A Really Bad Altitude
During his first Excelsior jump on Nov. 15, 1959, Captain Kittinger nearly donated his body to science before actually finishing with it. Jumping from 76,000 feet, his stabilizing chute, used to prevent the deadly flat spin, deployed too soon, and its shrouds became entangled around his neck. Unconscious, Kittinger spiraled downward, uncontrollably cartwheeling at 120 rpms. Fortunately, his main chute automatically opened at 12,000 feet, as advertised, saving his life. “The most amazing thing about Joe Kittinger is that he is still here,” Stapp would later say.
A month later on Dec. 11, 1959, Kittinger hurled himself from Excelsior II at 74,700 feet, and again, lived to tell scientists what it was like. Keep in mind that calculations for these jumps weren’t made by Cray supercomputers, nor IBM’s Big Blue or by Bill Gates and his posse of eggheads. Nope. Instead, a group of Air Force “poindexters” did all the number crunching, guys with slide rules and no social life, and Kittinger trusted them implicitly.
His faith in their abilities embold-ened Kittinger to take his final plunge on Aug. 16, 1960. He ascended to 102,800 feet in Excelsior III, prayed “Lord, take care of me now” and walked out. The first step was a doozy. “It was a helluva long way down, but the quickest way to get there,” Kittinger said.
By all rights, the captain should’ve scrubbed the mission. He’d lost partial pressure in the suit’s right glove and blood pooled in his hand, causing extreme pain and paralyzing it. But he didn’t want to let his team down. So he jumped and rocketed downward at 714 mph, literally falling faster than a speeding bullet and becoming the first man to go supersonic without the benefit of an aircraft. He dropped in a free fall for 4 minutes, 36 seconds before his parachute blossomed. “I had absolutely no sense of the speed,” Kittinger said. “I didn’t hear a sonic boom; I didn’t even hear any whooshing or whistling of the wind. But when I flipped over and looked back at my balloon, it sure was an eerie sight — the sky was black as night but I was bathed in sunshine.”
When Kittinger landed or “more like crashed” in a heap near Alamogordo, N.M., he told his ground crew, “I am very glad to be back with you all.” Although Kittinger seems to have his head in the clouds, he’s always managed to land on his feet. And again he walked away from a jump intact; this time with three world records — longest freefall, longest parachute descent and highest open-gondola balloon ride.
Kittinger continued his balloon experiments for another two years, culminating with his fifth and final high-altitude flight on Dec. 13, 1962. During Project Stargazer I, he escorted an astronomer up to 81,500 for 13 hours, where the scientist could look at the heavens without the distorting influence of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Because of his clandestine work in the New Mexico desert, Kittinger’s also linked to one of the century’s most notorious nonevents — the Roswell Incident. In the Air Force’s “Roswell Report: Case Closed,” Kittinger is named as the “red-haired captain” mentioned by eyewitnesses. Kittinger says the so-called “alien” that locals saw whisked away in an ambulance was actually one of his very human teammates injured during a balloon crash. At Kittinger’s home in Orlando, a mat lies at the front door adorned with little green men and flying saucers, greeting “visitors” with the words — “Welcome UFO Crews.” Says Kittinger, “Well, just in case I’m wrong.”
The Bubble Bursts
When the balloon went up in Vietnam, Kittinger retired from research and raised his hand for combat duty. He served three tours in Southeast Asia and flew 483 combat missions — two piloting B-26 and A-26 aircraft with the Air Commandos, and the last flying F-4s and commanding the 555th “Triple Nickel” Tactical Fighter Squadron. On March 1, 1972, Kittinger shot down a MiG-21 during a dogfight over North Vietnam, and then on May 11, 1972, four days short of completing his tour, the enemy got even with him. “The world’s greatest fighter pilot on the other side shot my butt down,” Kittinger said.
The North Vietnamese captured Kittinger, and the lieutenant colonel spent the next 11 months behind bars at the Hoa Lo Prison — the infamous Hanoi Hilton. His captors inflicted a regimen of torture and solitary confinement attempting to break Kittinger so they could use their prize as a puppet of propaganda. But Kittinger didn’t budge. “They were asking me questions they already knew the answers to,” Kittinger said. “But I wasn’t about to go along with anything they were saying.”To escape his torment and sustain his sanity while in solitary, Kittinger dreamed of ballooning around the world. In his mind, he figured out the logistics to accomplish such a feat, designing the gondola and balloon in his mind, listing the provisions and equipment he’d need, mapping routes and weather patterns, and calculating air currents. “It’s how I entertained myself as a POW,” Kittinger said.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1978 as a colonel, Kittinger began ballooning across the country from “sea to shining sea.” He captured the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon championship four times, entitling him to retire the trophy. In November 1983, he flew solo from Las Vegas to New York in three days to set a distance record in a 1,000-cubic-meter helium balloon. Colonel Joe landed in his underwear after jettisoning all his ballast and anything else not bolted down.
On Sept. 18, 1984, Kittinger became the first man to complete a solo transatlantic balloon flight, coasting 3,543 miles from Maine to Italy in 86 hours. He might’ve kept on going if thunderstorms hadn’t forced him down into a stand of tall trees, which dumped Kittinger out of the basket, dropping him 10 feet and breaking his ankle. “It was no picnic; it was a tough flight,” Kittinger said. “I slept 10 minutes at a time, and survived on peanuts and candy bars. The only thing I had to keep me company was my Willie Nelson tapes.”
Today, Kittinger continues flying high, calling the sky “his office.” At age 70, he boasts a woolly mane of red hair that looks permanently wind-swept and a brushy mustache to match. To this day, he still has trouble coming down to Earth, logging more than 16,000 hours in 78 types of aircraft. He even piloted the Budweiser blimp from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico. “It was like flying a whale,” Kittinger said. “It goes only 35 mph, and it’s very sluggish. You’d have one helluva time doing a loop-the-loop in one of ’em.”
Nowadays, Kittinger and his wife, Sherry, share their love of flying with “civilians” — barnstorming across the country in a 1929 New Standard biplane and selling rides at air shows, county fairs and festivals. “We don’t do it for the money,” Kittinger said. “My reward is seeing the faces of kids light up on their first airplane ride. I just love it.” Despite the recent success of the Breitling Orbiter, which circumnavigated the globe in March 1999, Kittinger remains undaunted, keeping his sights set on an around-the-world balloon flight. “Nobody’s done it solo yet,” Kittinger said. “Plus I could do it faster. I’m not giving up. … I say there are still some great adventures left.”