August 16, 2010 will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable aeronautical moments of my adolescence. I can still remember seeing the cover of Life magazine for August 29, 1960 on the newsstand in Medway, Ohio. There was this small figure, clad in a green pressure suit and white helmet, falling toward the sold cloud deck, almost 32 km (20 miles) below. It was one of those images that takes your breath away.
Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger began his “long, lonely leap” by taking a single step out of the open gondola of his Excelsior III balloon drifting 31,333 meters (102, 800 feet) over New Mexico. Trailing a stabilizing drogue chute, he fell from the top of the atmosphere for 4 minutes, 37 seconds, until his main parachute opened at 5,334 meters (17,500 feet). In the thin upper atmosphere near the beginning of his free-fall, he was traveling at over 965 km (600 miles) per hour. As he dropped into the denser atmosphere near 15,240 meters (50,000 feet), his speed slowed to a mere 420 km (250 miles) per hour.
“There is a hostile sky above me,” he told ground controllers before the jump. “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.” If his pressure suit failed at this altitude, he would lose consciousness within 12 seconds and be dead in two minutes. As it was, he suffered a painfully swollen hand when one of his gloves failed during the jump. Eight minutes after his main parachute opened, he was back on solid ground in the White Sands Missile Range, having set three world records: the highest ascent in an open gondola, the longest free fall, and the longest parachute descent. Fifty years later, no one has ever jumped from a higher altitude.
That moment, while memorable, was only one episode in a long and heroic career. Born on July 27, 1928, Joe Kittinger grew up near Orlando, Florida. He came to aviation via a familiar path that began with a flight aboard a Ford Trimotor with his father, followed by a few years of intensive model aircraft building, culminating in hours spent learning to fly a Piper Cub owned by a returning veteran. After two years at the University of Florida, he enlisted in the USAF and received his wings and second lieutenant’s bars at Las Vegas, Nevada in March 1950.
While on his first flying assignment in Germany, Kittinger was accepted as a test pilot flying F-84G fighters for NATO. That experience led to his next assignment: a team led by Col. John Paul Stapp at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Aero Medical Field Laboratory, Holloman AFB, New Mexico, investigating new techniques and equipment designed for use in high altitude, high speed aircraft. Kittinger tested a variety of partial pressure suits, “flew” to altitudes of over 30,480 meters (100,000 feet) in pressure chambers, and served as a test subject for experiments involving his reaction to everything from claustrophobia to extreme temperatures.
Ironically, the balloon, the oldest type of flying craft, was also the natural choice to carry instruments and test pilots to extreme altitudes. During the first flight of Project Man High, on June 2, 1957, Kittinger reached an altitude of 29,260 meters (96,000 feet) in a 3-by-7 foot sealed gondola dangling beneath an enormous helium-filled balloon made of plastic film only two-thousandths of an inch thick.
His next assignment was as test director for Project Excelsior, which would test the equipment and techniques that would enable a pilot to parachute from extreme altitudes and survive. He made his first high altitude parachute jump from an Excelsior balloon at an altitude of 23,286 meters (76,400 feet) in November 1959. It nearly became his last when the shroud lines of a small stabilizing parachute wrapped around his neck. He was able to free himself when his emergency parachute opened at 3,657 meters (12,000 feet). Three weeks later he made a jump from 23,286 meters (74,000 feet) without incident. Then came the unforgettable jump from 31,333 meters (102, 800 feet). For his contributions to the Excelsior program, President Eisenhower awarded Kittinger the Harmon International Trophy for ballooning achievements.
Kittinger spent another two years conducting high altitude balloon research with the Stargazer project, which carried astronomers to high altitudes, before embarking on the first of his three combat tours in Vietnam. His first two tours were with the Air Commandos, flying Douglas A-26 attack aircraft. During his final tour as vice-commander of a fighter wing operating the F-4D Phantom II, he scored a victory over a MiG-21. On May 11, 1972, just four days before the end of his third tour, Kittinger was shot down and spent the next 11 months as a prisoner of war.
Retiring as a colonel in 1978, Joe Kittinger most certainly did not retire from flying. Returning to his native Florida, he flew balloons and antique biplanes for his own air show, Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus. He began entering, and winning, gas balloon races and events in 1982, and quickly emerged as a major international competitor. He won the re-established U.S. James Gordon Bennett Balloon Race four times — 1982, 1984, 1985, and 1988, retiring the Cup. Kittinger set a world record for the longest distance flown in a 1,000 cubic meter (35,300 cubic foot) balloon, traveling 3,220 km (2,001 miles) from Las Vegas, Nevada to Franklinville, New York in 72 hours. He combined another world record for the longest distance flown with a 3,000 cubic meter (105,944 cubic foot) balloon with the first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic, traveling 5,701 km (3,543 miles) from Caribou, Maine to Montenotte, Italy, in 86 hours.
Joseph Kittinger has enjoyed an extraordinary career. His decorations include the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster; Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster; the Distinguished Flying Cross with five Oak Leaf Clusters; a Bronze Star with “V” device and two Oak Leaf Clusters; the Harmon International Trophy; and two Montgolfier Diplomas for achievement in the air. He has logged over 11,000 hours of flight time in 62 different aircraft types. I was especially pleased when the National Air and Space Museum honored him with the Museum’s Trophy for lifetime achievement in 2008. Aerospace pioneer, test pilot, combat aviator, and record-holding sport pilot, Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., is a genuine American hero.
Tom D. Crouch is the senior curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.