Gathering of Eagles Foundation

Honored as an Eagle in:

1986 2003 2004 2006

Eagle Biography

Joseph W. Kittinger Jr

Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr. is the first person to parachute from above 100,000 feet and the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a balloon. Born in Tampa, Florida, in 1928, Kittinger was enamored with aviation as a boy and spent his youth around airplanes at the Orlando Municipal Airport. His first plane ride in a Ford Trimotor only enhanced that desire. After attending the University of Florida, Kittinger began his US Air Force career through the Aviation Cadet Program and earned his wings in 1950. After flying fighters in Germany, he was assigned to several experimental balloon projects and became a pioneer in the early space program and with high altitude aircraft.

As the initial pilot for Project Manhigh in 1957, Kittinger donned a pressure suit, was sealed in a tiny capsule, and piloted his balloon to the edge of space, setting a balloon altitude record of 96,000 feet. The following year, he was appointed Test Director for Project Excelsior, testing mans ability to survive high altitude bailouts. Kittingers first parachute jump from a balloon at 76,000 feet nearly ended in disaster when his stabilization chute malfunctioned, causing a dangerous flat spin that rendered him unconscious.

Saved by his automatic parachute opener, he continued the program undaunted. On 16 August 1960, Kittinger executed his most significant jump from an altitude of 102,800 feet, freefalling to 18,000 feet before opening his parachute and landing. Kittinger was not only the first person to parachute from above 100,000 feet, but, falling at reportedly 714 miles per hour, was also the first to exceed Mach 1 without an aircraft. His 4-minute jump earned him the 1959 International Harmon Trophy. Frustrated at not flying in the Korean War, Kittinger volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam, and commanded the famous 555th Triple Nickel Tactical Fighter Squadron flying McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom IIs. He downed a MiG-21 Fishbed in 1972 and 2 months later, was shot down and held as a prisoner of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for 11 months.

After his release he continued a distinguished career, retiring as a colonel in 1978. Kittinger then spent 5 years with Martin Marietta before joining Rosie OGradys Flying Circus. He also continued ballooning and looked to the Atlantic Ocean for his next adventure. In 1984, Kittinger piloted the first solo transatlantic balloon flight, traversing 3,500 miles in 83 hours. In 1997, with more than 16,000 hours in 77 different aircraft, and 483 combat missions to his credit, Kittinger was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He continues skywriting and barnstorming to this day in a restored 1929 open-cockpit New Standard bi-plane, inspiring children with his passion for aviation.

See the Lithograph
Lithograph Setting

On 16 August 1960, Joe Kittinger piloted his Excelsior III balloon to an altitude of 102,800 feet above the New Mexico desert, investigating mans ability to survive high altitude bailouts. Standing at the highest step in the world, Kittinger stepped out of his gondola and into the history books. Reportedly falling at 714 miles per hour and breaking the sound barrier without an aircraft, Kittingers long, lonely leap set world records that still stand today for the highest manned balloon flight, longest parachute jump, and longest free-fall.

Archives By Year