THE MAN WHO FELL FROM SPACE
Born Joseph Kittinger Junior in Tampa, Florida, he was raised in Orlando and schooled in Jacksonville. He was always known as ‘Joe’.
His father, Joseph Senior, ran an office equipment business and his mother, Ida Mae, was an estate agent.
As a boy, he was fascinated by aeroplanes and built his own model planes. He learned to fly as soon as he could. He qualified to fly a Piper Cub at the age of 16. Joe also raced speedboats as a teenager.
He was an adventurer at heart. He was obsessed with fishing and hunting alligators, and loved exploring the snake-infested swamplands of Florida.
He signed up to the United States Air Force (USAF) as a cadet and spent one year training before receiving his ‘wings’ in 1950.
He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and immediately posted to West Germany. There, he was reprimanded by his senior officer for not writing to his mother enough.
Four years later, he was transferred to New Mexico. There, he flew the plane that followed and observed Dr John Stapp’s rocket sled. Stapp was studying the effects of acceleration forces on human beings and had worked with pioneering pilot Chuck Yeager. The sled Stapp designed travelled at 632mph.
Joe was extremely impressed with Stapp’s medical expertise in relation to aviation science, and in turn Stapp was impressed by Joe’s skill as a pilot. They became close friends.
Stapp recommended Joe for space aviation research.
When Dr Stapp started ‘Project Man High’ (the study of high-altitude balloon flights and their effect on people), it was Joe he turned to for help.
Therefore, in 1957, flying one of Stapp’s balloons, Joe set the balloon altitude record, at 96,760 feet high. For this he won the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
Joe was then sent to the Aerospace Medical Research Labs in Dayton, Ohio, to take part in Dr Stapp’s next project, ‘Project Excelsior’ (which translates as ‘ever upward’). This time Stapp was studying the effect of high-altitude bailouts.
The plan was to have parachute jumps from a gondola carried by large helium-filled balloons. The person in the gondola (i.e. Joe), would be in a rocking chair position as opposed to being face down as skydivers are today.
His first high-altitude jump was in November 1959 and nearly ended in disaster. He jumped from 76,400 feet but his equipment immediately malfunctioned and the parachute wrapped around his neck. Joe lost consciousness – but his life was saved by his automatic parachute opener. The speed he came down to earth in the New Mexico desert, was 22 times the force of gravity. He broke a couple of bones upon landing but declared it, “just a scratch”.
He tried again one month later (and this time it was a success), jumping from 74,700 feet, despite the inside of his helmet freezing up. This won him the A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal (named after a First World War veteran who flew balloons and developed parachutes to get out of them).
Kittinger’s third attempt was on the 16th August 1960. He jumped from 102,800 feet (19.5 miles above sea level). As he stepped out he said, “Lord, take care of me now”. He fell for 4 minutes 36 seconds before opening his parachute, falling at 614mph. Another equipment malfunction on his right glove saw his hand swell to twice its normal size.
He broke the world record for the highest balloon ascent, the highest parachute jump, the longest free fall and the fastest speed of a human being through the atmosphere. It was known as ‘The Highest Step in the World’.
He was also credited with having been the first person to see the curvature of earth from space.
The parachute record held for 52 years.
Joe pointed out the jump was not to break records but was for research purposes and he gathered data all the way down. Nevertheless, he was proud of his achievement.
Joe appeared on the front covers of both Life Magazine and National Geographic. He won a second DFC and was awarded the Harmon Trophy (awarded for ‘outstanding accomplishments in aeronautics’), presented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
He also wrote an autobiography entitled ‘The Man Who Fell From Space’, although there was also a book about him called ‘The Long, Lonely Leap’.
Joe had married young and had two sons, Joseph 3rd and Mark, but was divorced quite quickly.
In 1962, Kittinger joined ‘Project Stargazer’. It was a balloon packed with scientific equipment for research purposes. He piloted it to 82,500 feet whilst alongside him, William C. White, an astronomer, carried out experiments. They were in the air for 18 hours.
All the research Joe was involved with was essential in paving the way for manned space flights which were to follow.
In 1963, Kittinger appeared on the US TV show, ‘To Tell the Truth’.
In 1965, Kittinger was approached by amateur parachutist Nick Piantanida, who asked for his help to break the record. Joe agreed, but quickly withdrew his support and advice when he realised Nick was haphazard in his approach and an extreme risk taker. He was proven right when Piantanida was killed on his record-breaking attempt.
Joe went back to the USAF and was posted to Vietnam in the war. He did three tours of duty, which comprised 483 combat missions. He was the commander of the ‘Triple Nickel Squad’. He led by example, always flying with his men (not all commanders did).
He scored one ‘kill’ when he shot down a North Vietnamese MIG.
Joe was just four days from finishing his third tour when, leading a squad of Phantoms, he got engaged in a dog fight with a MIG. As the struggle continued, his plane was hit by an air-to-air missile fired by another MIG.
Joe and his co-pilot, William J. Reich, were forced to eject. They were flying faster than the speed of sound and Joe’s helmet flew off when he left the plane. They were both promptly captured and became prisoners-of-war.
They were paraded through the streets of Hanoi, before being sent to the Hoa Lo Prison in the city (known by the Americans as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’). He was the senior officer amongst the POWs there. He assumed command and insisted on discipline amongst the prisoners in order to maintain morale.
But he was severely tortured by the Vietnamese. They used rope torture on him. It was something he never really recovered mentally from. He said incarceration was the darkest time he ever experienced.
John McCain, a later presidential candidate, was also a prisoner there.
Joe picked up a severe leg wound which his captors refused to treat, so he was forced to urinate over it to try to sterilise it.
He was in the prison camp for 11 months before he and Reich were exchanged (and freed) as part of Operation Homecoming, which saw 591 prisoners released between 1973 and 1974.
“I came away from the experience with a determination to appreciate the good fortune with which my life has been blessed and to celebrate every single day of the rest of the grand adventure”.
Joe immediately returned to the USAF – to find he’d been promoted to Colonel in his absence. He also learned that the MIG that had shot him down had, in turn, been destroyed by his squadron.
Back working in the air force, he simultaneously took his BA degree at Tulane University.
Then he was transferred to the US air base in Lakenheath in England where he was the Vice Commander before his final posting to Texas.
Joe retired in 1978 having 7,679 flying hours for the USAF (including 948 combat missions), and 9,100 hours flying civilian aircraft. He was one of the most decorated men in American military history, including winning two Purple Hearts.
He then went to work for the Martin Marietta Corporation in Orlando, Florida, before they were taken over by Lockheed.
His final job was the Vice President of flight operations for Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus in Orlando.
He continued flying and in 1983 flew a helium-filled balloon from Las Vegas to New York, a 2,000-mile journey and a new world record.
In 1984, Kittinger crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a gas-filled balloon, setting off from Caribou, Maine and landing at Cairo Montenotte in Italy, the first person ever to cross the Atlantic on a solo flight. It was 3,543 miles and took 83 hours and 40 minutes. He had a pile of country and western CDs with him to while away the time. His craft was called ‘The Balloon of Peace’.
He admitted he was aiming to land in Moscow but had got blown off course. And in Italy, he crash landed into a tree, breaking his right foot. He said philosophically, “It’s an adventure – and I’m an adventurer”. It was also the longest ever balloon flight in history.
This also got him his second front cover on National Geographic.
He continued entering flying competitions, winning many.
In 1991, he remarried, to Sherry, a marketing intern.
He was inaugurated into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, in 1997.
He believed passionately in education and toured schools and colleges giving talks.
He was also a great advocate for women in aviation and did everything he could to ensure equality of the sexes in the US military.
His second autobiography was entitled ‘Come Up and Get Me’.
Joe was an advisor in 2012 when Felix Baumgartner attempted to break his free fall record. “Felix trusts me because I know what he’s going through – and I’m the only one who knows what he’s going through”. Felix succeeded – and Joe was the first to congratulate him on his landing.
The Civil Air Patrol named their Texas Wing after him and he was honoured by the state governor Rick Parry.
There is also a Colonel Joe Kittinger Park in Orlando, Florida, which is an aviation museum and includes many of the planes that Joe flew. He himself unveiled an F4- Phantom in the park and dedicated it to everybody who had fought in Vietnam.
He died of lung cancer and is buried in Arlington Military Cemetery. There were no flowers at his funeral. Instead, Joe requested that the adults in the congregation used the money to take a boy or girl fishing.
His own words were read out at his funeral. “All I ever wanted to do is fly, which, in my mind, is to be part of something altogether glorious”.
He also left a legacy for an annual ballooning competition named the Kittinger Cup.
RIP – Risks Inflating Parachutes