Joseph William Kittinger II (born July 27, 1928) is a former pilot and career military officer in the United States Air Force. He is most famous for his participation in Project Man High and Project Excelsior and also, as being the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon.
Born in Tampa, Florida (USA), he was educated at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, and the University of Florida. After racing speedboats as a teenager and later completing his aviation cadet training, he joined the USAF in March of 1950. He was assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing based at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany.
In 1954 he was transferred to Holloman AFB in New Mexico and the Air Force Missile Development Center (AFMDC). Kittinger flew the observation plane which monitored Colonel John Paul Stapp's rocket sled run of 632 mph in 1955. Kittinger was impressed by the dedication of Stapp (a pioneer in space medicine). Stapp, in turn, was impressed with Kittinger's skillful jet piloting, later recommending him for space aviation work. Stapp was to foster the high altitude tests which would lead to Kittinger's record leap. In 1957 as part of Man High he set an interim balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet (29,500 m) in Man High I. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.).
Captain Kittinger was then assigned to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. For Project Excelsior (meaning "ever upward", a name given to the project by Colonel Stapp), as part of research into high altitude bailout, he made a series of three parachute jumps wearing a pressurized suit, from a helium balloon with an open gondola.
The first, from 76,400 feet (23,287 m) in November, 1959 was a near tragedy when an equipment malfunction caused him to lose consciousness, but the automatic parachute saved him (he went into a flat spin at a rotational velocity of 120 rpm, the G factor calculated at his extremities was over 22 times that of gravity, setting another record). Three weeks later he jumped again from 74,700 feet (22,769 m). For that return jump Kittinger was awarded the Leo Stevens parachute medal.
On August 16, 1960 he made the final jump from the Excelsior III at 102,800 feet (31,300 m). He was in freefall for 4 minutes and 36 seconds reaching a maximum speed of 614 mph (988 km/h) before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, causing his hand to swell. He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest freefall and fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere.
The jumps were made in a "rocking-chair" position, descending on his back, rather than the usual delta familiar to skydivers, because he was wearing a 60-lb "kit" on his behind and his pressure suit naturally formed that shape when inflated, a shape appropriate for sitting in an airplane cockpit.
For the series of jumps, Kittinger was decorated with an oak leaf cluster to his D.F.C. and awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Back at Holloman AFB he also took part in Project Stargazer on December 13–14, 1962. He and William C. White, an astronomer, took a balloon of equipment to a height of 82,200 feet (25,055 m) and spent over eighteen hours at that height in performing observations.
Kittinger later served three combat tours during the Vietnam War, flying a total of 483 missions, the first two tours as an aircraft commander in A-26 Invaders. On a voluntary third tour in 1971-72, he commanded the F-4 Phantom 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron and then became vice commander of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. Col. Kittinger was shot down during a MiG engagement on May 11, 1972, just before the end of his tour and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton" prison. Kittinger was senior officer among the newer POWs (those captured after 1969) and in John D. Sherwood's Fast Movers is described as having been in serious conflict with his fellow prisoners over his leadership style.
He retired as a colonel in 1978 and went to work for Martin Marietta. Still interested in ballooning, he won the Gordon Bennett Cup in ballooning three times (1982, 1984, 1985) and completed the first solo Atlantic crossing in the 3,000 m³ Balloon of Peace" - Rosie O'Grady from September 14–18, 1984, (National Geographic Feb, 1985).
Kittinger wrote a book, published in 1961, called The Long, Lonely Leap. Now long out of print, surviving copies are expensive, but as of November 2005 a reprint is planned.
In 1997, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. Kittinger lives in the Orlando, Florida area and is Vice President of Flight Operations for Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus. He is still active in the aviation community as a consultant and touring barnstormer.
On January 23, 2007 the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the United States Air Force Auxiliary, honored Joe by renaming the TX-352 Squadron for him. Governor Rick Perry cited Joe's work as did the Texas Senate with a special resolution presented during the dedication ceremony attended by Joe and his wife Sherry. The Col. Joseph W. Kittinger Phantom Senior Squadron of CAP's Texas Wing, is based at Austin-Berstrom International Airport.
* Video footage from Kittinger's Excelsior III jump is featured in the Boards of Canada music video, Dayvan Cowboy.
* Joseph Kittinger is referred to by name in "OK to Go" By Virginia Coalition.