On Tuesday, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner will jump from an air balloon floating 120,000 feet above Earth in an attempt to be the first human to break the speed of sound in free fall. After leaping from the capsule, the 43-year-old adventurer hopes to reach 690 mph, or Mach 1. If successful, Baumgartner will be immortalized in the record books for highest skydive, fastest free fall, longest free fall and highest manned balloon flight.
A 23-mile plummet toward Earth with little more than a full-pressure suit, helmet and parachute. Why?!
Ever since the earliest adrenaline junkies have been performing their feats of derring-do, stuntmen and daredevils have been testing the limits of safety (and sanity) in the name of seeking thrills. If Baumgartner succeeds in his efforts, his name will certainly be added to the ranks of the world's most death-defying acts. Here are some of the most memorable to date:
1. High-wire walk between the Twin Towers
At 110 floors above bustling Lower Manhattan, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (pictured above) walked back and forth for nearly 45 minutes with nothing more than a balancing pole. The 1974 stunt extraordinaire is the subject of the fascinating documentary, "Man on Wire." The walk in the sky was so well-received by the public that all formal charges were dropped, and Petit was presented with a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
2. Escape from a secured and submerged crate
We think of Harry Houdini as a magician, but he was clearly a magician with daredevil tendencies. One of Houdini's most famous tricks was his escape from a securely closed packing crate after it had been dropped into water. Houdini first performed the escape in New York's East River in 1912. Locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, the crate he was in was then nailed shut and secured and weighted with 200 pounds of lead. The crate was lowered into the water; Houdini escaped in 57 seconds. We can’t tell you how he did it (magician’s code of honor and such) but every time the trick was performed, the magician appears to have run the distinct risk of drowning.
French climber Alain Robert isn’t called the French Spider-Man for nothing. His claim to fame comes courtesy of climbing the world’s tallest buildings with nothing more than climbing shoes and chalk for his hands. In 2011, he performed a legal climb of the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but with the partial use of a safety harness. However, his three climbs of the Petronas Towers (1,483 feet) in Kuala Lumpur were completed without safety equipment. Those climbs landed Robert in jail — and landed him a secure spot on the greatest daredevil list for the foreseeable future.
4. Driving a rocket-powered race car at 618 mph
Professional stuntwoman Kitty O'Neil set the land-speed record for women in 1976 when she hopped into her rocket-powered race car for a two-way average speed of 512.710 mph. (Land-speed records require a roundtrip of two drives on a measured course, and then the speeds are averaged.) Observers reported that O'Neil's car actually reached a top speed of more than 618 miles per hour on her first pass, but she ran out of fuel and had to coast to the end of the course.
5. Flying through a mountain
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s American professional wingsuit flyer, Jeb Corliss! The winged stuntman performed a 6,560-foot jump from a helicopter with nothing more than a wingsuit and a prayer, before soaring through China's Tianmen Hole. An actual hole. In a mountain.
6. Hanging from a flying plane
The first professional wing walker, aerial stuntman Ormer Locklear, was originally a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I, where he started his adventures on the wings while executing in-flight engine repairs. After the military, he made a career in Hollywood of walking on wings … as well as jumping from plane to plane, hanging from planes, hanging from his teeth from planes, and other daring feats in the sky. He died in a fatal plane crash while filming "The Skywayman."
7. Free falling 220 feet into an airbag
The late daredevil Dar Robinson was one of Hollywood’s most intrepid stuntmen, and is known for performing some of the most dangerous movie stunts in history. He is best remembered for his work in the Burt Reynolds’ movie "Sharky’s Machine," in which he tumbled backward through a glass window for a freefall descent of 220 feet. It is the highest free fall ever performed without wires for a commercially released film.
It wouldn’t be a list of most dangerous stunts without mention of the granddaddy of all daredevils, Evel Knievel. This courageous motorcycle stuntman may be responsible for single-handedly creating the daredevil superstar character. Many of his jumps were spectacular, but the most ambitious was the Snake River Canyon jump by way of a rocket-powered motorcycle. Unfortunately, the stunt failed, but Knievel still found a place in the record books: he holds the record for most broken bones (433 to be exact.)
For those of us who prefer to keep our feet firmly on the ground, the question arises: Why? Perhaps extreme tightrope walker Petit explained it best when he answered (with perfect French profundity), "There is no why."