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Joe Kittinger

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Joe Kittinger

Joseph W. Kittinger II
Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, USAF
(pictured as a Captain)
Nickname Red
Born (1928-07-27) July 27, 1928 (age 86)
Tampa, Florida, United States
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Air Force
Years of service 1950-1978
Rank Colonel
Battles/wars Korean War
Vietnam War
Awards Silver Star (2)
Legion of Merit (2)
Distinguished Flying Cross (6)
Bronze Star (3)
Purple Heart (2)
Meritorious Service Medal
Air Medal (24)
Prisoner of War Medal

Joseph William Kittinger II (July 27, 1928) is a former USAF Command Pilot, career military officer and retired Colonel in the United States Air Force. He is most famous for his participation in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior in 1960, setting the record longest skydive from a height greater than 31 kilometres (19 mi).[1] He was also the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon and the first man to witness the curvature of the Earth.

Serving as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he achieved an aerial kill of a North Vietnamese jet fighter and was later shot down himself, spending 11 months as a prisoner of war in a North Vietnamese prison.

In 2012, at the age of 84, he participated in the Red Bull Stratos project as capsule communicator, directing Felix Baumgartner on his record-breaking 39-kilometer (24 mi) freefall from Earth's stratosphere.

Early life and military career

Born in Tampa, Florida, Kittinger was educated at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, and the University of Florida. After racing speedboats as a teenager, he entered the U.S. Air Force in March 1949. On completion of aviation cadet training in March 1950, he received a USAF Pilot rating and a commission as a Second Lieutenant. He was subsequently assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing based at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany, flying the F-84 Thunderjet and F-86 Sabre.

In 1954 Kittinger was transferred to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, and the Air Force Missile Development Center (AFMDC). He flew the observation/chase plane that monitored flight surgeon Colonel John Stapp's rocket sled run of 632 mph (1,017 km/h) in 1955. Kittinger was impressed by Stapp's dedication and leadership as a pioneer in aerospace medicine. Stapp, in turn, was impressed with Kittinger's skillful jet piloting, later recommending him for space-related aviation research work. Stapp was to foster the high-altitude balloon tests that would later lead to Kittinger's record-setting leap from over 102,800 feet (31,300 m). In 1957, as part of Project Manhigh, Kittinger set an interim balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet (29,490 m) in Manhigh I, for which he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross.

Project Excelsior

Main article: Project Excelsior

Captain Kittinger was next assigned to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. For Project Excelsior (meaning "ever upward"), a name given to the project by Colonel Stapp as part of research into high altitude bailouts,[2][3] he made a series of three extreme altitude parachute jumps from an open gondola carried aloft by large helium balloons. These jumps were made in a "rocking-chair" position, descending on his back, rather than in the usual face-down position familiar to skydivers. This was because he was wearing a 60 lb (27 kg) "kit" on his behind, and his pressure suit naturally formed a sitting shape when it was inflated, a shape appropriate for sitting in an airplane cockpit.[3]

Kittinger's first high-altitude jump, from about 76,400 feet (23,300 m) on November 16, 1959, was a near-disaster when an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness.[4] The automatic parachute opener in his equipment saved his life. He went into a flat spin at a rotational velocity of about 120 rpm. The g-forces at his extremities have been calculated to be over 22 times the force of gravity, setting another record.[5]

Excelsior II : On December 11, 1959, he jumped again from about 74,700 feet (22,800 m). For that leap, Kittinger was awarded the A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal.[6]

On August 16, 1960, he made the final jump, from the Excelsior III, at 102,800 feet (31,300 m).[4] Towing a small drogue parachute for initial stabilization, he fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour (988 km/h)[7][8] before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, and his right hand swelled to twice its normal size[9][10] but he rode the balloon up to 102,800 feet before stepping off.[11]

Of the jumps from Excelsior, Kittinger said, "There's no way you can visualize the speed. There's nothing you can see to see how fast you're going. You have no depth perception. If you're in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It's the same thing if you're free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don't feel it. You don't have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet."[12]

Kittinger set historical numbers for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall (four minutes), and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.[13] These were the USAF records, but were not submitted for aerospace world records to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).[14] Kittinger's records for the highest ascent, highest parachute jump, and fastest velocity stood for 52 years, until they were broken in 2012 by Felix Baumgartner.

For this series of jumps, Kittinger was decorated with a second Distinguished Flying Cross, and he was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.[15]

Project Stargazer

Back at Holloman Air Force Base, Kittinger took part in Project Stargazer on December 13–14, 1960. He and the astronomer William C. White took an open-gondola helium balloon packed with scientific equipment to an altitude of about 82,200 feet (25,100 m), where they spent over 18 hours performing astronomical observations.

Later USAF career

Kittinger later served three combat tours of duty during the Vietnam War, flying a total of 483 combat missions. During his first two tours he flew as aircraft commander in Douglas A-26 Invaders and modified On Mark Engineering B-26K Counter-Invaders as part of Projects Farm Gate and Big Eagle. Following his first two Vietnam tours, he returned to the United States, and he soon transitioned to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. During a voluntary third tour of duty to Vietnam in 1971-72, he commanded the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron (555 TFS), the noted "Triple Nickel" squadron, flying the F-4D Phantom II. Kittinger also later served as vice commander of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, which also had several fighter squadrons assigned, including the 555 TFS. During this period he was credited with shooting down a North Vietnamese MiG-21.[16]

Kittinger was shot down on May 11, 1972, just before the end of his third tour of duty. While flying an F-4D, USAF Serial No. 66-0230, with his Weapons Systems Officer, 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich, Lieutenant Colonel Kittinger was leading a flight of Phantoms approximately five miles northwest of Thai Nguyen, North Vietnam, when they were engaged by a flight of MiG-21 fighter planes. Kittinger and his wingman were chasing a MiG-21 when Kittinger's Phantom II was hit by an air-to-air missile that damaged the fighter's starboard wing and set the airplane on fire. Kittinger and Reich ejected a few miles from Thai Nguyen and were soon captured and taken to the city of Hanoi. During the same engagement, Kittinger's wingman, Captain S. E. Nichols, shot down the MiG-21 they had been chasing.[17]

Kittinger and Reich spent 11 months as prisoners of war (POWs) in the so-called Hanoi Hilton prison. Kittinger was put through rope torture soon after his arrival at the POW compound and this made a lasting impression on him. Kittinger was the senior ranking officer (SRO) among the newer prisoners of war, those captured after 1969. In Kittinger's autobiography "Come Up and Get Me" (by Kittinger and Craig Ryan), Kittinger emphasized being very serious about maintaining the military structure he considered essential to survival. Kittinger and Reich were returned to American hands on March 28, 1973, and they continued their Air Force careers, with Kittinger promoted to full colonel shortly thereafter and attending the U.S. Naval War College. Kittinger retired from the Air Force in 1978.[18]

Military awards and decorations

Kittinger has received the following awards and decorations:[19]

USAF Command Pilot wings
Parachutist Badge
Silver Star w/ 1 bronze oak leaf cluster Legion of Merit w/ 1 bronze oak leaf cluster Distinguished Flying Cross w/ 1 silver oak leaf cluster
Bronze Star Medal w/ Valor device and 2 bronze oak leaf clusters Purple Heart w/ 1 bronze oak leaf cluster Meritorious Service Medal
Air Medal w/ 4 silver and 3 bronze oak leaf clusters Presidential Unit Citation Outstanding Unit Award
Prisoner of War Medal Army of Occupation Medal National Defense Service Medal
Vietnam Service Medal w/ 1 silver and 2 bronze service stars Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal

Later civilian career

Kittinger retired from the Air Force as a Colonel in 1978 and initially went to work for Martin Marietta Corporation in Orlando, Florida. He later became Vice President of Flight Operations for Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus, part of the Rosie O'Grady's/Church Street Station entertainment complex in Orlando, prior to the parent company's dissolution.

Still interested in ballooning, he set a gas balloon world distance record for the AA-06 size class (since broken) of 3,221.23 km in 1983.[20] He then completed the first solo Atlantic crossing in the 106,000 cubic foot (3,000 m³) Balloon of Peace from September 14 to September 18, 1984.[21] As an official FAI world aerospace record, it is the longest gas balloon distance flight in AA-10 size category (5,703.03 km).[20] He participated in the Gordon Bennett Cup in ballooning in 1989 (ranked third) and 1994 (ranked 12th).

In the early 1990s, Kittinger played a lead role with NASA assisting Charles "Nish" Bruce to break his highest parachute jump record and to become the first man to break the sound barrier.[22] The project was suspended in 1994 due to Bruce suffering a mental breakdown from PTSD. It was subsequently cancelled following Bruce's re-occurring illness and suicide in 2002.

Joining the Red Bull Stratos project, Kittinger advised Felix Baumgartner on Baumgartner's October 14, 2012 free-fall from 128,100 feet (39,045m).[10] The project collected leading experts in the fields of aeronautics, medicine and engineering to ensure its success. Kittinger eventually served as CAPCOM (capsule communicator) for Baumgartner's jump, which exceeded the altitude of Kittinger's previous jump during Project Excelsior.[23][24]

Kittinger lives in the Orlando area and is still active in the aviation community as a consultant and touring barnstormer.


While serving as a USAF Captain, Kittinger made a June 9, 1957 appearance on What's My Line? His occupation was shown as "Balloon Test Pilot USAF (Just set test record -- 96,000 feet)." Ozzie Nelson correctly guessed his occupation.[25]

In September 1992, Colonel Joe Kittinger Park[26] in Orlando, Florida was completed by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) for the City of Orlando. Located on the southwest corner of the Orlando Executive Airport (KORL), the aviation-themed park was named in Kittinger's honor, but was temporarily closed and partially demolished circa 2008-2011 to permit a highway expansion project of the Florida State Road 408 East-West Expressway.

In 1997, Kittinger was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.[27]

On January 23, 2007, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the United States Air Force Auxiliary, honored Kittinger by renaming the Texas CAP wing's TX-352 Squadron after him. Texas Governor Rick Perry cited Kittinger's work, as did the Texas state senate with a special resolution presented during the dedication ceremony attended by Kittinger and his wife, Sherry. The Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger Phantom Senior Squadron of CAP's Texas Wing is based at the former Bergstrom AFB, which is now the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

The Project Manhigh and Excelsior balloon capsules and the suit from his highest jump are on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. An additional exhibit depicting his highest balloon jump opened at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC on April 6, 2008.

In March 2011, the Colonel Joe Kittinger Park was reopened at its previous location at the corner of Crystal Lake Drive and South Street in the southwest quadreant of Orlando Executive Airport.[28] City officials are also considering inclusion in the park of a restored USAF F-4 Phantom II aircraft, to be placed on pylon static display and painted with the colors of an F-4D formerly flown by Colonel Kittinger.[29] Kittinger has also been honored at a ceremony in Caribou, Maine, where he served as the guest of honor at a sesquicentennial celebration.[30][31]

On February 20, 2013, Kittinger visited his alma mater, the University of Florida, and spoke to over 400 students and faculty about his contributions to the Red Bull Stratos Mission. Kittinger, a UF alumnus, told his story of when he took the 102,800 foot jump from a high altitude balloon. This event took place during the UF Engineers Week, and it was made possible due to the efforts of the UF American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, UF Air Force ROTC, and UF College of Engineering.[32]

See also


Further reading

  • (Kittinger's autobiography)

External links

  • USAF People, Colonel Joe Kittinger Jr.
  • USAF Museum Fact Sheet
  • Overview of his life for Centennial of Flight
  • Life magazine
  • Details of his Big Jump from a stratospheric balloon in 1960
  • Details of the MANHIGH-I mission that took Kittinger to the stratosphere in 1957
  • Details of the STARGAZER mission that took Kittinger along with William C. White to the stratosphere in 1962
  • Video: First man In Space - Skydiving from the edge of the world
  • Joseph Kittinger getting suited up for a test flight 23 minute video, no sound
  • The Red Bull Stratos Project — The mission to the edge of space

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