One day when my oldest daughter was no more than about four years old, she announced that “I’m taller than any tree that’s really short.” I suppose that’s even more true of her today, when she can drive herself and has a paid summer internship in the corporate offices of Guess in Los Angeles. Even as children we seem to be obsessed with the shortest, longest, fastest and highest. The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, at 29,029 feet high. That mountain is the highest that a human being can walk, a height first achieved by walking by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary at 11:30 AM on May 29, 1953. As of today, more than 3000 people have made that walk. If you’re healthy and in good physical shape, you can join one of the annual climbs—assuming you can afford the months off work and the cost of anywhere from 40,000 to 77,000 dollars for the tour service, not including the 8000 to 15,000 for your equipment and clothing and perhaps 5000 dollars to fly to Everest in the first place.
It is far cheaper, if all you’re interested in getting high, to book a flight on a commercial airliner. Your airplane will cruise above the height of Mount Everest by at least 6000 feet—more than a mile—since most cross country flights stay around 35,000 feet. Flying so high is now something we take for granted. The old Concorde supersonic aircraft, which ended service in 2003 usually flew at a cruising altitude of 56,000 feet, though its maximum cruise altitude was 60,039 feet.
We take such heights for granted now. But it hasn’t always been so easy to fly high. Only one hundred years ago this month did anyone reach even one mile high in an airplane. That happened late in the afternoon on Saturday July 9, 1910 when Walter Brookins took off from Atlantic City in New Jersey. During his brief flight, he managed to reach an altitude of 6175 feet. He was notable for having been the first pilot trained by the Wright Brothers for their exhibition team. Born in 1889, he died on April 29, 1953. By 1930, the altitude record stood at 43, 168 feet—more than eight miles. It was set by A. Soucek in a Wright Apache propeller driven plane. The highest altitude a propeller driven plane ever reached was 56, 850 feet on October 22, 1938 when Lt. Col. Mario Pezzi, an Italian Air Force pilot, flew a biplane, wearing a special electrically heated pressurize suit and an airtight helmet. That altitude record wouldn’t be broken until August 28, 1957 when Mike Randrup flew a turbojet powered English Electric Canberra B.2 with a Scorpion Rocket motor to 70,310 feet. Leroy Heath and Larry Monroe beat that in December, 1960 in a North American A-5, flying to 91,419 feet.
The current record for an aircraft was set on October 4, 2004 by Brian Binnie when his air-launched, rocket powered SpaceShipOne flew to 69.6 miles, beating the previous record set by Joseph Albert Walker in an X-15 rocket plane on August 22, 1963, when he flew to 66.9 miles.
But flying high was something that happened long before the airplane was ever invented. In fact, it happened before the United States was invented (if we assume our invention occurred when our Constitution was ratified). The first person to fly higher than a mile managed that feat in a balloon the same year that the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War and the last British troops left New York City. On December 1, 1783, Jacques Alexandre Charles flew a hydrogen balloon to a height of 8900 feet from Paris, only ten days after the first human flight ever, by Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier in a hot air balloon. Benjamin Franklin was among the crowd who witnessed the event.
The record altitude for a hot air balloon is 69, 850 feet, set on November 26, 2005 by Vijaypat Singhania of India. The highest balloon flight ever was 113,740 feet on May 4, 1961. That record was set by Commander Malcolm D. Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor A. Prather, Jr. in Strato-Lab V. On that day they became the highest flying Americans ever.
But they held that record for barely one day. On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard flew the Freedom 7 mission in a Mercury capsule launched by a Redstone Rocket. He became the first American to fly into space on a suborbital mission which took him 116 miles up.
Currently, the “highest” ever that human beings have flown is about 240,000 miles. It’s a record held by all twenty-one astronauts who flew to the moon aboard the Apollo missions 11-17.