Skydiver breaks the sound barrier

In a giant leap from more than 24 miles up, a daredevil skydiver shattered the sound barrier on Sunday while making the highest jump ever - a tumbling, death-defying plunge from a balloon to a safe landing in the New Mexico desert.

Felix Baumgartner hit Mach 1.24, or 833.9 mph, according to preliminary data, and became the first person to reach supersonic speed without travelling in a jet or a spacecraft after hopping out of a capsule that had reached an altitude of 128,100 feet above the Earth.

Landing on his feet in the desert, the man known as "Fearless Felix" lifted his arms in victory to the cheers of jubilant friends and spectators who closely followed his descent in a live television feed at the command center

"When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore, you do not think about gaining scientific data," he said after the jump. "The only thing you want is to come back alive."

A worldwide audience watched live on the Internet via cameras mounted on his capsule as Baumgartner, wearing a pressurised suit, stood in the doorway of his pod, gave a thumbs-up and leapt into the stratosphere.

"Sometimes we have to get really high to see how small we are," an exuberant Baumgartner told reporters outside mission control after the jump.

Baumgartner's descent lasted just over nine minutes, about half of it in a free fall of 119,846 feet, according to Brian Utley, a jump observer from the FAI, an international group that works to determine and maintain the integrity of aviation records. He said the speed calculations were preliminary figures.

Baumgartner said travelling faster than sound is "hard to describe because you don't feel it." The pressurized suit prevented him from feeling the rushing air or even the loud noise he made when breaking the sound barrier.

With no reference points, "you don't know how fast you travel," he said.

The 43-year-old former Austrian paratrooper with more than 2,500 jumps behind him had taken off early Sunday in a capsule carried by a 55-storey ultra-thin helium balloon.