The Stratos Rig

Q:

What were some of the special features of the rig Felix Baumgartner used for his record-breaking 128,100-foot jump for the Red Bull Stratos project?

 

As Mike Todd watches from the door, Luke Aikins exits a helicopter to test the helmet’s faceplate heating element and radio while wearing a prototype Stratos rig designed by Velocity Sports Equipment. This photo shows the reserve cutaway handle (yellow) and reserve ripcord handle (red), which were mirrored for the main canopy on the other side of the harness. Also visible is the red CYPRES arming lanyard toward the back of the rig and some of the plumbing for the oxygen system. Note the complexity of the prototype chest pack. Photo by Monica Aikins.

A:
After ending its collaboration with another manufacturer, the Red Bull Stratos team came to Velocity Sports Equipment with a very specific list of requirements for the parachute system Baumgartner would use on the high-altitude jump. They wanted a shoulder-mounted drogue, the main and reserve handles mounted low, provisions for oxygen bottles and the inclusion of a cutaway inhibitor system as conceived by Stratos Life-Support Engineer Mike Todd. In addition, they needed the rig to include mounting points for the chest pack and a quick release for one side of the chest pack. They also needed a method for deploying the 36-inch drogue specified by Ed Fallon III, an aerospace engineer with Alliant Tech Systems who consulted on the project. Baumgartner would use the drogue in the event he became unstable or fell too quickly. How all of this got implemented was up to VSE.

VSE’s designers started by developing three-dimensional, color-coded cutaway and reserve handles that attached to the harness with a combination of Velcro and tuck tabs. It was important for Baumgartner to be able to tell by feel which handle he was grabbing, since his vision and mobility were limited by the pressure suit. This had been a problem earlier in the testing program. VSE located the cutaway handles at the tops of the leg pads, where they would be easy for Baumgartner to grab while the suit was pressurized.

Baumgartner needed the ability to cut away both the main and reserve parachutes, because if either prematurely deployed, he would not have enough oxygen to fly the parachute to an altitude with breathable air. On a normal sport rig, the reserve parachute is connected directly to the harness, making a hook knife the only method of releasing it. Todd conceived of using a set of 3-ring risers on the reserve parachute that are similar to the ones used on standard main canopies. Using this concept, VSE built a system in which the ends of the cutaway cables attached to the risers and prevented the cutaway handles (one for each canopy) from releasing the risers of a packed canopy. A pyrotechnic cutter mounted on each riser would cut off the anchored end of the cutaway cables once the parachute deployed, which allowed Baumgartner to then pull the cutaway handle if necessary. When one parachute deployed, the system disabled the cutters for the other parachute. This method allowed the first parachute deployed (regardless of which it was) to be cut away but prevented a cutaway of the second parachute.

The drogue deployment system evolved over the course of the project. One of the project goals was for the jump to be a true freefall with no drogue use, but the Red Bull team wanted a drogue incorporated for safety in case Baumgartner experienced severe stability issues. VSE built the drogue system so that it operated completely independently of the main and reserve parachutes (unlike on a tandem system, on which the drogue deploys to initiate the deployment of the main parachute). A pyrotechnic cutter—one that Baumgartner could activate manually or that a G-force sensing device (developed for the Stratos program by Luke Aikins and John Billinger of Dimension Engineering) could activate automatically—deployed the drogue. If the drogue did deploy, it would release automatically when the main or reserve parachute deployed (whether manually or by the special Stratos CYPRES automatic activation device built by Airtec).

Great attention was paid to every conceivable emergency situation that may have been encountered on Baumgartner’s jump to make sure it went off without a hitch. VSE is proud to have been selected to be a part of the program and enjoys being able to showcase its abilities beyond the sport skydiving market.

—Kelly Farrington | D-13826
FAA Senior Rigger
Velocity Sports Equipment

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