This flight, lasting 13 minutes and 45 seconds from bailout, earned Kittinger several world records: the highest open-gondola balloon ascent, the highest parachute jump, the longest free-fall, and the fastest speed through the atmosphere attained by a human
Joe Kittinger was an officer in the United States Air Force (USAF) from 1950 to 1978. He participated in the Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior high-altitude balloon flights from 1956 to 1960. In the process he became the first person to visually observe the curvature of planet Earth. He held the world record for the highest skydive from 1960 till 2012. He was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. In 1984, he also became the first person to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. In 2012, Kittinger’s high-altitude expertise came in handy to direct Felix Baumgartner in his successful effort to break Kittinger’s 52-year old records for highest parachute jump and fastest velocity. Baumgartner’s own records were broken in 2014 by Alan Eustace.
Joseph William Kittinger was born in Tampa, Florida on July 27, 1928. He was attracted to aviation at a young age and soloed in a Piper Cub at age 17. He joined the USAF in March 1949 and completed his initial training a year later, receiving his pilot wings and a commission as a second lieutenant. Later he was assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing based at Ramstein, West Germany, flying the F-84 Thunderjet and F-86 Sabre.
In the mid-1950s Kittinger was recruited for aero-medical research and soon assigned as a test pilot for Project Manhigh, which was initiated to study cosmic radiation, astronaut selection and training, and high altitude flight in general. In the first Manhigh ascent in June 1957 he remained aloft for almost seven hours as the balloon climbed to 29,300 m. Next came Project Excelsior that focused on a person’s ability to survive high-altitude bailouts. Kittinger almost tasted death in his first jump from about 23,300 m, when an equipment malfunction sent him into a flat spin and rendered him unconscious. Fortunately, the automatic parachute opener operated flawlessly just 1,600 m above the ground and saved his life.
On August 16, 1960, Kittinger set a new altitude record, soaring 1,02,800 feet (31,300 m) in Excelsior III, an open gondola. Protected by layers of clothing and a pressure suit, he survived temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius. He climbed to his maximum altitude in one hour and 31 minutes even though he began experiencing severe pain in his right hand caused by a failure in his pressure glove. After staying at peak altitude for about twelve minutes he leapt out into space. Thirteen seconds later, a two-metre parachute opened and stabilised his fall, preventing a flat spin. In another four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 988 km/h, he plunged down to about 5,330 m where his regular 8.5 m parachute opened. Describing his impressions of this phase he said, “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.” He finally executed a flawless landing at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. This flight, lasting 13 minutes and 45 seconds from bailout, earned Kittinger several world records: the highest open-gondola balloon ascent, the highest parachute jump, the longest free-fall, and the fastest speed through the atmosphere attained by a human. He had proved that human beings could function on the edge of space and that a safe parachute descent from there was feasible. His feat gained him the nickname “The Man Who Fell from Space”.
During the long-running Vietnam War, Kittinger served three operational tours of duty with a total of 483 combat missions on the Douglas A-26 Invader and later the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. He was credited with shooting down a North Vietnamese MiG-21. However, he was himself shot down on May 11, 1972, just before the end of his third tour of duty. He spent 11 months as prisoner of war. He logged 7,679 flying hours in the USAF, including 948 combat flying hours. In addition, he flew over 9,100 hours in various civilian aircraft. Kittinger retired from the USAF as a colonel in 1978.
Not done with ballooning, Kittinger set a world distance record for the AA-06 size category of gas balloons of 3,221.23 km in 1983. In 1984, he also completed the first solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic. This 5,703.03 km flight remains an official world aerospace record for the longest gas balloon flight in the AA-10 size category.
Describing his high-altitude experiences in National Geographic magazine, Kittinger said, “There is a hostile sky above me. Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it. The sky above is void and very black and very hostile.” Joe Kittinger died on December 9, 2022, from lung cancer, at the age of 94, and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.