Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., commanded the 555th Triple Nickel Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) in Vietnam, was a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, and is the current world record holder for highest manned balloon flight, longest parachute jump, and longest freefall. Born in Tampa, Florida, in 1928, Kittinger fell in love with aviation after seeing a Ford Trimotor in flight and convincing several local pilots to give him free rides. After two years at the University of Florida, he entered the Aviation Cadet Program and earned his wings in 1950. After an initial assignment as a NATO test pilot, he moved to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico in 1953. There he flew experimental fighters and began his pioneering efforts in high- altitude ballooning.
The Air Force wanted to determine if a pilot was capable of flight in space but could not keep aircraft at high altitudes long enough to collect useful data. As a member of Project Man High in 1957, Kittinger entered a pressurized gondola, piloted a balloon to 96,000 feet, and remained aloft for seven hours, collecting vital data on the effect of cosmic rays on the human body. The following year, as test director for Project Excelsior, he tested a pilot’s ability to survive high-altitude bailouts, another prerequisite to human space flight. He averted disaster on his first jump from 76,000 feet when his stabilization chute opened too early. It caught him around the neck inducing a flat spin and unconsciousness. Saved when an emergency parachute opened at 10,000 feet, he successfully lobbied to keep the program alive. On 16 August 1960, Kittinger jumped out of his balloon from 102,800 feet and into the record books. Enduring a failed pressure glove, temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, and speeds of up to 614 miles per hour, he became the first human to exceed Mach 1 without an aircraft. These efforts earned him the 1959 International Harmon Aviation Trophy.
Frustrated by not flying in the Korean War, Kittinger volunteered for three tours in Vietnam. While commanding the 555 TFS flying McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom IIs he downed a MiG-21 Fishbed. Several months later he was shot down and spent 11 months in captivity at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. After his release, he continued his Air Force career, retiring as a Colonel in 1978, but his love for aviation continued. He won several international balloon races, then set his sights on the Atlantic Ocean. On 18 September 1984, Kittinger became the first man to cross the Atlantic solo in a balloon when he touched down in northern Italy. Where six others had failed, he successfully traveled over 3,500 miles in 83 hours and 40 minutes. In 1997 he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, credited with over 16,400 hours in 91 different aircraft and 483 combat missions, as well as with helping NASA’s astronaut program. Col Kittinger and his wife Sherry have two sons and four grandchildren.
Col Kittinger was first selected as an Eagle by Air Command and Staff College’s Gathering of Eagles in 1986 and subsequently honored in 2003, 2004, and 2006, respectively.