Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Legendary high-altitude record-setter dies

U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Col. Joseph Kittinger, who flew high enough to see the curvature of the Earth during his record-setting 102,800-foot skydive in 1960, died at age 94 on December 9.

(Left) Capt. Joseph Kittinger in the Excelsior gondola. (Right) An automatic camera captured Kittinger just as he stepped from the balloon-supported Excelsior Gondola on August 16, 1960, at an altitude of 102,800 feet. Kittinger later retired at the rank of colonel. Photos courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

The acclaimed skydive was part of Project Excelsior, a series of high-altitude skydive tests from helium balloons that took place in 1959 and 1960 to test the Beaupre multistage parachute system to be used by pilots and astronauts ejecting from high altitudes. After stepping from the open gondola, Kittinger free-fell for four minutes and 37 seconds and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour. It took him 13 minutes and 45 seconds to reach the ground.

During his time with the Air Force, Kittinger amassed 7,679 flight hours, including 948 combat flying hours from his three tours in the Vietnam War. Kittinger was shot down during a mission in May 1972 and spent almost a year as a prisoner of war according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which honored Kittinger as Veteran of the Day earlier this year.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1978, Kittinger continued to stay involved in aviation, accumulating over 9,100 flight hours in civilian aircraft and becoming the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a gas balloon in 1984.

Kittinger’s jump held the record for 52 years until it was broken by Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner during the Red Bull Stratos jump in 2012. Kittinger served as advisor to Baumgartner and the Stratos team, training and guiding him through the jump as the voice of mission control at the age of 83.

“Felix trusts me because I know what he’s going through—and I’m the only one who knows what he’s going through,” Kittinger said just hours before the Red Bull Stratos jump from 128,000 feet.

Longtime friend, co-pilot, and business partner Bob Snow told an Orlando, Florida, news station, “I just can’t image Kittinger not being here. I mean, he was such a part of everything we did. The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting Joe Kittinger because he brought professionalism, he brought excitement.”

In the 1970s Snow purchased and developed the Church Street Entertainment District and Church Street Station in downtown Orlando that Kittinger helped him run, including serving for 20 years as vice president of flight operations for Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus. “From being in the Air Force as a colonel, he knew how to run a squadron,” Snow continued. “So he ran that flying circus and the ballooning and the sky riding and the aerial billboards just as he was running an Air Force function. He was an engineer. There’s nothing trivial about anything he ever did.”

Niki Britton

eMedia Content Producer
eMedia Content Producer Niki Britton joined AOPA in 2021. She is a private pilot who enjoys flying her 1969 Cessna 182 and taking aerial photographs.
Topics: People, Awards and Records

Related Articles