Joseph Kittinger II

By: Victoria Yates

Joseph William Kittinger II was born on the 27th of July 1928 in Tampa, Florida. He attended high school and University in Florida before entering the U.S. Air Force in March 1949. After completing his training he was assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber wing based in Ramstein Air Base, West Germany. In 1954 he transferred to the Air Force Missile Development Center in New Mexico where he flew the observation/chase plane monitoring flight surgeon Colonel John Paul Stapp’s rocket sled run in 1955. The dedication and leadership displayed by Stapps in his work as a pioneer in aerospace medicine impressed Kittinger whilst in turn he impressed Stapps with his skilful piloting. The result was that Stapps recommended Kittinger for space-related aviation research work.

Captain Kittinger was assigned to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Ohio. He took part in Project Excelsior which was researching high altitude bailouts for which he made a series of extreme altitude parachute jumps from an open gondola carried by large helium balloons. It was for this sort of research that Kittinger’s name would become synonymous. His first high-altitude jump came in 1959 from 76,400 feet and nearly ended in disaster after an equipment malfunction which left him unconscious. Luckily the automatic parachute opener saved his life. Later in the same year he performed a similar jump from an altitude of 74,700 feet for which he was awarded the Leo Stevens Parachute medal.

His final jump from the Excelsior III was from 102,800 feet for which he towed a small drogue chute for stabilization. The fall lasted four minutes and 36 second before he deployed his parachute and reached a maximum speed of 614 mph. For this jump he set records for the highest balloon ascent, the highest parachute jump, the longest drogue-fall, and the fasted speed by a human being through the atmosphere (at around the speed of sound without an airplane!). These records still stand today for the USAF but were not submitted to be world records for the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. As a result Kittinger received a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Harmon Trophy from President Eisenhower.

Beyond his research work, Kittinger served in the Vietnam War for three combat tours, flying 483 missions. During his third tour of duty (1971-72), he commanded the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron (555 TFS), the noted "Triple Nickel" squadron, flying the F-4D. Kittinger would also later serve as vice commander of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing.

He was shot down in 1972 shortly before the end of his third tour and both he and his Weapons system Officer William J. Reich were captured and taken to Hanoi.  They spent 11months as prisoners of war in the  “Hanoi Hilton” prison. He was the most senior member of the new group of POWs and he attempted to keep the more volatile junior officers from doing something unwise which would cause the POWs to be further tortured. There was conflict amongst the group over his leadership, however. He was personally put through ‘rope torture’ (which involved sawing the human body on a hard fibered rope) shortly after his arrival and this was to have a profound effect on him. Both he and Reich were released in 1973 when they both returned to their Air Force careers.

Even after his retirement from the Air Force in 1978, Kittinger continued to harbor a great interest in ballooning. He made a gas balloon world distance record in 1983 and completed the first solo Atlantic crossing in the 106,000 cubic foot Rosie O’Grady Balloon of Peace between the 14th and 19th of September 1984.

His work in USAF research has been honored on several occasions by both Military and civilian groups, and continues to be seen as leading-edge today. He was a pioneer of aviation and a record setter in all he did. The videos of Kittinger’s flights have become a sensation because of the unfathomable heights from which he jumped. Little that he did in his professional, and then his later civilian life has not inspired a great deal of awe. He was always out in front in whatever he choose to do.