The famous photo of Kittinger's jump from 102,800 feet.
Capt. Joe Kittinger, USAF, beside the Project Excelsior gondola.
Joe Kittinger Jr’s major claim to aviation fame came not from flying, but from falling - almost 20 miles straight down. On August 16, 1960, then-U.S. Air Force Capt. Joseph Kittinger rode a helium balloon to 102,800 feet above the earth and proceeded to literally jump into the record books. His achievement: the highest parachute jump in history, which stands to this day.
Kittinger will make two appearances at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this year. On Thursday, July 31, he’ll present, “The Sky Is My Office - Skydive from Space” from 1-2 p.m. at the Honda Aircraft Pavilion. Kittinger will also appear on Saturday night, August 2, at Theater in the Woods during David Hartman’s Aviation Legends program.
After jumping from the edge of space 48 years ago, his speed reached 714 mph within 22 seconds, thus becoming the first and only person to break the sound barrier without a craft and live to tell the tale. After free falling for more than four and a half minutes - the heavier air slowed his descent to where his parachute opened at 18,000 feet, and he floated down to the New Mexico desert floor. Total duration of the jump was 13 minutes 45 seconds. More than four decades later Kittinger's two world records - the highest parachute jump, and breaking the sound barrier - remain intact.
But records were not the goal during Kittinger’s three high-altitude jumps. (His 102,800-ft jump was preceded by others from 76,400 feet and 74,700 feet.) “We were trying to expand our horizons, gather information and research for the space program,” he said. “It wasn’t to set a record – I did is as an astronaut and a pilot.”
Kittinger was the appointed test director of Project Excelsior, which sought to investigate escape from high altitude craft. As jet aircraft flew higher and faster, the Air Force became increasingly concerned with the hazards faced by flight crews ejecting from high-performance aircraft. The project was established in 1958 to study and solve these high altitude escape problems.
Kittinger entered the Air Force in March 1949 as an aviation cadet and a year later was commissioned a second lieutenant. From 1950-1953 he served as a jet pilot in the 86th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Germany and then was assigned to the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. On June 2, 1957, while stationed at Holloman, Kittinger made a balloon flight to 96,000 feet in the first flight of the Air Force's Project Man High.
Kittinger also flew a total of 483 missions during three combat tours in Vietnam, where he served as commander of the famous 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4s. After shooting down a MiG-21 in aerial combat, he was shot down and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war. Kittinger subsequently continued his career and retired as a colonel in 1978.
After retiring at the rank of colonel, Kittinger continued to fly and also remained active in ballooning. In 1984 he completed the first solo Atlantic crossing in the 106,000 cubic foot Rosie O'Grady's Balloon of Peace (September 14-September 18).
He has received numerous awards for solo transatlantic balloon flights, and he is the author of The Long, Lonely Leap, describing the record jump. In 1997, Kittinger was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and he was recently presented with the Smithsonian Airspace Lifetime Achievement Award.
Now 84, Kittinger still flies a 1929 New Standard biplane for Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus, and has a total of 16,800 flight hours in 93 aircraft types. “I look forward to coming to the Mecca of aviation and sharing my story,” he said. “I’ve had a very fascinating life.”