Pilots

Joe Kittinger

January 1, 2004

Capt. Joe Kittinger didn't consider himself a skydiver and he certainly wasn't a paratrooper. He was an experimental test pilot in the United States Air Force. But when he stepped out of the aircraft that day, August 16, 1960, above Tularosa, New Mexico, it was his thirty-third jump. This one was just a bit different: He was about to drop 102,800 feet. So, like a man whose innards are forged from stainless steel, he took that big step forward. And it put him in the record books.

Space, to NASA and the rest of the world, begins somewhere around 300,000 feet. But Kittinger maintains that Armstrong's Line, at about 62,000 feet where an unprotected pilot's blood boils from the lack of pressure, is where space begins. At 100,000 feet the pressure is at 5 millimeters — nearly a complete vacuum. At that altitude a pressure suit wouldn't even billow. And that's the region Kittinger was exploring.

Kittinger looked up and saw the blackness of space (at just past 7 a.m.), and then settled in for the long, long ride down. "You don't worry about what you don't know," he says, "and what you do know, you can take care of it." As the project officer he picked himself to take the fall. "I wasn't there to set records," he says, but in fact he did set a couple: The highest jump, and he became the first human to ever go supersonic — falling, without the protection of anything but his pressure suit. He had a pretty long freefall, too (4 minutes and 38 seconds), and a long parachute descent (9 minutes and 7 seconds from 17,500 feet).

Of course he had never been into space before. But he went there to gather knowledge that might help high-altitude pilots and even future astronauts escape their vehicles. As someone with that kind of experience, he thought briefly about entering the astronaut corps, but he had a lot of projects going on at the time, and he realized that an awful lot of the Air Force's experimental work would be delayed if he left. "I've never regretted it," he says.

There was his work with Dr. John Stapp, who liked to ride rocket sleds to a quick stop and see how many Gs he could inflict on his body. And there was Project Stargazer, in which Kittinger lofted an astronomer up to about 85,000 feet in a gas balloon. That project was canceled in 1962.

Kittinger had a new mission soon after, though: The Air Force sent him to covertly fly B-26s in Vietnam. His tour of duty there lasted a year, from 1963 to 1964, but he returned from 1966 to 1967 to fly A-26s. On his third tour, 1971 to 1972, he flew an F-4 Phantom. A little more than two months before he was scheduled to go home he shot down a MiG-21. Less than a week before he was scheduled to go home, he was shot down.

That was May 1972. The North Vietnamese checked him into the Hanoi Hilton and for one month they tortured him. "I don't like to talk about it," he says. But the Vietnamese had a newspaper article that said he was missing in action, and that he had three combat tours and had just shot down a MiG. They knew exactly who he was, but for one month they tortured him just to get the same information out of him that they'd read in the newspaper.

Inside the Hilton he and the rest of the new guys, the ones who'd recently been shot down, were separated from the older guys, the ones such as John McCain who'd been there since the 1960s. "We were treated better," Kittinger explains. "We weren't brutalized. The treatment had improved by the time we got there." But they still memorized the names of all the other American prisoners, just as a way to protect everyone held captive.

Finally good news came: A peace treaty had been signed in Paris. "We were elated," Kittinger recalls. The prisoners were released gradually: The injured were released in February 1973, followed by the ones who had been held longest. "We were last to be released," he says. In March the North put them on a bus to Gia Lam, Hanoi's main airport, where they were turned over to a U.S. military representative. The men loaded up into a C-141 transport and took off for the Philippines. "It was the happiest day in my life," Kittinger says. "And for everybody released it was the happiest day in their lives." The former prisoners compared names of all the other prisoners they'd memorized, and everyone was present and accounted for.

Kittinger stayed in the Air Force and went on to become the vice commander of an F-4 wing in England, and then he retired in 1978 as a colonel. But he's never left flying. He began skywriting, banner towing, and flying gas and hot air balloons all over the world. (Of his 16,000 hours, 1,800 are in balloons.) And now, at age 73, he's barnstorming in an open-cockpit New Standard biplane. It's one of 90 airplanes he's flown during his career. "Retire?" Kittinger asks. "I hope not. The sky is still my office."