Joseph Kittinger

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Joseph W. Kittinger II
Joseph Kittinger, Jr.jpg
Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, USAF
(pictured as a captain)
First person to conduct stratospheric space diving
Born(1928-07-27)July 27, 1928
Tampa, Florida, U.S.
DiedDecember 9, 2022(2022-12-09) (aged 94)
Orlando, Florida, U.S.
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchSeal of the United States Department of the Air Force.svg United States Air Force
Years of service1950–1978
RankUS-O6 insignia.svg Colonel
Battles/warsVietnam War
AwardsSilver Star Medal ribbon.svg Silver Star (2)
Legion of Merit ribbon.svg Legion of Merit (2)
Dfc-usa.jpg Distinguished Flying Cross (6)
Bronze Star Medal ribbon with "V" device, 1st award.svg Bronze Star (Valor) (3)
Purple Heart ribbon.svg Purple Heart (2)
Meritorious Service Medal ribbon.svg Meritorious Service Medal
Air Medal ribbon.jpg Air Medal (24)
Prisoner of War Medal ribbon.svg Prisoner of War Medal
Other workVice President of Flight Operations for Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus (1978–1992)

Joseph William Kittinger II (July 27, 1928 – December 9, 2022) was an officer in the United States Air Force (USAF) who served from 1950 to 1978, and earned Command Pilot status before retiring with the rank of colonel. He held the world record for the highest skydive—102,800 feet (31.3 km)—from 1960 until 2012.[1][2]

He participated in the Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior high-altitude balloon flight projects from 1956 to 1960 and was the first man to fully witness the curvature of the Earth.

A fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, Kittinger shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 jet fighter. He was later shot down as well, subsequently spending 11 months as a prisoner of war in a North Vietnamese prison before he was repatriated in 1973.

In 1984, he became the first person to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon.

In 2012, Kittinger participated in the Red Bull Stratos project as capsule communicator at age 84, directing Felix Baumgartner on his 24-mile (39 km) freefall from Earth's stratosphere, which broke Kittinger's own 53-year-old record. Baumgartner's record would be broken two years later by Alan Eustace.[3]

Early life and military career[edit]

Born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Orlando, Florida, Kittinger was educated at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, and the University of Florida. He became fascinated with planes at a young age and soloed in a Piper Cub by the time he was 17. After racing speedboats as a teenager, he entered the U.S. Air Force as an aviation cadet in March 1949. On completion of aviation cadet training in March 1950, he received his pilot wings and a commission as a second lieutenant.[4] 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.[5][6]

In 1954, Kittinger was transferred to the Air Force Missile Development Center (AFMDC) at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. It was during this assignment that 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.[5][6]

Project Excelsior
Kittinger next to the Excelsior gondola
Kittinger's record-breaking skydive from Excelsior III
Replica of Excelsior III gondola and mannequin of Kittinger at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force[7]

Project Excelsior[edit]

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,[7] 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.[7]

Excelsior I: 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.[8] 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 having been calculated to be over 22 times the force of gravity, setting another record.[9]

Excelsior II: On December 11, 1959, Kittinger jumped again from about 74,700 feet (22,800 m). For this leap, he was awarded the A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal.[10]

Excelsior III: On August 16, 1960, Kittinger made the final high-altitude jump at 102,800 feet (31,300 m).[8] 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][11] before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Incurring yet another equipment malfunction, the pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent and his right hand swelled to twice its normal size,[12][13] but he rode the balloon up to 102,800 feet before stepping off.[14]

Lord, take care of me now.

— Kittinger, jumping from the balloon gondola Excelsior III at 102,800 feet[15]

Of the jumps from Excelsior, Kittinger said:[16]

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.

Kittinger set historical numbers for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest-duration drogue-fall (four minutes), and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.[17] These were the USAF records, but were not submitted for aerospace world records to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).[18] Kittinger's record for the highest ascent was broken in 1961 by Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather. His records for highest parachute jump and fastest velocity stood for 52 years, until they were broken in 2012 by Felix Baumgartner.

Stargazer gondola on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

For this series of jumps, Kittinger was profiled in Life magazine and the National Geographic Magazine, decorated with a second Distinguished Flying Cross, and awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.[19]

Kittinger appeared as himself on the January 7, 1963 episode of the game show To Tell the Truth. He received two votes.[20]

Project Stargazer[edit]

Back at Holloman Air Force Base, Kittinger took part in Project Stargazer on December 13–14, 1962. He and the astronomer William C. White[21] 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[edit]

In 1965, after returning to the operational Air Force, Kittinger was approached by civilian amateur parachutist Nick Piantanida for assistance on Piantanida's Strato Jump project, an effort to break the previous freefall records of both Kittinger and Soviet Air Force officer Yevgeni Andreyev. Kittinger refused to participate in the effort, believing Piantanida's approach to the project was too reckless. Piantanida died in 1966 as the result of a mishap suffered during his Strato Jump III attempt.[22]

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 an aircraft commander in Douglas A-26 Invaders and modified On Mark Engineering B-26K Counter-Invaders as part of Operations Farm Gate and Big Eagle.

Following his first two Vietnam tours, he returned to the United States and 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. During this period he was credited with shooting down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 while flying an F-4D, USAF Serial No. 66-7463, with his WSO, 1st Lieutenant Leigh Hodgdon.[23]

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, Kittinger was leading a flight of Phantoms approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) northwest of Thai Nguyen, North Vietnam, when they were engaged by a flight of MiG-21 fighters. Kittinger and his wingman were chasing a MiG-21 when Kittinger's F-4 was hit by an air-to-air missile from another MiG-21 that damaged the plane's starboard wing and set the aircraft 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.[24]

Kittinger and Reich spent 11 months as prisoners of war (POWs) in the Hỏa Lò Prison, the so-called "Hanoi Hilton". Kittinger was put through rope torture[25] 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, i.e., 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 during Operation Homecoming on March 28, 1973, and they continued their Air Force careers, with Kittinger having been promoted to full colonel while in captivity. Following his return, Colonel Kittinger attended the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama.[26]

Following completion of the Air War College, Kittinger became the vice commander of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom, where he again flew the F-4 Phantom II. In 1977, he transferred to Headquarters, 12th Air Force, at Bergstrom AFB, Texas, retiring from the U.S. Air Force in 1978.[26][23]

Kittinger accumulated 7,679 flying hours in the U.S. Air Force, including 948 combat flying hours during three tours during the Vietnam War. In addition, he has flown over 9,100 hours in various civilian aircraft.[27]

Military awards and decorations[edit]

Kittinger received the following awards and decorations during his USAF career:[28]

US Army Airborne master parachutist badge.gif
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Silver oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Silver oak leaf cluster
Silver oak leaf cluster
Silver oak leaf cluster
Silver oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze star
Silver star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Silver oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
USAF Command Pilot wings
Master 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 oak leaf clusters
Air Medal w/ 2 bronze oak leaf clusters Air Force Commendation Medal Presidential Unit Citation
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Prisoner of War Medal Army of Occupation Medal
National Defense Service Medal
w/ 1 bronze service star
Vietnam Service Medal w/ 1 silver and 2 bronze service stars Air Force Longevity Service Ribbon w/ 1 silver and 1 bronze oak leaf clusters
USAF Marksmanship Ribbon Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal

Later civilian career[edit]

Kittinger retired from the air force as a colonel in 1978 and initially went to work for Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) 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, Kittinger set a world distance record for the AA-06 size class of gas balloons of 3,221.23 kilometres (2,001.58 mi) in 1983.[29] The record has since been broken. In 1984, he completed the first solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic in the 106,000-cubic-foot (3,000 m3) Balloon of Peace, launched from Caribou, Maine, on September 14 and landing on September 18. The flight was organized by the Canadian promoter Gaetan Croteau.[30] An official FAI world aerospace record, the 5,703.03-kilometre (3,543.70 mi) flight is the longest gas balloon flight in the AA-10 size category.[29] For the second time in his life, he was the subject of a story in National Geographic Magazine.

Kittinger participated in the Gordon Bennett Cup in ballooning in 1989 (ranked third) and 1994 (ranked 12th).

In the early 1990s, Kittinger helped NASA plan Charles "Nish" Bruce's project to break Kittinger's highest parachute jump record.[31] The project was suspended in 1994.

Joining the Red Bull Stratos project, Kittinger advised Felix Baumgartner on Baumgartner's October 14, 2012, free-fall from 128,100 feet (39,000 m).[13] The project collected leading experts in the fields of aeronautics, medicine, and engineering to ensure its success. Kittinger served as CAPCOM (capsule communicator) for Baumgartner's jump, which broke Kittinger's altitude record set during Project Excelsior.[32][33]

In 2013, Kittinger helped balloonist Jonathan Trappe as he attempted to be the first to cross the Atlantic by cluster balloon.[34]


Collings Foundation F-4D Phantom II with markings & serial number of F-4D that then-Lt Col Kittinger achieved his MiG-21 kill in while commanding the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron. The actual F-4D, AF Ser. No. 66-7463, is now on permanent display at the USAF Academy.

In 1997, Kittinger was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.[35]

On January 23, 2007, the Civil Air Patrol 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, the site of Kittinger's last active duty assignment in the Air Force and which is now the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

In Season Two, Episode 10 of British teen drama Skins, Kittinger is mentioned by Jal in her speech at Chris' funeral, saying "Captain Joe ascended 32 kilometres into the stratosphere. And then, armed only with a parachute, he jumped out. [...] It had never been done before, and it's never been done since. He did it just because he could. And that's why Chris loved him."

Kittinger was honored at a 2009 ceremony in Caribou, Maine, the launch point for his 1984 solo trans-Atlantic balloon flight. He also served as the guest of honor at the community's sesquicentennial celebration.[36][37]

On February 20, 2013, Kittinger visited his alma mater, the University of Florida, and spoke to over 400 students and faculty about his role in the Red Bull Stratos and Excelsior III. The 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's Air Force ROTC Detachment 150, and the UF College of Engineering.[38]

Colonel Joe Kittinger Park[edit]

F-4D, AF Ser. No. 65-0747, on display at Colonel Joe Kittinger Park

In September 1992, Colonel Joe Kittinger Park[39] 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, at the corner of Crystal Lake Drive and South Street, the park was named in Kittinger's honor, but was temporarily closed and partially demolished circa 2008–2011 in order to create a stormwater runoff retention area to permit a highway expansion project of the State Road 408 East-West Expressway. In March 2011, the park was reopened at its previous location.[40]

In spring 2014, the mayor of Orange County, the mayor of Orlando, the GOAA Board, and other City of Orlando and GOAA officials approved the installation in the park of a restored USAF F-4 Phantom II aircraft. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force picked an F-4D previously on display in Corsicana, Texas (Air Force serial no. 65-0747) to be moved to Orlando for display.[41] It was subsequently determined that Kittinger had flown this particular F-4D on several occasions when it was assigned to his fighter wing in Thailand during the Vietnam War, and later when it was assigned to his fighter wing in Great Britain. Disassembled in Texas and transported in two semi-trailers over several days, the aircraft arrived in Orlando on July 22, 2014. It was restored by a team of volunteers at Orlando Executive Airport and , painted with the colors and markings of the squadron that Kittinger commanded during the Vietnam War. The restored aircraft was mounted on its pylon and formally dedicated on December 14, 2014.[42][43]

Personal life and death[edit]

Kittinger died at the age of 94 on December 9, 2022, from lung cancer.[44][45][46] He has been interred at Arlington National Cemetery.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Space Men: They were the first to brave the unknown (Transcript)". American Experience. PBS. March 1, 2016. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  2. ^ Mission to the edge of Space — Red Bull Stratos — Trailer on YouTube
  3. ^ Markoff, John (October 28, 2014). "15 Minutes of Free Fall Required Years of Taming Scientific Challenges". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 2, 2021.
  4. ^ "Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr". Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Ryan, Craig; Kittinger, Joseph (2010). Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0826348043.
  6. ^ a b "Joe Kittinger, Jr". The Aviation Speakers Bureau. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  7. ^ a b c d "Factsheets: Excelsior Gondola". National Museum of the USAF. Archived from the original on March 31, 2010.
  8. ^ a b John Tierney (March 15, 2010). "A Supersonic Jump, From 23 Miles in the Air". New York Times. Retrieved March 17, 2010. In 1960, Kittinger, then a 32-year-old air force pilot, jumped from a balloon 102,800 feet above the New Mexico desert.
  9. ^ "The Edge of Engineering". Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  10. ^ "The A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal: A Baker's Dozen of Early Recipients". August 2011. Archived from the original on November 25, 2010.
  11. ^ "Fantastic catch in the sky, record leap toward earth". Life. August 29, 1960. Archived from the original on December 1, 2008. Retrieved November 16, 2008.
  12. ^ Higgins, Matt (May 24, 2008). "20-Year Journey for 15-Minute Fall". New York Times. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  13. ^ a b Paterson, Tony (January 25, 2010). "Faster than the speed of sound: the man who falls to earth". The Independent. Archived from the original on June 17, 2022. Retrieved January 18, 2011.
  14. ^ Tierney, John (October 14, 2012). "Daredevil Jumps, and Lands on His Feet". New York Times.
  15. ^ "Joseph W. Kittinger". The International Space Hall of Fame. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  16. ^ "Florida Icon: Joseph Kittinger". Florida Trend. May 31, 2011.
  17. ^ "Joseph W. Kittinger – USAF Museum Gathering of Eagles". Archived from the original on February 5, 2005. Retrieved April 16, 2006.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  18. ^ Kittinger, Joseph (2010). Come Up and Get Me. UNM Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-4804-3.
  19. ^ "Joseph Kittinger, Jr". U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Archived from the original on June 9, 2012. Retrieved July 10, 2012.
  20. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "To Tell the Truth". You Tube. Retrieved April 12, 2020.
  21. ^ "WHITE, William C. (1922 - ) - the balloon encyclopedia".
  22. ^ "The men who fall to Earth". August 12, 2012.
  23. ^ a b "Col. Joe Kittinger Jr". USAF Heritage. Archived from the original on March 22, 2012.
  24. ^ Hobson, Chris (2001). Vietnam Air Losses. Hinckley UK: Midland Publishing. p. 226. ISBN 1-85780-115-6.
  25. ^ Kittinger, Joseph (2010). Come Up and Get Me. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-4803-6
  26. ^ a b "Kittinger"; Grier, Peter; Air Force Magazine, August 2014, p.66
  27. ^ Kittinger's flying hours
  28. ^ "Col. Joe Kittinger Awards". Sherri Lester-Aguirre and Sherry Kittinger. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
  29. ^ a b "History of Records" Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr". FAI. Archived from the original on June 8, 2011.
  30. ^ Kittinger, Jr., Joe W. (February 1985). "The Long, Lonely Flight". National Geographic. Vol. 167, no. 2. pp. 270–276. ISSN 0027-9358. OCLC 643483454.
  31. ^ Tom Read, Freefall (Little Brown, Edition 1, 1998). ISBN 0-316-64303-3.
  32. ^ "Col. Joe Kittinger". Red Bull Stratos – The Team. Retrieved October 14, 2012.
  33. ^ Langewiesche, William (May 2013) "The Man Who Pierced the Sky" Vanity Fair, pages 174-183; 203-204
  34. ^ "Atlantic crossing beckons". September 2014.
  35. ^ "Records and awards". Archived from the original on April 24, 2012. Retrieved March 16, 2012.
  36. ^ "Paul E. Garber Shrine". First Flight Society.
  37. ^ Col. Joe Kittinger in Caribou, Maine Parade Sept 2009 on YouTube
  38. ^ Kegu, Jessica. "UF alum, 84, talks about helping daredevil break his parachute jump records". The Gainesville Sun. Retrieved May 30, 2013.
  39. ^ "City of Orlando :: Families, Parks and Recreation - Colonel Joe Kittinger Park". Archived from the original on January 26, 2014. Retrieved June 28, 2013.
  40. ^ "Local Aviation Hero, Colonel Joe Kittinger, Re-Opens Park in His Honor at Orlando Executive Airport". Archived from the original on June 15, 2012. Retrieved March 16, 2012.
  41. ^ "Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer Reopens Colonel Joe Kittinger Park". Archived from the original on November 14, 2013. Retrieved June 28, 2013.
  42. ^ "Orlando International Airport (MCO) – Press Release – 7/22/14 F-4 Phantom Arrives at ORL". Archived from the original on August 11, 2014.
  43. ^ "F-4 Phantom Arrives in Orlando to Serve as Vietnam Vet Tribute". Warbirds News. July 23, 2014.
  44. ^ "USPA Mourns Passing of Joe Kittinger". United States Parachute Association. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  45. ^ "Joseph Kittinger, who set longtime parachute record, dies". AP via Washington Post. December 9, 2022.
  46. ^ Richard Goldstein (December 9, 2022). "Joseph Kittinger, a Record-Setter High in the Skies, Dies at 94". The New York Times. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  47. ^ Colonel Joseph William Kittinger Jr

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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Preceded by
Highest space dive (23.287 km)
16 November 1959 – 16 August 1960
Succeeded by
Joseph Kittinger
Preceded by
Joseph Kittinger
Highest space dive (31.333 km)
16 August 1960 – 14 October 2012
Succeeded by