The man who fell to earth

FELIX Baumgartner is sitting in a Parisian hotel room having a wry chuckle about the likelihood, when plummeting out of space, of your skin boiling – a certainty in the case of pressurised spacesuit failure – or blood pushing your eyes out of their sockets – a distinct possibility if you get into a flat spin.

“The doctor started telling me how many ways I was going to die if something goes wrong. Above 16km the water in your body starts boiling at body temperature – the good news is that means you’ll die in 15 seconds and you know it won’t take longer,” he says with a grin.

We were talking a couple of weeks before his supersonic hurtle from the edge of space. If you were one of the 8 million people watching online as he fell, you’ll know that he did indeed go into a flat spin – look up the footage from the camera that was strapped to his chest, and you’ll see just what a desperate pickle he found himself in for several seconds.

If surviving hurtling at such astronomical G-forces in a pressurised spacesuit and a helmet is no mean feat, the Zenith watch Baumgartner was wearing had no such protection, strapped as it was to the outside of his spacesuit. G-forces, extreme temperatures and general rough and tumble – let alone supersonic tumble – are really not friendly things for mechanical watches.

Top marks, then, to the Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th chronograph – clearly it takes a watch with a long name to make the grade for such a long fall – for coming through with nary a scratch. Baumgartner’s faultless two-footed landing no doubt helped, but so did the fact that this is one tough cookie of a watch.

Inside is Zenith’s legendary El Primero movement, invented in 1969 and still arguably the greatest high-beat chronograph movement around. This particular variation, the Striking 10th, means it can accurately measure time down to a 10th of a second, while the flyback function for repeated stopwatch use without resetting is a classic attribute of aviation timepieces.

So why on Earth did Baumgartner feel the need to do this?

“It’s a challenge. If you’re in a sport like this, you want to keep pushing the limit a little bit. And if you keep pushing a little bit for 20 years, this is the result I guess.”

Which means being the greatest daredevil of our age – and one with a superb watch to match.