Some people are born to fly, literally. And then there are those who are born to test the speed limit, so that the rest of us can fly safely. Today we read about a man, who willingly put himself in danger of shattering every bone in his body multiple times just so that it would help find answers that would not only make flight travels but also make travelling by automobiles safer.
Colonel John Paul Stapp was an US Airforce Officer, flight surgeon, physician and biophysicist born on 11thJuly 1910 in Bahia, Brazil. He was known as the Fastest Man On Earth. Stapp had entered the US Army Air Corps on 5thOctober 1944 as a physician and qualified as a flight surgeon. After a few years of observing and experiencing the flight patterns on the human body, Colonel Stapp became interested in knowing about the effect of acceleration and deceleration on the human body i.e the impact of high speeds and sudden braking on the pilot.
The questions he wanted to answer were
- Could man survive for any length of time at extremely high altitudes.
- If they could, would they be able to function normally?
- How could they keep from freezing, getting dehydrated, becoming incapacitated by bends “the deadly formation of bubbles in the blood stream.”
- A pilot bailing out of his aircraft at high speed and high altitude would be hit with a blast of wind and a load of G-forces. What could be survive?
He solved the problem of bends after spending almost 65 hours flying in fighter planes. He discovered that if the pilot breathed pure oxygen for 30 minutes prior to takeoff, the symptoms could be avoided completely! This was a major breakthrough.
As a reward for his meticulous work on the high altitude problem, Colonel John Stapp was assigned to supervise Aero Med Lab’s most important research project – Human deceleration i.e. he had to study the human body’s ability to withstand gravity during flights. It was believed the maximum G’s(gravitational force) that a human body could withstand was 18 G’s and so all military airplane cockpits were built to withstand 18 G’s. Remember this number – 18G’s. But during World War II there were reports of some pilots surviving high-speed aircraft crashes while some low magnitude crashes proved to be fatal.
So, to find the answers for the mystery, a project was started. A sled was built that would ride down a track called “Gee Whiz.” It was designed to withstand 100 G’s of force. It was 15 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and weighed 1500 pounds. The sled was to be tested using a 185-pound dummy named Oscar Eightball as it was decided that no humans would be experimented upon. The project manager George Nichols knew that if 18G’s could be fatal, there was no question of putting a human in this sled. But John Stapp went and tapped him on the shoulder and said “You can throw this away. I am going to be the test subject.”
After a lot of discussions, it was decided that they would use Stapp as the test subject but only after testing on the dummy initially. And it was indeed a wise move. The first test run of the Whiz was on April 30th, 1947. During the test, the hydraulic brakes failed and George, the dummy slid into the desert.
In December 1947, after eight months of testing John Stapp felt it was the right time they began testing on him. Initially, they tested the Whiz with speeds between 90 to 200 mph with deceleration of 10 G’s. John Stapp managed it comfortably.
But then as you would expect, boundaries had to to be broken. Slowly, the team began to up the ante. Speeds were increased, deceleration became even more abrupt. Even at low G’s, the straps of Stapp’s harness dug painfully into his shoulders. At higher ranges, they dug in so deep that he cracked his ribs. He suffered a number of concussions. Lost a few teeth and broke his collarbone and his wrist more than a couple of times.
While travelling at high speeds in the sled, Stapp would sit in two ways. Either facing forwards or backwards. When he faced backwards, the blood would leave his eyeballs and pool towards the back of his head, making his suffer “white outs”. When he faced forwards blood would be pushed against his retinas and he would suffer “red outs”. Thus, he came to the conclusion that when it came to acceleration and deceleration the most vulnerable body part was the eyeball.
Two years later in June 1951, Stapp tested the Whiz for the last time and was subjected to more than 35 G’s of deceleration in forward position. He came out of this unscathed. This allowed the standard strength requirement for aircraft seats to be increased from 18 G to 32G.
If you think that they decided that this was enough, you are obviously wrong. Following the success of testing GEE Whiz, Stapp decided to build Sonic Wind No1 which was bigger, faster and could withstand 150 G’s.
In November 1953, the Sonic Wind was put to test with John Stapp buckled in. It reached a speed of 421 miles per hour in 5 seconds. The brake was applied and in a span of 200 feet, it slowed down to 153 mph producing 22 G’s of force. For an instant Stapp’s body weight more than 3700 pounds. His body suffered an enormous amount of punishment but at the end of it he said “I feel fine. This sled is going to be a wonderful test instrument. I’m ready to do this again this afternoon.”
In the beginning of December John Stapp planned his 29thand final sled ride. This time the barrier in front of him would be removed and he would be protected from the wind only by his visor and helmet. He would be subjected to more G’s than ever has been suffered by an individual willingly. It was the biggest experiment ever tried by Stapp. George Nichols was terrified. Stapp was strapped into it the Sonic Wind. A siren wailed, and the Sonic wind tore through the winds like a bullet with a roar. It reached a speed of 632 miles per hour so basically it was faster than a bullet. Everyone around felt that there was no way it would stop in time but just then the brakes hit. It stopped like it had hit a concrete wall.
George Nichols and the crew raced towards the sled. They were followed by an ambulance. It was hard to imagine anyone surviving this experiment. But they were relieved to see that he was alive. He was in great pain, yet he managed to smile at them. His eyes had turned blood red and he couldn’t see. He was examined by surgeons in the hospital who concluded that his retinas had not detached. By the next day he could see again clearly.
Stapp turned into a celebrity and was dubbed “the fastest man alive”. Thanks to him automobiles became safer.
Stop died at his home at the age of 89
Here is a video showing John Stapp’s sled ride
This post is a part of the #ATOZChallange-2018