Colonel Joseph William Kittinger is probably best known for his freefall records (which as a matter of trivia were never submitted or certified by the relevant governing bodies, but are still United States Air Force records).
Starting his career as an F-84 Thunderjet and F-86 Sabre pilot at Rammstein AB, Germany, he then moved to Holloman AFB in New Mexico to assist legendary flight surgeon Col John Stapp's rocket sled human endurance tests. It was his work with Stapp that led him to be reccommended for Project Man High and later Excelsior.
What is less known, however, is that after his astonishing accomplishments in Project Man High I, and later, Project Excelsior and Project Stargazer, he flew some of the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam war, and flew them in the highest performance aircraft of the day.
In three combat tours, he got stick time in two variants of the venerable A-26 Invader and later, the F-4 Phantom II. It was in a B-26 Counter-Invader that he participated in Operation Farm Gate as part of the 609th Special Operations Squadron, the Vietnam-era Grandfather of the current organizations, methods, and tactics used by Special Operations air support.
While the details of his specific involvement in Farm Gate remain classified, the operation itself was nothing more or less than hilariously thinly veiled American involvement in the then-nascent Vietnam conflict, with each aircraft having a token South Vietnamese crewmember aboard to be "assisted" by the crew of American "advisors".
It was during his third tour, a voluntary tour in 1971-72, that he is credited with a confirmed kill on a North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed. It was late in this tour that Kittinger and his WSO, 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich, were engaged by a flight of Fishbeds. The two flew some distance before being forced to eject from the burning aircraft over North Vietnam.
Needless to say, the next 11 months were not pleasant for either of them. He was subjected to some of the most brutal tortures available to his captors not long after his arrival, and as the senior ranking officer among his group of American POWs, it has been reported that he tried to keep active resistance to a minimum to avoid retaliation and further torture for the men under his command.
After his release, he was promoted to full Colonel and retired at that rank in 1978.
He was, at various times, qualified on at least 5 high performance aircraft (for contrast, most pilots today get two, a trainer and their assigned airframe); the chase plane pilot for a rocket sled designed to break humans; a world record holder for several unchallenged records; a technical advisor for one of the most advanced astronomy projects of its day; the recipient of 24 Air Medals earned in covert action and air to air combat sorties over Vietnam (for contrast, a fighter pilot today counts himself lucky if he sees 5 air medals in an entire career); a prisoner of war in the most brutal POW facility ever documented; and, by all accounts, still a fun guy to have a beer with.
Oh, and he's currently advising Felix Baumgartner, who is still attempting to break Kittinger's more than 50 year old records with the benefit of five decades of technology advancements and a Red Bull logo on his forehead.