Col. Joseph Kittinger is a U.S. Air Force officer (now retired) who is probably best known for his participation in the Project Excelsior series of experiments. These took place in 1959 and 1960, and were experiments to determine the survivability of parachute descent from high altitudes, as jet aircraft grew more and more powerful. As part of these experiments, then-Captain Kittinger jumped three times from high-altitude helium balloon open gondolas- the first from over 76,000 feet, and the third most famous jump from 102,800 feet. There is film of at least his final jump available freely on the internet; it forms the first half of the Boards of Canada music video Dayvan Cowboy.

During his descent, Capt. Kittinger reached speeds of 614 mph - a record for flight velocity without an aircraft. His fall, stabilized by a drogue chute, took over four minutes before he opened his main parachutes at approximately 18,000 feet. In the film footage, the curved horizon can be seen clearly, as can the blackness of space above him and the blue glow of the atmosphere below when he steps out of the gondola at approximately 20 miles altitude - 2.5 to 3 times the height commercial jet transports operate at today; four miles above the operating altitude of the SR-71 Blackbird and A-12 Oxcart spy planes.

No stranger to ballooning, Kittinger had been recruited for a project some four years prior called Project Man High, which used pressurized gondolas to bring men to high altitudes for experimental work and astronomy observations. He had been recruited for this project by Colonel John Paul Stapp after working with Stapp on rocket sled experiments to determine the effects of high velocity on the human body. Kittinger piloted the chase plane for the experiment, a Lockheed T-33 jet trainer, and Stapp approved of his skill and dedication.

During this period in his career, he brushed up against The X-Files notoriety. During a 1959 incident near the already (in)famous Roswell, New Mexico, Kittinger was on scene and was reported by several eyewitnesses as a 'red-haired Air Force captain.' He was there because the 'alien' seen in an ambulance was one or more of his teammates in the Project Excelsior program, injured in the crash of his high-altitude balloon. According to a witness, Kittinger told him “You did not see anything. There was no crash here. You don’t go into town making any rumors that you saw anything or that there was any crash.” While of course spurring all manner of rumors and speculation, Kittinger explains in his book The Long Lonely Leap that the reason for the secrecy was that Project Excelsior was already at high risk for cancellation, and the project members did not want any wild reportage of injuries or deaths to jeopardize it.

The jump (which should really be written The Jump) would be enough to enshrine any man in history. Besides the science it performed, and the fact of the height and speed record, the moment on film of Kittinger looking out from the gondola at the twenty miles of air beneath him and then successfully deciding to step out of the balloon indicate the level of bad-ass with which you are dealing. That wasn't all he would do, however. He would later fly in the Vietnam war, ending up as the commander of a squadron flying F-4 Phantom II jets. He was shot down, and he and his back-seater spent 11 months in the Hanoi Hilton, with Kittinger as senior prisoner.

After leaving the Air Force, he got back into ballooning, and made the first solo helium balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1984.

Do not compare yourself to Col. Kittinger. You are not as manly, nor are your balls as dense and large.

Sources varied but include:

The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
National Aviation Hall of Fame
The New York Times

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.

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