Who Is Joseph W. “Joe” Kittinger, Jr.?
Joe Kittinger was born on July 27, 1928 and grew up near Orlando, Florida. As a young boy, he flew with a local pilot and at the age of 17 was flying small aircraft on his own. Kittinger attended the University of Florida for two years and left to pursue his career in aviation, which began in the United States Air Force in 1949 where he entered as an aviation cadet and he retired after 29 years of service.
After receiving his wings he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1950. From 1950 to 1953 he served as a fighter pilot in the 86th Fighter Bomber Wing in Germany. Next he served at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. While there, Kittinger flew experimental aircraft and performed medical research for the advancement of aerospace technology and safety.
On June 2, 1957, Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. established the altitude endurance record for manned lighter-than-air aircraft by flying a balloon over Minnesota for six hours and 34 minutes. In the first flight of the Air Force’s “Project ManHigh” he remained aloft at 96,000 feet for two hours of the flight.
Kittinger earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for this flight to 96,000 feet and this mission was designed to study cosmic rays and test human physical and mental capabilities of traveling at extremely high altitudes. Shown at left is the ManHigh balloon in flight.
He made a total of 5 high altitude flights in stratospheric balloons conducting scientific experiments in preparations for the forthcoming space program. As jet aircraft flew higher and faster, the Air Force became increasingly concerned with the hazards faced by flight crews ejecting from these high performance aircraft. Project Excelsior was established in 1958 to study and solve
these high altitude escape challenges. As test director, his work on Project Excelsior investigated the use of a parachute for escape from a space cap- sule or high altitude aircraft. In November 1959 he piloted Excelsior I to 76,000 feet and parachuted back to earth. Excelsior II, his second high altitude parachute jump occurred one month later from 75,000 feet. Kittinger returned the next year to set two major aviation records. On August 16, 1960, Kittinger flew to 102,800 feet in a helium balloon and jumped out and his freefall lasted for 4 minutes, 36 seconds. He approached the speed of sound at 614 miles per hour before opening his parachute at 14,000 feet. .)To this day Kittinger holds the world records for the highest parachute jump and longest freefall.
Kittinger changed his focus in 1963 by joining the Air Commandos. He flew 3 combat tours in Vietnam with 1,000 hours of combat and 483 missions. He shot down a MIG 21 in March of 1972 and was shot down himself in combat two months later. He was held for 11 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a North Vietnamese POW camp. He was released with all of the POWs in March 1973.
While in the POW camp, he worked out plans for his next historical mission. In 1958 he thought of the idea of flying a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean. His dream became a reality in 1984 when he piloted the first solo transatlantic balloon flight, traversing over 3,500 miles from Maine to Italy in 86 hours. At left is the balloon in flight and in the photo at right Joe is standing next to his balloon after landing in Italy. After retiring from the Air Force in 1978, he spent 14 years as the Vice President of Flight Operations for Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus, which in- cluded flying hot air and gas balloons (pictures at left) all over the world and airplane banner towing and skywriting missions. In 1994 he flew Barn-storming adventures in a 1929 New Standard open cockpit bi-plane. He and his wife Sherry flew the plane at air shows and aviation events all over the USA for 9 years and flew over 10,000 passengers.
Joe has been flying aircraft since 1944, gas balloons since 1955 and hot air balloons since 1964. He has a total of over 16,800 hours of flight time in 93 different aircraft and over 2,000 hours in gas and hot air balloons. He is currently an Aviation and Aerospace Consultant. The City of Orlando has set aside a field near Orlando Executive Airport so kids can have a place to watch airplanes--and named it "Colonel Joe Kittinger Park." It is the same location Joe, as a child, dreamed of flying as a child.
During Kittinger's military career in the USAF (1949-1978) he held a variety of assignments from Fighter Pilot to Experimental Test Pilot, to staff assignments to Squadron Commander of an F-4 squadron to Vice Commander of an F-4 Fighter Wing. On 11 May 1972, during his third combat tour, he was shot down in an F-4 in aerial combat near Hanoi and was a POW there until released in March 1973. He has 66 years of flying experience - flying aircraft throughout the USA, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Bahamas, Europe and Africa, South Vietnam, North Vietnam (no landings), Philippines and Taiwan; one flight across the Pacific Ocean in an A-26 from California to Thailand; five flights across the Atlantic Ocean--one in a Cessna 180 from Orlando, Florida to Salisbury, Rhodesia; 3 in jet fighter aircraft; one in a helium balloon. 483 combat missions with over 1000 hours of combat in B-26, A-26 and F-4 aircraft.
- Highest Parachute Jump - 102,800 ft. August 16, 1960
- Longest Parachute Freefall - 4 min. 36 sec. August 16, 1960
- First man to exceed the Speed of Sound without an aircraft or space vehicle. 714 mph during freefall. August 16, 1960
- Most High Altitude Balloon Flights, 5 times. 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.
- Longest distance flown in a 1,000 cubic meter helium balloon. 2001 miles in 72 hours. November 15-18, 1983. Solo flight.
- Longest distance flown in a 3,000 cubic meter helium balloon. 3543 miles in 86 hours. September 14-18, 1984.
- First person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a helium balloon. Maine to Italy. September 14-18, 1984.
- NAA Speed Record - Piper Cheyenne 400 LS - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida. 1986.
- Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster
- Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster
- Distinguished Flying Cross - Project Man High
- Distinguished Flying Cross - Project Excelsior (Parachute jump from 102,800 feet)
- Distinguished Flying Cross - 4 Oak Leaf Clusters - Vietnam
- Bronze Star Medal with "V" device and two Oak Leaf Clusters
- Meritorious Service Medal
- Air Medal with twenty three Oak Leaf Clusters
- Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Clusters
- Presidential Unit Citation
- Air Force Outstanding Unit Award
- Army of Occupation Medal
- National Defense Service Medal
- Vietnam Service Medal with seven Service stars
- Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm
- Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal
- POW Medal
- Harmon International Trophy (Aeronaut) 1959 give by President Eisenhower
- Aeronaut Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, 1959 for outstanding contributions to medical research, 1960
- The John Jeffries Award, Institute of Aerospace Sciences
- Aerospace Primus, Air Research and Development Command, 1960
- Hall of Fame, USAF Special Operations
- FAI Montgolfier Diplome, 1983 & 1984
- Santos Dumont Medal, French Aero Club, 1984
- Le Grande Medaille, City of Paris, 1984
- Legion of Merit (Italy), 1984
- Joe W. Kittinger Medal of Achievement, Board of County Commissioners, Orange County, Florida, 1984
- Heroic Achievement Award, City of Orlando, 1984
- Chateau de Balleroy Award, 1984
- John Young Award, Orlando Chamber of Commerce, 1985
- Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary International, 1985
- Revoredo Trophy, International Flight Research Corporation, 1985
- W. Randolph Lovelace Award, Society of NASA Flight Surgeons, 1985
- Godfrey L. Cabot Award, Aero Club of New England, 1985
- Order of Daedalians Distinguished Achievement Award, 1993
- Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Fellow, 1995
- National Aeronautics Association Elder Statesman of Aviation Award, for lifetime contributions to aviation, 1995
- Barnstormer of the Year, International Society of Aviation Barnstorming Historians, 1996
- Inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, 1997
- Wright Brothers Memorial Hall of Fame, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 1998
- Inductee, International Forest of Friendship-Atchison, Kansas, 1999
- Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Award, 2000
- Honorary Member of Parachute Industry Association (PIA), 2001
- Florida Aviation Hall of Fame, 2003
- Distinguished Achievement Award, American ex-POWs
- Achievement Award, Wingfoot Lighter Than Air Society
- Prix de L'Aventure Sportive, French Sporting Adventure Trophy
- John Young History Maker Award, 2006
- National Air And Space Museum Trophy Lifetime Achievement in Aviation Award, 2008
- Bolles School, Signey W. Register, Sr. Memorial Award, 2010
Ballooning Experience and Awards:
- Gordon Bennett Balloon Race (California) Won First Place in The Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus Helium balloon 1982, 1984,1985 and 1988. The third consecutive win entitled Kittinger to retire the coveted Gordon Bennett trophy which now resides in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. (Placed second in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1987, 1989) (Picture below)
- Participated in the U>S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship in Indianola, Iowa in 1980 where he flew a Rosie O'Grady's gas balloon.
- U.S. National Gas Balloon Champion fot the year 1988
- Participant in the following International Balloon Events
- France ~ Chateau Balleroy, 1984 and 1985
- Germany ~ Christening Ceremony of Rosie's gas balloon -1987
- Australia ~ Bicentennial Celbration 1988
- Germany Opa Rally Gas Balloon Race, 1989
- Russia ~ Hot Air Balloon Rally, 1989
- Austria ~ Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, 1990, 1994. Placed third in 1990 with Co-pilot Bob Snow
- Morocco ~ 1996
- Inducted into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame at the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa, 08-01-2010
Civil Air Patrol Squadron named in Honor of Joe in Austin, Texas
- Inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997
- Florida Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003
- Air and Space Museum Lifetime Achievement in Aviation in 2008
- National Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2010
- National Skydiving Hall of Fame in 2010
Photos, courtesy of Joe and Sherry’s website.
The Gordon Bennett Trophy, retired after 3 consecutive wins!
Col. Joe Kittinger, USAF (Ret)
Bob Snow, founder of Church Street Station and Joe Kittinger
The Rosie O’Grady Balloon of Peace - the first successful
solo Trans-Atlantic Balloon Flight
Joe & Sherry preparing for a flight in the Staggerwing (N711ZZ)
As Commander of the 555th Squadron in Viet Nam (F-4 Phantom)