Aug. 1, 2014

At about 7 a.m. local time on Aug. 16, 1960, Capt. Joe Kittinger sat in the open gondola of a helium balloon 19.5 miles above the New Mexico desert, looking at a vista only a handful of humans had ever seen.

It had taken Kittinger more than an hour to ascend to that point, rising at a rate of 1,200 feet a minute. He was higher than any balloonist had ever been. Ninety-nine percent of the Earth’s atmosphere now lay below him.

To the west he could see a thunderhead boiling up over Flagstaff, Ariz., 350 miles away. To the east he could see as far as Guadalupe Pass in Texas. Underneath were clouds and the familiar blue of the daylight sky. Above was the utter blackness of space.

Kittinger said it was like being in a painting. He described feeling as if he were a dot hanging inside a vast, fantastic panorama. For 11 minutes he took it in as his balloon drifted into position. Then, he settled himself and ran through his checklist, starting cameras and unplugging various monitoring systems. He informed his ground crew that a glove on his pressure suit had not been sealed properly and his right hand was twice the normal size.

He grabbed the side of the gondola opening with his good hand, inched his boots out over the threshold and said, “Lord, take care of me now.” Then he jumped out.

Joseph William Kittinger II is one of the most daring and famous airmen of an era that stretched from the end of World War II to the end of the war in Vietnam.

Trained as a fighter pilot, the Florida native began his career based in West Germany, flying the last generation of prop-driven US pursuit warplanes. To this day the P-51 Mustang remains his favorite of the more than 90 different aircraft he’s flown. “If I had to pick one airplane, that was the best. It was a beautiful combination of engine and airframe,” he said.

The job of test pilot, though, promised more excitement—and flying time—than postwar garrison duty in Europe. Kittinger ended up at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, participating in space-related aviation research work. He flew chase airplanes that followed rocket sled runs on the ground. He transitioned to balloons, flying to record-setting heights to study the effects of altitude on the human body.

Later in his career he would serve three combat tours in Vietnam. Shot down days before his final return, he was captured and spent 11 months as a POW in North Vietnam.

The accomplishment he remains proudest of, though, is his famous leap—a parachute plunge from 102,800 feet. At the time it was a harbinger of US space exploits to come, enough of an event that it earned him a turn on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” a spot on TV’s “What’s My Line?” and the cover of Life magazine.

The Problem Was Spins

The leap remained a world record for more than half a century, until 2012, when Austrian adventurer Felix Baumgartner broke it with the Red Bull Stratos sky diving project. Kittinger was the voice of mission control for the event.

“[In 1960] one of the objectives was to devise a means of escape from very high altitude,” explained Kittinger. “The drogue chute we used is still being used today; every ejection seat has it. That makes me and my team very proud because we made a contribution.”

The problem was spins. In the mid-1950s the Air Force was becoming concerned about pilots escaping at high altitude as jets flew higher and higher, while the possibility of manned spaceflight glimmered on the horizon. But altitude tests showed that dummies ejected from aircraft at great heights didn’t fall predictably. They tumbled—and eventually went into flat spins of 200 rpm or more. This was life-threatening and made it impossible to safely pop parachutes.

Deploying parachutes immediately upon ejection at very high altitudes was not a viable solution. A pilot would risk death from the chute’s opening shock or the lack of oxygen and great cold in the atmosphere’s upper reaches. Air Force researchers needed to figure out a way to get humans rapidly down to relative safety below 20,000 feet.

Project Excelsior was USAF’s answer to this dilemma. Set up in 1958, it was run by the Escape Section of the Aeromedical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Air Development Center in Ohio. Its director was 30-year-old Capt. Joe Kittinger, handpicked by higher-ups for his personal experience with extreme-altitude flight.

In the mid-1950s, Kittinger had spent hours in a pressurized gondola at more than 90,000 feet as a chief test balloonist for Project Manhigh, an effort to see if humans could withstand the physical conditions of near-space. He’d earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for those exploits. Now he was going to ride an open, unpressurized gondola even higher and jump out to test unproven parachute designs.

“It was a rather hazardous event,” he observed. “I would never ask anybody else to do that. It was my project. I would never have risked anybody else’s life.”

Kittinger’s secret weapon was Francis Beaupre, a former Navy parachute rigger and civilian Wright-Patt engineer who devised a multistage parachute system intended to counter potentially fatal flat spins.

In Beaupre’s design, about 16 seconds after leaving the balloon platform, an 18-inch diameter pilot chute would pop out of a backpack. This would fill and in turn pull out a five-foot stabilization parachute. The five-foot chute would not slow a jumper much in the thin atmosphere, but it would stabilize him and provide for a feet-first descent. It also pulled out much of the main chute, which stayed closed due to a nylon web attaching it to the pack. At lower altitude, an automatic device would release the web and finally allow the main chute to open.

On Nov. 16, 1959, Kittinger rode a balloon up to 76,400 feet and leapt out to test Beaupre’s system. Almost instantly, he was in deep, deep trouble. Heavily laden with equipment, struggling to pull out of his seat, he pulled the lanyard prematurely. The pilot chute came out at almost the moment of separation and wrapped around his body.

Kittinger began to spin to the left. He turned to the right and stopped the motion. Then, suddenly, he began another leftward spin, this time at a high rate of speed. He could not stop. He couldn’t pull his arms in, due to centrifugal force. At about 120 rpm, he blacked out.

At only about 3,000 feet above ground, he came to, safely descending beneath a reserve parachute. He’d been saved by the cleverness of Beaupre’s design, which included automatic tear-away lines for pilot chutes in case they fouled.

Given his near-death experience, Project Excelsior’s official overseers weren’t eager to approve another Kittinger jump. But he insisted that they’d shown that the basics of the system worked, and eventually, he won another try.

Excelsior II took place from 74,700 feet on Dec. 11, 1959, and everything went perfectly. The drogue chute stabilized the spin, the main chute deployed as advertised, and Kittinger dropped to a landing in the New Mexico desert. He then set his sights on what he called the “big jump.”

Kittinger had arbitrarily pegged 100,000-plus feet as his target altitude. He thought that was a nice round number, as much as an important scientific threshold. He knew that the environment at that height is much more hostile than it is at even 70,000 feet. It was like being “enveloped in cyanide,” according to Kittinger’s boss and mentor, Air Force medical pioneer Col. John Paul Stapp. If his suit failed, death would come within seconds.

Face Down

Yet he was not being a daredevil, Kittinger insisted. He rejects the notion of his ascent as death-defying. “I was an experienced fighter pilot,” he said. “The work I did was just an extension of being a test pilot.”

In any dangerous flight, you must have three things, said Kittinger: faith in your equipment, faith in your team, and faith in yourself. If you’ve got those, you’ll be OK. “If any of those are missing, you’re in trouble,” he warned.

Kittinger had those faiths when he stepped into the open atmosphere higher than any man had gone before. Before liftoff, he’d noticed that a crew member had attached a sign on the gondola, at the base of its opening, reading: “This Is The Highest Step In The World.”

He fell with his face down, toward the clouds. But there was no sensation of movement. At that height there is no thick atmosphere to rush past your body and ripple your clothing.

“The way you detect speed is through visual acuity. There is nothing up there to focus on to show you how fast you’re going,” explained Kittinger.

He rolled over on his back and looked up at the balloon. That provided a visual reference, but a curious sensation. To him it appeared to be speeding upward, as if its restraining cord had been released.

Then, suddenly, Kittinger began to feel a choking sensation around his throat. It worsened rapidly. As he approached 70,000 feet on his altimeter he was fighting for breath and beginning to pass out.

Then, just as suddenly, the feeling went away. (Later, technicians would discover that a cable securing the helmet to the pressure suit was riding up and pushing the helmet against Kittinger’s throat.)

Kittinger fell for four minutes and 36 seconds, unrestrained by anything but his small, stabilizing drogue chute. That remains the longest free fall experienced by humans. He reached a velocity of 614 mph. The coldest temperature he passed through was minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

His 28-foot main parachute finally opened when he reached 17,500 feet. The only glitch remaining was the unpressurized right glove that had caused his hand to swell to twice its normal size. He couldn’t use it to release his instrumentation kit, as planned. The kit slammed into his leg on landing, bruising him. It was as hard a parachute landing as Kittinger had ever made.

He’d made it down alive, though. It was a world record and was such big news that Kittinger jumped into a T-33 at Holloman and flew straight to Los Angeles Airport, where he did a live remote with Walter Cronkite for the “CBS Evening News.” Lots of media exposure followed, including an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Sunday-night blockbuster that was that era’s must-see TV.

In September, President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally presented Kittinger with the Harmon Trophy in a ceremony at the White House.

Kittinger remained involved with balloon-oriented experiments for the next three years. Among other things, he participated in Project Stargazer, floating an astronomer and telescope to the upper reaches of the atmosphere in an Air Force balloon.

The center of high-altitude research, however, was clearly shifting to NASA and the space program. In 1963 Kittinger jumped back into combat aircraft as a volunteer for the air commandos, based at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach, Fla. He was headed for Vietnam.

The air commandos flew B-26s (later designated A-26s) in counterinsurgency missions in the early years of the US involvement in Southeast Asia. Among other missions, they aimed to interdict freight traffic on the road coming through Laos from North Vietnam, popularly known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Kittinger pioneered the use of a new weapon in this effort when he began loading his bomb bay with beer bottle empties, dumping them out on the trail at low altitudes. No one knows how many North Vietnamese tires were cut up, but it definitely gave a boost to the morale of US airmen.

After two tours of duty, Kittinger returned to the US and transitioned to F-4s, one of the iconic fighter aircraft of the Vietnam era. He volunteered for a third tour and in 1971 returned to the Southeast Asia theater—this time as commander of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the famous “Triple Nickel.” As commander, he flew as many different types of missions as possible and shot down a MiG in March 1972.

Then on May 11, just days before he was scheduled to rotate home, then-Lieutenant Colonel Kittinger and his weapon systems officer, 1st Lt. William J. Reich, were themselves shot down by a MiG that snuck up from below as they tracked another target deep inside North Vietnam. Captured after his ejection, Kittinger soon found himself in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where by virtue of his rank he became the leader of the relatively new prisoners, kept in a group separate from the long-timers.

Like many POWs, Kittinger suffered the infamous “rope torture,” where the North Vietnamese hoisted a prisoner up by his arms, which were bound and twisted behind his back. The point was to humiliate a prisoner and break his will, rather than to be an effective way to obtain information.

Kittinger and his fellow POWs continued to try and defy their captors in any way they could, holding church services, for instance, as well as forbidden exercise sessions. Kittinger became renowned for his ability to use overturned washtubs to capture the giant rats overrunning the prison compound.

“We never doubted we would get released,” said Kittinger. “It made us better Americans, to appreciate what we had. Being a POW was life-changing.”

The Paris Peace Accords ending direct US involvement in the war and providing for the release of the POWs were signed on Jan. 27, 1973. Colonel Kittinger—he, like many other prisoners, had been promoted during his internment—finally flew out of North Vietnam on a US C-141 on March 29, 1973. The second the wheels lifted off, the airplane exploded in cheers.

On May 24, President Nixon hosted the POWs and their wives at the White House for a gala event. It remains the largest formal dinner ever held at the Executive Mansion.

“That was one of the greatest parties I have ever been to,” recalled Kittinger.

At one point, he found himself in the Lincoln Bedroom, listening as Nixon described the room’s significance. Then-National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger walked in the room, and the President of the US turned and said, “Dr. Kissinger, I want you to meet Joe Kittinger.”

Kittinger thanked Kissinger for helping negotiate their release. Kissinger told Kittinger he was sorry it hadn’t come sooner.

Around 2 a.m., Kittinger found himself in a group drinking bourbon with John Wayne. One ex-POW told the actor that when he was being tortured he had kept his head by asking himself what the “Duke” would do under those circumstances.

“That’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever had,” said Wayne.

Helping Break His Own Record

As a former POW, Kittinger was allowed to essentially choose his next Air Force assignment. He picked a stint at the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Ala., later calling it a “year of fun.” In 1974, he was named vice wing commander of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, an F-4 unit based at RAF Lakenheath in England. After three years in the UK he transferred to 12th Air Force at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. In 1978, Kittinger chose to retire from Active Duty military service.

“I had 29 great years in the Air Force. I loved the flying, I loved the experience, I loved the companionship. I loved the Air Force team,” he said.

Retirement didn’t stop his balloon exploits, however. In 1984, he fulfilled a long-standing dream by launching from Caribou, Maine, and traveling eastward more than 3,500 miles before crash-landing in northern Italy. The impact broke his foot but he’d set a record for both time and distance in solo balloon flights. He was the first person to balloon alone across the Atlantic.

Over the years, he turned down many requests for help from people who wanted to break his high-diving parachute record. Most were ill-prepared and underfinanced, he said, and he had no desire to get involved in potentially fatal disasters.

The Red Bull Stratos effort was different. He agreed to join the team in 2008 to help Baumgartner set new altitude records. In the end, Kittinger became something of a calming influence on the younger man. He served as the ground control communicator during the successful 2012 attempt, talking Baumgartner through his paces prior to his leap from a height of almost 24 miles.

Baumgartner may have fallen farther, but he did not fall longer—his parachute deployed a few seconds short of breaking Kittinger’s free fall time. That’s a world record Kittinger still holds.

Today, Kittinger is still ballooning, still flying, and raising money for an F-4 static display at the Kittinger F-4 Park adjacent to the Orlando Executive Airport in Florida. To him the Phantom remains a symbol of the Vietnam era, as it does for many old enough to remember the conflict.

“We’re going to put it on a pedestal and dedicate it to the memory of central Florida’s Vietnam veterans,” he said.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Swimming in Science,” appeared in June.