It's always been an ambition of man to fly but now the new technology and extreme sports have come together and brought this dream a little bit closer so that adrenaline junkies just like me can rise to even greater challenges than before and it seems that it's no longer impressive just to have been able to climb mount Everest; now the goal is to fly over it. We sent Meera Senthilingham to the London Science Museum to find out a bit more.
Meera - Imagine what it would feel like to fly and if you could fly what would it feel like to fly over something like Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world? Thanks to the new sport of paramotoring, which uses parajets to elevate you into the air and then paragliders to bring you back down, not only are people able to live the dream of personal flight but two Brits have managed to break the world record for the height reached using only a parajet. This year Giles Cardozo and Bear Grylls flew above the summit of Mount Everest and reached a height of 30,000ft. The challenge was known as mission Everest and was sponsored by technology company GKN. Now the equipment they used to accomplish this mission was recently displayed at the Science Museum in London so I went along to see how it all worked and find out just what it took to break this world record. I spoke to Giles Cardozo who not only flew up the mountain but also designed the equipment they actually used to get them up there. So I had to start by asking him just what a parajet actually is.
Giles - Well a parajet is an aircraft that you wear on your back just like a rucksack and a paraglider wing which you attach onto a harness. Using a thrust of this engine on your back with a propeller fitted to it, it moves you into the air and the wing gives you the lift you need. Together you've got a complete flying machine. You can fly up to 40mph up to thousands of feet, In this case we flew to 30000 feet with it.
Meera - People do this for social purposes as well. So what kind of heights will they do if they're just doing this for fun?
Giles - Really, the highest you go is about 5000 feet. Just above the clouds so you have a nice view but 15000 feet is the maximum altitude you can go to with a machine. People never really go that high.
Meera - So what was involved in creating the equipment to take you that extra 15000 feet?
Giles - Well, the most difficult thing really was making an engine that would still breathe where there's no oxygen or very little oxygen. At 30000 feet there's only a third of the oxygen in the air. The engine needs oxygen to run, that's what gives it its power. So we had to make a system that would drive an enormous amount of air or oxygen into the engine to make it produce enough power to keep us flying.
Meera - How did you actually manage that? What kind of details did you have to pay attention to when designing?
Giles - The most important thing was the fuel delivery which is computer-controlled and the supercharging. A supercharger, basically, is a like a tiny impeller which whizzes around incredibly fast. We got it spinning at 3000 times per second. You can imagine that's rotating very, very quickly. That would blast enough air into the engine. The computer then controls the fuel delivery and between the two of them we managed to keep the engine running and propelling us into the air.
Meera - When you're doing the flight itself you're using the engine to propel you but when would you essentially switch it off and use the wind?
Giles - Yes, once you're up in the air you've gotta keep your finger on the throttle. You've got a little hand control and you squeeze that hand control and that keep the engine revved up and you keep going higher and higher. Now when you get to the maximum height you want to go you can switch off your engine and the wing keeps flying so you can just glide back down again. So what we did, we just flew to 30000 feet, switched off the engines and glid all the way back down to our starting point.
Meera - At heights like that the actual person himself must need extreme protection just to protect their own body.
Giles - Yeah, we had a wind-chill factor of about -70. We had 3 layers of clothing on board, a whole load of under-liners as well. We had oxygen systems. We'd really pass out under a minute at 30000 feet if we didn't have oxygen with us and we had a big helmet with two balaclavas on. We had all the kit on to make sure we kept nice and toasty inside our kit.
Meera - The amount of power that the actual engine must need to take you up: it's 100 horsepower. Could you compare that to something just so people can get an idea of just how much power that is?
Giles - Yes, I mean you're average family car produces maybe 80-100 horsepower. That's the sort of 4-6 seater car. We had the engine equivalent power strapped to our backs yet it weighed ten times less. That was the most difficult bit. It was getting an engine which will produce nearly 100 horsepower whilst being able to wear it quite happily on your back and then carrying your fuel with you and everything else. You realise how light the engine had to be to make it possible to actually make it work at all. If we added up everything including fuel, all our helmets, electronics, the whole lot: we weighed about an extra 80 kilos so more than my bodyweight. I think I was fitter before I did this that I've ever been in my life.
Meera - And what did it feel like to be at such a height?
Giles - Well, I think I'd dreamt of this moment for such a long time that obviously I was very excited. Also you feel very vulnerable because you're there amongst these huge mountains, miles and miles from anywhere. I think I was scared but I was also very excited. And just an incredible view, really to top it off. It was just staggering.
Meera - Giles' flying partner was adventure man Bear Grylls. He must have been facing some personal demons in the mission, having broken his back in three places in a previous parachuting adventure. I asked him how it felt to be hovering over the tallest peak in the world.
Bear - I always thought, God, you know, I wonder if it's going to be really, really terrifying. Being suspended on these little strings. But it wasn't, it just felt the most meant-to-be, magical extraordinarily privileged moment even though it was -40 degrees and you're so dependent on one little oxygen canister for keeping you alive and you're aware you're at your most vulnerable point. There was something I think we both felt that this was really meant to be and what a privilege. We'd had screaming winds for days. You know 100mph winds, massive snows. We just had this three hour window of absolutely still weather all the way up to 30000 feet. To get still winds at 30000 feet is unheard of if you speak to any pilot. You know, you always have at least 80mph tail winds or head winds. It all came together in those three hours of which we did feel the luckiest men alive.
Meera - I can't even begin to imagine the physical endurance required to survive at such a height, let alone having to control something that's suspending you in mid-air. To get you thinking about how high Mount Everest actually is, and therefore how high in the air the duo were flying on their own I'll leave you with this comparison from Michael Vor, a member of the GKN team.
Michael - When you think about it, 30000 feet is the height of an [jet] aircraft flying so when you go on your holidays and you're flying at that type of feet you can imagine looking out of the window and seeing a guy in a parachute basically flying past you, it's quite a challenge.