, having the ability to pay for the people and the equipment you need and also then the ability to make sure it’s done safely.
“When things like this tend to go awry, it’s folks trying to attempt records on a shoestring, or not taking it through a lot of testing.”
In this case, with real estate mogul Connor footing the bill, there was no issue with having the right resources.
“I think we did six test flights before the final jump,” Day said. “So, we took it very serious, and it wasn’t just a one-off.”
Each test jump went a little higher than the one before to test all the systems from communications to flying the balloon itself. Through that process, the team learned it would need to fly the hot air balloon a little differently than usual at higher altitudes.
“What we learned is we could go up really fast only to about 25,000 feet,” Day said.
After that, the balloon had to slow down so the propane burner didn’t starve for oxygen.
“So that last 10,000 feet was slower than what we planned on originally, but we learned from the testing that we could do it,” Day said.
Not His First Rodeo
The projects Day has said yes to have all been high-profile events that made major headlines.
He was a consultant for Felix Baumgartner’s world record space jump in 2012, for example, and then was a consultant on Alan Eustace’s freefall jump from the stratosphere that broke Baumgartner’s world record in 2014.
Day was also a consultant on a jump from 20,000 feet with no parachute in 2016, as well as a jump from 25,000 feet by magician David Blaine from helium balloons in 2020. Those weren’t necessarily intended to break records, but they were flashy, high-profile events, and Day was a key part of their success.
Day’s latest record-breaking jump was a bit different than the first two record-breaking jumps in several key areas.
“The first two were the ultimate, high-altitude jumps that involve, you know, jumping from the stratosphere,” Day said.
In those cases, the people involved wore spacesuits or were in pressurized capsules — a much more protected environment than the latest record jump at 38,000 feet.
“Those were also just one person at a time,” Day said. “In this particular situation, (the recent New Mexico record jump) there were eight people who were in the balloon basket. There was the pilot, and the gentleman who was making sure everyone’s oxygen levels are good, and then we had five skydivers going for the record, and then we had another skydiver who was in charge of making sure he captured everything on video.”
With eight people’s lives hanging from a slate grey sky with high hopes of setting a record, Day had to be 100% certain the weather wasn’t going to put anyone in any danger at any point and time. Wind speed issues caused him to delay the jump by about 30 minutes, to avoid challenging wind when the balloon was landing.
He also monitored the stats coming off the balloon throughout the stunt, to ensure it was reaching the right speeds at the right elevation to go up and then come back down safely.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.