Red Bull Stratos: NATCA on the Front Line
Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pictured left to right Michael P. Walsh, Ed DeRoda, Frank Beeton, Chris Frugé, Jared May,
Michael Graham, Ryan Peterson

When Felix Baumgartner jumped to Earth from a helium balloon 24 miles above the Earth this past Sunday, Roswell Tower (ROW) NATCA Facility Representative Frank Beeton and NATCA ROW Secretary/Treasurer Mike Walsh were on the front line.

Beeton was working ROW Approach Control on Sunday, and Walsh was the FAA liaison in Red Bull Mission Control.

Red Bull Mission Control was stationed at the Roswell Airport, and the helium balloon launched from one of the runways. Beeton said during Baumgartner’s ascent in the helium balloon, ROW controllers treated it as they would a weather balloon with a transponder. Once ROW received word from Walsh at Mission Control that Baumgartner was preparing to jump, ROW, Albuquerque Center (ZAB) and Fort Worth Center (ZFW) began clearing airspace through which Baumgartner was expected to descend, and vectored aircraft around Baumgartner during his descent.

After Baumgartner touched down on Earth, he was flown by helicopter back to ROW, where Beeton jumped on the opportunity to meet him. Beeton shook Baumgartner’s hand, and introduced himself as one of the controllers who worked the airspace during Baumgartner’s jump. Baumgartner thanked Beeton for his work.

Red Bull Stratos Mission Control has been stationed at Roswell Airport since March – with Baumgartner performing two preliminary jumps from approximately 71,615 feet and 97,145 feet. Over time, Beeton and Walsh became personally invested in the success of the mission, and felt they had gotten to know the crew and Baumgartner. Beeton said that even though controllers at ROW, ZAB and ZFW weren’t in Mission Control, they were still responsible for sterilizing the airspace around Baumgartner as he descended, maintaining safety of the airspace throughout the mission.

“It was really interesting and amazing to be a part of,” said Beeton. “It’s an epic piece of aviation history that happened right here in front of my eyes and I was a part of it, so I was really, really excited to be part of it.”

Walsh said, “Now that it’s done, I’m glad they did it here. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Being personally invested in the mission, Beeton and Walsh said that the second failed attempt to launch the helium balloon was very frustrating. They watched as the balloon filled one-fifth of the way only to be taken by the wind, twisted and scraped along the ground, causing Red Bull crew to postpone the jump, fearing the structural integrity of the balloon had been compromised.

“At that time I got really into accomplishing this mission,” said Walsh. “It became really personal, just watching the personalities and the professionals involved with it, including Felix.”

Walsh was positioned in the back of the room at Red Bull Stratos Mission Control, along with FAA liaisons from ZAB and ZFW. He and the other liaisons were responsible for direct communication between their facilities and Mission Control. For example, during Baumgartner’s ascent on Sunday, at around 96,000 feet, Baumgartner’s face shield was not heating properly. It was fogging up, and Baumgartner was concerned it would ice over when he disconnected his suit cord from the capsule. Mission Control staffs were running tests to ensure integrity of Baumgartner’s suit, but they were considering aborting the jump. Walsh called Beeton at ROW every 15 minutes with an update on Baumgartner’s altitude and status of the jump.

Walsh said another extremely tense moment in Mission Control on Sunday was when he went into an uncontrolled spin, because no one knows what kind of stresses are exerted on the human body when it’s at 100,000 feet and traveling at the speed of sound. When Baumgartner stabilized and went into a controlled dive, Walsh said there was a “big, big sigh of relief.”

As everyone now knows, the mission was not aborted and Baumgartner successfully jumped to Earth from 128,000 feet in the stratosphere, breaking records for highest manned balloon flight, the first human to break the sound barrier without the assistance of a vehicle, and the highest skydive.

“It reminded me of watching the Apollo Moon missions and watching the NASA Mission Control,” said Walsh. “They’re all jumping up and down and cheering and high-fiving each other. It was just like that in there. It was very, very emotional.”

Like Beeton, Walsh also met Baumgartner after the mission. Baumgartner gave Walsh a hug, thanked him for his work on the mission and gave him an autograph for Walsh’s grandson.
“The guy is a star now, in my book,” said Walsh. “Not just because of the autograph, but just because of what he did. To do something for the first time, that nobody else has ever been able to do – that’s a big deal.”