Col. Joseph Kittinger Jr.
Col. Joseph Kittinger Jr. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Anniversary of a record jump

by Rick Shea
49th Fighter Wing Historian

9/11/2006 - HOLLOMAN AFB, NM -- Throughout its history, the U.S. military has often been involved in setting aviation records. Often those participating eventually become household names: Jimmy Doolittle, John Paul Stapp, Chuck Yeager and Joseph Kittinger. Well, maybe Kittinger is not quite a household name, but to the Air Force, Holloman Air Force Base and America's then-fledgling space program, he was a true icon. Let me tell you!

Joseph Kittinger was a nondescript fighter pilot, stationed at Nellis AFB, Nev., when he received permanent change of station orders assigning him to the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman in 1953. Kittinger's status as an ordinary Airman changed Aug. 16, 1960, when he stepped out of a perfectly safe gondola at over 102,000 feet.

Kittinger arrived at Holloman in 1953, where he served as an experimental fighter pilot and caught the attention of the man who forever endeared himself to Holloman - Dr. John Paul Stapp. Dr. Stapp became world renowned for his work with Holloman's test track sled. Dr. Stapp was so impressed with Kittinger's ability to pilot observation aircraft, he recruited Kittinger for the Air Force's Project Man High program.

Project Man High was the Air Force's vehicle to study high-altitude escape probabilities and procedures. While at the same time, America's new space program used the results to study the effects of re-entry on the human body and the feasibility of using parachutes for re-entry. It was Man High that would write Kittinger into the record books, as well as continue the military legacy of setting aviation records.

Prior to his record-setting jump, Kittinger had made three previous Man High jumps, one of which nearly cost him his life. On his second jump, equipped with a small parachute that was designed to open 16 seconds into the freefall to stabilize the fall, the chute opened after only two seconds and wrapped itself around his neck, causing him to flat spin and lose consciousness. Only his emergency chute - designed to automatically open at 10,000 feet - slowed his decent enough to save his life.

On the morning of Aug. 16, 1960, wearing only a thin pressure suit over layers of clothing, Capt. Kittinger climbed into the balloon gondola Excelsior III for the 90-minute ascent to 102,800 feet.

While ascending, at 40,000 feet, the inflatable glove in Kittinger's right hand failed to inflate, resulting in extreme swelling and the loss of use of that hand for the duration of the flight. No stranger to adversity, Kittinger opted to continue the mission.

When Kittinger reached the target altitude, it was 110 degrees below zero. Yet his instrumentation told him he was not yet over his target, which meant if he jumped now, he would miss his target. So he drifted for 11 more minutes. Remember, it was 110 degrees below zero!

Now over target, he completed the 46-item checklist and disconnected himself for the balloon's power supply. He stood, turned to the gondola door, took one final look out of the gondola and said a silent prayer.

Leaning out of his gondola and stepping into the near vacuum of space, his body accelerated to 714 miles per hour in 22 seconds. Rolling onto his back, he saw his balloon "roaring into space," then realized it wasn't his balloon "roaring" toward space, but he himself was "roaring" toward Earth in a freefall that lasted more than four and a half minutes.

Twelve minutes after stepping from the balloon, it was over. Capt. Kittinger had safely landed back on New Mexico's desert floor.

Kittinger continued to serve his country after his record jump, voluntarily serving three combat tours in Vietnam, shooting down a MiG-21 before being shot down himself and spending 11 months as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton" POW camp.

Joseph Kittinger retired in 1978 at the rank of colonel.

And, oh by the way, three days after the record-setting leap, Kittinger regained full use of that temporarily swollen right hand.