August 17, 2014

In the air

In Extreme, we drew on several accounts of the experiences of men and women who have ventured into the air, as extreme skydivers, balloonists and early pilots.

Ballooning and skydiving

You might think of going for a ride in a hot air balloon as being a rather sedate and relatively safe excursion. Of course, for the thousands who enjoy a commercial balloon trip it is exactly that. However, ballooning has also played an important part in the history of scientific discovery and exploration.

I was particularly touched by the story of Salomon August Andrée, an ambitious Swedish scientist who, in 1897, launched an audacious and ultimately disastrous attempt to discover the North Pole by balloon. Andrée and his two companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, crash landed in the Arctic within days of their launch, and then attempted to return to civilisation on foot.

Their bodies were discovered thirty years later. Their diaries and papers – including a series of letters to Strindberg’s sweetheart – were published in 1930 and make poignant reading. Other accounts of the journey can be found in Alec Wilkinson’s book The Ice Balloon, Fergus Fleming’s Ninety degrees North, and also (though we did not cite it) in Richard Holmes’ Falling Upwards.

Early in 2014 I visited Andrée’s birthplace Granna, a small but delightful town on the route from Stockholm to Gothenburg. The town has established a museum commemorating Andrée’s exploits, where you can see items retrieved from the expedition’s final resting place, including the balloon basket.

More recently, ballooning played a crucial part in the development of manned spaceflight. Craig Ryan’s magnificent history of The pre-astronauts paints a colourful picture of the scientists, the pilots and their exploits as the US Government tried to establish what it would take to launch a manned mission to space. David Simons was one of those scientists, who chronicled his own adventures in Man High.

In 2012, millions watched Felix Baumgartner jump from a balloon 128,000 feet above the earth, breaking the 102,000 foot skydive record set by US Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger in 1960. Both men are justly famous, and Kittinger’s biography was a source for Extreme. However, few people have heard of Nick Piantanida, who came very close to breaking Kittinger’s record in 1966. Craig Ryan’s biography of Piantanida is one of my favourites.

  •  Andrée, S.A., Strindberg, N. & Fraenkel, K. (1930). Andrée’s story: The complete record of his polar flight, 1897. (Trans. E. Adams-Ray.). New York: The Viking Press
  • Wilkinson, A. (2012). The ice balloon. London: Fourth Estate.
  • Fleming, F. (2000). Ninety degrees North: The quest for the North Pole. London: Granta.
  • Ryan, C. (1995). The pre-astronauts. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press
  • Simons, D.G. and Schanche, D.A. (1960). Man high. New York: Doubleday.
  • Kittinger, J. & Ryan, C. (2011). Come up and get me. An autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger. Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press
  • Ryan, C. (2003). Magnificent failure: Freefall from the edge of space. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

You can purchase all the books we mention via the Extreme Bookshelf Amazon storeDisclosure:  we are part of the Amazon Affiliates programme, meaning that we receive a small commission if you visit Amazon via links in this blog. This commission goes towards the hosting fees for this website.

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