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The confessions of a daredevil high-altitude skydiver

Richard Ryan performs a high-altitude jump over Southern California.
Richard Ryan performs a high-altitude jump over Southern California.Richard Ryan
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Richard Ryan was the kind of kid who would drive a mom crazy — dirt bike racing, motorcycles, you name it. If there was a thrill to be had in physical exploits, Ryan was in. But one domain, skydiving, was left unexplored until last year. "I never actually really wanted to skydive. I thought it was a bunch of crazy adrenaline junkies going out and cheating death every jump," he said.

Ryan, who turns 31 this week, has more than made up for lost time. With about 350 jumps under his belt, Ryan now earns a living as skydiver, specializing in HALO jumping — high-altitude, low-opening — which means jumping from an airplane flying as high as about 30,000 feet and delaying parachute opening as long as possible. In an interview with Discovery News correspondent Irene Klotz, Ryan explains why he does it. (Hint: It's not just the adrenaline.)

Discovery News: Is this your career or your passion or both?
Richard Ryan: A little of both, I guess. My (YouTube) channel takes elements of video games and movies and re-creates them in real life.

So you're the guy the TV commercials are thinking of when they air a stunt and say, "Do not try this at home."
Yea, I watch that and say, 'You know what? I think a lot of people would like to see me do that.' I've been quoted a lot of times saying, 'I live vicariously through myself.'

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Skydiver Felix Baumgartner is about to attempt a jump from 120,000 feet, a new altitude record. Is he an icon in your community with his corporate sponsorship?
In all honesty, a jump like that just wouldn't happen unless you had a corporate sponsor. There are so many variables and so much that goes into a performance jump, or whatever you want to call it. Unless you're Richard Branson, you're really not going to have the funds to put into a project like that.

What's the difference between you and Felix, as far as how you jump?
There are so many different disciplines from traditional skydiving to belly flying where these groups work to make small and large formations, to fliers who go at faster speeds by skydiving standing up, sitting up or head down, to base jumpers who jump off cliffs, buildings, antennas and what not.

What's your highest jump?
29,500 feet

When you jump from that altitude, how much time do you spend falling?
It depends. When you're at a higher altitude, the air is thinner, so your fall rate is faster than it is when you're at 6,000 feet because the atmosphere is thicker, more resistant. Traditional skydives last 50 seconds to one minute from 12,500 feet. From about 30,000 feet if you're flying on your belly, it could last 2.5 minutes, something like that, until you're under canopy. If we do a wing suit jump, we could be in the air for four- to six minutes, depending on how we fly.

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What's a wing suit?
It's a relatively new skydiving discipline. Physically, it's like squirrel suits. It's fabric — a lot of the skydivers call them "prom dresses' — that is essentially wings and a tail wing. Instead of falling straight to the Earth, you have a glide ratio. You can get a forward speed of 90 mph.

What do you think is the significance of Felix Baumgartner's jump this week, him trying to get that high and fall faster than the speed of sound?
The altitude is a great record to hold. For me, personally, I'm really excited to see him break the speed of sound in freefall. That just seems really, really cool to me. The reality is there are going to be so many more beneficial things that are going to come from it, all the medical instruments that they're monitoring him with. It means a lot for the next-generation spacesuits. Eventually something is going to come out of people having a good time that's actually going to save somebody's life down the road.

It sounds like the preparation for dives, especially for something as complicated as what Felix is going to do, is a big part of the project.
Yes, the engineers are constantly running scenarios, figuring out every situation and planning for it. I think being one step ahead is always better than finding out you have should invested a little more time in the R&D.

What first got you interested in skydiving?
It was the movie "Acts of Valor." Relativity Media asked me if I would be willing to re-create some elements from the movie to promote it. I never actually really wanted to skydive. I thought it was a bunch of crazy adrenaline junkies going out and cheating death every jump. I gave them a list of 10 different things that I wanted to do and they chose the HALO jump as one of the videos they wanted me to re-create. I had a few months to prepare. I went and did my accelerated freefall course and got into skydiving and soon found out that it's not necessarily the adrenaline-seeking junkies. It's a bunch of really good people with day jobs like lawyers, to grandmothers, to kids just out of high school. It's a very diverse community. It just completely flipped me and I've been hooked every since.

It's not the adrenaline?
Don't get me wrong, the adrenaline is definitely a plus. Adrenaline is one of the most addictive things I think you can have in your life. To be fair, my first seven jumps or so, it was all a very structured type of school. I was so focused on the work that I had to do that I never really had the time to just be on my belly and freefall and start panicking. By the time I was jumping on my own, I was very confident and comfortable, so it wasn't a panic adrenaline. It was a fun adrenaline.

Have you had your moment of panic?
No, not yet. I've had nothing but good luck so far. I've been fortunate that I've had a lot of really good instructors. We brief beforehand and they made sure that I was 100 percent confident in my ability and preparation, that I wasn't going to panic and that if something did happen that I knew what to do. That is a testimony to going to accredited schools and really taking the time to learn the safety.

Wouldn't a sense of self-preservation keep a person from jumping out of a plane?

We hear that a lot. I can honestly say that I am 100 percent confident that I would be willing to have someone I really love skydive. I would have no problem going to my local drop zone with the instructors I know and having my mom do a tandem jump with them. It's just so safe once you go through all the courses. Granted, accidents do happen, but I think a lot of that stuff gets taken out of context. You hear about base jumpers, which is an extremely high-risk sport, hitting a cliff or something. There's a lot of misconceptions.

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Isn't fear of falling one of the most basic fears that people have?
Fear of falling is something a lot of people have. In all honesty, I have an issue with heights, but with the forward speed of the aircraft when you jump out you're falling down at what would be like sliding off of a hill. So it's not straight down. It's off at an angle, so you never actually get that feeling in your stomach or your throat that you're falling, because the wind is just all around you.

So, it's not like the roller coaster dead drop?
It's completely different. If you did a balloon jump or a base jump then yes, you'd get that dead air feel.

That's what Felix is going to have?
Yes. We jump in a different layer of the atmosphere. He is one of the only people who has ever jumped that high. He talks about when he jumped off the platform, he thought he was just suspended in air. He is falling at a certain speed, but the atmosphere is not as dense as it is at lower altitudes where he can feel the wind, so he thought he was just suspended in air.

So there's no frame of reference to gauge your fall?
Exactly. It'll be exciting to hear Felix talk about jumping from the altitude that he's at. Uncharted territory always is exciting, just finding out what the experience is like.

What would you say to the collective groan of mothers whose kids are going to be watching Felix's jump and say, "Wow that looks neat. I want to try it?'
I've been fortunate enough to have a mother who has always supported me in everything that I did. Maybe in part because she knew that I was going to do it anyway, so she wanted to make sure that she gave me her support and encouraged me to do it as safely as possible. I've always had that trust from my mom and I've always worked extra hard not to break that.

How many jumps have you done?
Around 350. I haven't even been skydiving for a year yet, and I've cranked out a lot.

How do you make a living doing this?
I look for any opportunity where I can do a product integration or sponsored video. You can't tell which ones are brand integration and which ones aren't. I never want to sell out to my audience, but I also want to get paid to do something.

So have you gotten your mom interested in jumping?
No, she wants to go paragliding. She thinks skydiving looks too dangerous. Paragliding looks more dangerous to me than skydiving. It's all perception.

Why do you do it?
Because I have no idea what to expect. I don't want to say it's an out-of-body experience when I do something like that, but it's not the Richard my mom or my girlfriend knows. It's that person pushing another person to do something that he normally wouldn't. That's why I say I live vicariously through myself. I really had to push myself to do it. I'm actually very much a homebody.