Aviation History

Col. Joe Kittinger, USAF Fighter Pilot, POW and Longtime Freefall Record Holder Passed Away

Retired USAF Col. Joe Kittinger, whose 1960 parachute jump from almost 20 miles above the Earth stood as a world record for more than 50 years, died on Dec. 9, 2022 in Florida.

Retired US Air Force (USAF) Col. Joseph “Joe” Kittinger, whose 1960 parachute jump from almost 20 miles above the Earth stood as a world record for more than 50 years, died on Dec. 9, 2022 in Florida, Air Force Times reports. He was 94.

His death was announced by former US Rep. John Mica and other friends. The cause was lung cancer.

Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., was born in Orlando Florida in 1928. According to an Air Force Space Command document, he began his aviation fascination at an early age, dreaming of flying while watching planes at the Orlando Municipal Airport. He was accepted in the USAF aviation school in 1949. He served in the Air Force for 28 years, retiring in 1978. His military career included a variety of assignments from Fighter Pilot to Experimental Test Pilot, to staff assignments to an F-4 Squadron Commander and ViceCommander of an F-4 Fighter Wing. On May 1, 1972, during his third combat tour, he was shot down in aerial combat near Hanoi and was a POW there until his release in March 1973. He was also a Master Parachutist, had experienced five High Altitude Research Balloon Flights, and had extensive experience in low altitude helium and hot air balloons.

Joseph “Joe” Kittinger

As told above, Colonel Kittinger was probably best known for his accomplishments as an early “space hero,” a characterization which first appeared in the cover story of the Aug. 29, 1960 issue of Life magazine. Kittinger participated in the pathbreaking stratospheric balloon programs of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Projects Man High and Excelsior, the latter of which tested a pilot’s ability to survive an ejection from newer high-flying jet aircraft and set the stage for America’s first manned spaceflight efforts in the following years. In collaboration with Colonel (Dr.) John Paul Stapp, himself a pioneer in space medicine, his high altitude balloon flights during Man High and his three remarkable Excelsior jumps also provided some of the earliest data on the effects of a near-space environment on the human body and mind.

For Excelsior III on Aug. 16, 1960, as an Air Force captain, Kittinger jumped from an open balloon gondola at 102,800 feet, the highest man had ever gone in an unpowered flight. He plummeted to earth, travelling 16 miles in 4 minutes and 36 seconds, before his main chute opened, which was the longest free-fall in history. Kittinger’s jumps served many purposes in the United States’ early space exploration, especially testing man’s ability to survive high above the earth. He was quoted as radioing back a frightening first hand view of space, “There is a hostile sky above me. Man may live in space, but he will never conquer it.”

An automatic camera captures Capt. (later Col.) Joseph Kittinger just as he stepped from the balloon-supported Excelsior gondola on Aug. 16, 1960, at an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,300 m).

His record stood until 2012, when Austrian Felix Baumgartner jumped from 24 miles above the New Mexico desert, reaching the supersonic speed of 844 mph. Kittinger served as an adviser.

In December 1962, under Project Star Gazer, Kittinger piloted a balloon into the upper atmosphere accompanied by a civilian astronomer to use a high-powered telescope to view regions of deep space never before seen unhindered by atmospheric distortions.

Kittinger had the most high altitude balloon flights (five): Man High I (96,000 ft); Excelsior I (76,000 ft); Excelsior II (75,000 ft); Excelsior III (102,800 ft); and Stargazer (86,000 ft). He also holds several other balloon records including the Longest Distance flown in a 1,000 cubic meter helium balloon (2001 miles in 72 hours, in 1983), the Longest Distance flown in a 3,000 cubic meter helium balloon (3543 miles in 86 hours, in 1984), and the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in a helium balloon (Maine to Italy in September 1984).

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4E Phantom II 32nd TFS, CR 68-446

Colonel Kittinger’s awards are significant and numerous. His military decorations include among many others the Distinguished Flying Cross for Project Man High and the Distinguished Flying Cross for Project Excelsior. His civilian decorations include the Harmon International Trophy (Aeronaut), the Aeronaut Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, the John Jeffries Award for outstanding contributions to medical research, the Aerospace Primus Award, induction into the USAF Special Operations Hall of Fame, the FAI Montgolfier Diplome, the Order of Daedalians Distinguished Achievement Award, induction as a Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, the National Aeronautics Association Elder Statesman of Aviation Award, the Barnstormer of the Year Award, and induction in 1997 into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He also has received numerous awards for solo transatlantic balloon flights.

Colonel Kittinger has written several articles about his 1960 leap for various periodicals, including “The Long, Lonely Leap,” in 1961.

He retired from the Air Force in 1978 and settled in the Orlando area, where he became a local icon. A park is named there is named after him.

Kittinger is survived by his wife, Sherri.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force / Volkmar Wentzel

This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • I had the pleasure to meet Joe at the NSS convention in New Braunfels Texas back in '78. He was one of the speakers at our banquet. I had a few minutes to talk to him. Seemed like a heck of a good guy.

Recent Posts

Did you know that even though the A-3 Skywarrior didn’t have a bombsight was the most accurate dive bomber during the Vietnam War?

The A-3 Skywarrior The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior was designed as a strategic bomber for the… Read More

23 hours ago

Unique SR-71 Cockpit photos show why no cockpit demands as much intense focus as a Blackbird’s

The Blackbird The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” was a long-range, Mach 3+, strategic… Read More

2 days ago

Two B-52 Stratofortresses land at civilian airport to test their ability to operate in austere environments

B-52 Stratofortresses land at civilian airport A pair of B-52H Stratofortresses from the 20th Bomb… Read More

2 days ago