Accessibility links

Breaking News

78 and Still Flying High

He is unfamiliar to most of us, but in the world of aviation Joe Kittinger is a true American hero. Paul Sisco has more about one of America's space pioneers.

Captain Joseph Kittinger, U.S. Air Force retired. On August 16, 1960, he was a space pioneer who did what no one had ever done before.

Outfitted in layers, upon layers, upon layers of clothing to protect him from temperatures reaching minus 70 degrees Celsius, Kittinger rose in a gondola attached to a helium balloon that day in August, for an hour and half to 31,333 meters. Then he jumped. He fell continuously for four minutes and 37 seconds in what Kittinger says ‘was absolutely black.'

An attached camera showed the curvature of the Earth, the emptiness of space. While falling, he felt no wind, no rush of air; then he glanced up at his balloon.

''And I said, 'My goodness, I can't believe how fast that balloon was going,' and I realized that the balloon was standing still and it was me that was going down at a fantastic rate. Then at about 14,000 feet my parachute opened."

He landed, eight minutes later, on target, with three world records.

"I was elated because we had accomplished what we set out to do, so it was a look of happiness, believe me."

Author, biographer, and friend John Crouch is the curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. He says of Kittinger and his adventures: "He's still a very impressive guy. Well, there were the records, I mean it was the highest open gondola flight anybody had every made. Obviously it was the highest parachute jump anybody had ever made. It was even the longest parachute jump after the parachute opened. But it was the reason they were doing it. They were paving the wave for the space age. You know -- developing life support systems that would keep air crews alive at extreme altitudes, even in space."

He later became the first to solo a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean.

According to Crouch, Kittinger is an American hero. "Just one thing after another. He's a genuine American hero. I think, if anyone qualifies he does."

Joe Kittinger turns 78 this month, and is still flying and competing in ballooning events.