A Leap of Faith

In 1947, Chuck Yeager strapped himself into basically a rocket with wings and screeched over the Mojave Desert at supersonic speeds, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier. In the same pioneering spirit a decade later, another Air Force test pilot, Joe W. Kittinger Jr., catapulted himself into the heavens high above Minnesota’s Twin Cities and then just hovered there, defying gravity by – get ready for this – piloting a big, helium-filled balloon. Pretty amazing, huh?

Now, I know some of you might be thinking, “Whoop-dee-flippin’-doo!” A balloon, what’s the big deal? But this was no fancy-schmancy champagne-and-strawberries flight. On the contrary, Kittinger soared up through the stratosphere in a 25-story-high balloon made of bubble-thin plastic, boldly going where no man had gone before and breaking a world record for altitude on a manned balloon flight. “There I was … 96,000 feet stalled out, but not dropping,” Kittinger said.

This wasn’t any joy ride either. Kittinger didn’t ascend into the unforgiving upper atmosphere, where air’s rare, for chills or thrills nor did he set out to break world records. He did it for knowledge. Kittinger sealed himself into the pressurized Manhigh I capsule – no bigger than a Porta-Potty and a lot less comfortable – on June 2, 1957, and rose 18 miles above the Earth to study how space affects man’s body and mind. His elevating experiment on Project Manhigh led to the design of the Mercury capsule, which allowed astronauts like Alan Shepard and John Glenn to grab the glory and get their names into the history books. But that’s just fine with Kittinger. He’s just an ordinary Joe (in fact, his friends call him “Colonel Joe”). “Hell, I’m just a redneck fighter pilot,” said Kittinger, who prefers tying a simple, red bandanna around his neck instead of sporting the swanky silk scarves that other aviators of his era flaunted.

Loving the Wild Blue

Kittinger’s love affair with the wild blue began at age 3 after his dad took him for a jaunt in a Ford trimotor plane. As a youngster growing up in College Park, Fla., Joe built model airplanes and often pedaled his bike to the nearby Orlando Airport, where he wheedled pilots for free rides. By 17, he’d soloed in a Piper Cub and switched elements, beginning a short-lived hydroplane boat racing career, which nearly killed him.

Kittinger joined the Air Force in 1949 as an aviation cadet, pinning on his wings the next year at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. His first assignment sent him to Neubiberg, Germany, where he flew Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and then NATO experimental aircraft. He transferred to the fighter test plane section at Holloman AFB, N.M., in 1953, and served as the unit’s flying safety officer. Soon, he began collaborating with Col. (Dr.) John Paul Stapp, a trailblazer in space medicine whose unconventional ideas spurred many of the aircraft ejection and bailout systems still in use today.

Stapp recruited Kittinger into his research program after the pilot flew the observation plane that monitored Stapp’s 632-mph rocket sled ride (see “A One-track Mind,” April ’98 Airman), which studied how gravitational stress impacts the human body (Two-word answer: “It hurts!”). To accept the position, Kittinger earned a balloon pilot license and paratrooper’s rating, learned to fly helicopters, and underwent a dozen claustrophobia tests, corking himself into a capsule 24 hours at a time.

After Man High, Kittinger skippered Project Excelsior, meaning “Ever Upward” in Latin, which investigated aircraft bailout methods at extremely high altitudes. Nobody knew for sure if man could survive such a plummet, so, of course, Kittinger volunteered for the job. As the guinea pig in the gondola, he leapt three times from a balloon at the very edge of space, plunging to Earth in an experimental space suit and a prototype parachute rig – equipment built by the lowest bidder. One mistake in this hostile environment – frostbiting temperatures, oxygen-starved air and a near vacuum that would boil and bubble blood like a shaken can of cola – could have killed him. And if Kittinger had tumbled into a flat spin, possibly exceeding 200 rpms, he would have whirled faster than a pinwheel in a tornado, pureeing all of his internal organs.

“You wouldn’t be dizzy, you’d be dead,” Kittinger said. “It’s something you wanted to stay away from.”

Proceed to Part Two

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