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Kittinger next to the Excelsior gondola

Joseph William Kittinger II (born July 27, 1928) is a former Command Pilot and career military officer in the United States Air Force. He is most famous for his participation in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior and as being the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. Serving as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he was shot down and spent 11 months in a North Vietnamese prison.

Early life and military career

Born in Tampa, Floridamarker (U.S.marker), Kittinger was educated at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Floridamarker, and the University of Floridamarker. After racing speedboats as a teenager, he entered the U.S. Air Force in March 1949. On completion of aviation cadet training in March 1950, he received a pilot rating and a commission as a second lieutenant. He was subsequently assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing based at Ramstein Air Basemarker in West Germanymarker, flying the F-84 Thunderjet and F-86 Sabre.

In 1954 Kittinger was transferred to Holloman AFBmarker, New Mexicomarker and the Air Force Missile Development Centermarker (AFMDC). He flew the observation/chase plane which monitored flight surgeon Colonel John Paul Stapp's rocket sled run of 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 which would later lead to Kittinger's record-setting leap from over 102,000 feet. In 1957, as part of Manhigh he set an interim balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet (29,500 m) in Manhigh I, for which he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross.

Project Excelsior

Captain Kittinger was then assigned to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories at Wright-Patterson AFBmarker in Dayton, Ohiomarker. For Project Excelsior (meaning "ever upward"), a name given to the project by Col. Stapp, as part of research into high altitude bailouts, he made a series of three extreme altitude parachute jumps from an open gondola carried aloft by large helium balloons.

Kittinger's first high-altitude jump, from about 76,400 feet (23,300 meters) on November 16, 1959, was a near-disaster when an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness, but 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 has been calculated to be over 22 times the force of gravity, setting another record). On December 11, 1959, he jumped again from about 74,700 feet (22,760 meters). For that leap, Kittinger was awarded the "Leo Stevens Parachute Medal".

On August 16, 1960, he made the final jump from the Excelsior III at . Towing a small drogue chute for initial stabilization, he fell for four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 mph (988 km/h or 274 m/s) before opening his parachute at . Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, and his right hand swelled up to twice its normal size. He set historical numbers for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall (four minutes), and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere. These are still current USAF records, but were not submitted for aerospace world records to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).

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 "kit" on his behind, and his pressure suit naturally formed the sitting shape when it was inflated, a shape appropriate for sitting in an airplane cockpit. For this series of jumps, Kittinger was decorated with a second Distinguished Flying Cross, and he was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Project Stargazer

Kittinger's record-breaking skydive
Back at Holloman Air Force Basemarker, Kittinger took part in Project Stargazer on December 13–14, 1962. He and the astronomer William C. White took an open-gondola helium balloon packed with scientific equipment to an altitude of about 82,200 feet (25,050 meters), where they spent over eighteen hours performing astronomical observations.

Later USAF career

Kittinger later served three combat tours of duty during the Vietnam War, flying a total of 483 missions. During his first two tours he flew as aircraft commander in Douglas A-26 Invaders and modified "On-Mark Engineering" B-26 "Counter Invaders" as part of Projects Farm Gate and Big Eagle. Following his first two Vietnam tours, he returned to the United States, and he 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. Kittinger would also later serve as vice commander of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. During this period he was also credited with shooting down a North Vietnamese MiG-21.

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, Lieutenant Colonel Kittinger was leading a flight of Phantoms approximately five miles northwest of the village of Thai Nguyen, North Vietnam, when they were engaged by a flight of Mig-21 fighter planes. Kittinger and his wingman were chasing a MiG-21 when Kittinger's Phantom II was hit by an air-to-air missile that damaged the fighter's starboard wing and set the airplane on fire. Kittinger and Reich ejected a few miles from Thai Nguyen and were soon captured and taken to the city of Hanoimarker. During the same engagement, Kittinger's wingman, Captain S. E. Nichols, shot down the MiG-21 they had been chasing.

Kittinger and Reich spent 11 months as prisoners of war (POWs) in the "Hanoi Hiltonmarker" prison. Kittinger was the senior officer among the newer prisoners of war (those captured after 1969), and in John D. Sherwood's book, Fast Movers, he is described as having been in conflict with his fellow prisoners over his leadership. He tried to keep the aggressive junior officers under his command from doing anything that would result in more torture for the POWs. Kittinger was put through "rope torture" soon after his arrival at the POW compound and this made a lasting impression on him. Kittinger and Reich were returned to American hands on March 28, 1973, and they continued their Air Force careers, with Kittinger promoted to full colonel shortly thereafter.

Later civilian career

Kittinger retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1978, and initially he went to work for Martin Marietta Corporation in Orlando, Floridamarker.

Still interested in ballooning, he made a gas balloon world distance record in 1983, then completed the first solo Atlanticmarker crossing in the 106,000 cubic foot (3,000 m³) Rosie O'Grady's Balloon of Peace from September 14 to September 18, 1984. As an official FAI world aerospace record, it is (as of December 2008) the longest gas balloon distance flight in AA-10 size category (5,703.03 km) [12883].He participated in the Gordon Bennett Cup in ballooning in 1989 (ranked 3rd) and 1994 (ranked 12th).

Kittinger still lives in the Orlando, area, and he was the 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. Kittinger is still active in the aviation community as a consultant and touring barnstormer.


In the mid-1990s, Colonel Joe Kittinger Park in Orlando, Floridamarker was constructed by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) for the city of Orlando. It was located on the southwest corner of the Orlando Executive Airportmarker (KORL). The aviation-themed park was named in Kittinger's honor, but it has since been demolished to permit a highway expansion project of the Florida State Road 408 East-West Expressway. As of August 2008, all that remains of the park is the stand which held the dedicating plaque. The park is currently being used to store construction equipment.

The city of Orlando and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority plan to replicate the Kittinger Park in either the same or a nearby location following completion of the adjacent segment of the State Road 408 project in 2009. City officials are also considering inclusion in the park of a restored USAF F-4 Phantom II aircraft, to be placed on pylon static display and painted with the colors of an F-4D formerly flown by Colonel Kittinger. Kittinger has also been honored at a ceremony in Caribou, Maine, where he served as the guest of honor at a sesquicentennial celebration.

In 1997, Kittinger was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Famemarker in Dayton, Ohiomarker.

On January 23, 2007, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the United States Air Force Auxiliary, honored Kittinger by renaming the Texas CAP wing's TX-352 Squadron for 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 AFBmarker, which is now the Austin-Bergstrom International Airportmarker.

The Project Manhigh and Excelsior balloon capsules and the suit from his highest jump are on display at the National Museum of the U.S.marker Air Forcemarker at Wright-Patterson AFBmarker in Dayton, Ohiomarker. An additional exhibit depicting his highest balloon jump opened at the National Air and Space Museummarker on 6 April 2008.


  1. [1] Fact Sheets : Col. Joseph Kittinger Jr. National Museum of the USAF
  2. [2] Life magazine, August 29, 1960
  3. 20-Year Journey for 15-Minute Fall -
  4. Joseph W. Kittinger - USAF Museum Gathering of Eagles
  6. Vietnam Air Losses, Chris Hobson, Midland Publishing, Hinckley UK, c2001, p.226, ISBN1-85780-115-6/
  7. 3,221.23 km gas balloon distance world record in AA-06 size class, which was later broken [3]
  8. National Geographic, Feb 1985
  9. NAHF: Joseph Kittinger, Jr.

  • Joseph Kittinger. The Long, Lonely Leap. (1961 autobiography)
  • Gregory P. Kennedy. Touching Space: the story of Project Manhigh. (Schiffer, 2007)
  • The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space. (Naval Institute, 1995)

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