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The Luckiest Man in the Sky

Ascending straight up through the stratosphere in a one-man capsule, first to travel at the speed of sound, first to fly solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic… you might think that these are the accomplishments of  three men: Alan Shepard, Chuck Yeager and Charles Lindbergh. You would be partly correct. They are also the accomplishments of one man who spent thirty years of his life serving as a pilot in the United States Air Force.

This year the world celebrated the flight of the Soviet spacecraft Vostok I. On April 12 1961, Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in what was hailed as the start of the US-Soviet space race.

The importance of Gagarin’s accomplishment cannot be minimized and should be celebrated, but the era also produced a great American triumph in space. On August 16 1960, then Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr. took his Long Lonely Leap.

Joe Kittinger entered the US Air Force in 1949. A cadet who spent his boyhood summers fishing on Florida’s St. John’s River with his brother and dad. His sense of adventure had him wrestling alligators and racing speedboats professionally before he was out of his teens. He learned to fly from the rear seat of a Piper J-3 Cub on floats where his most important missions seemingly revolved around impressing the girls of his native Orlando, Florida. They likely saw him in the image of the era’s matinee idols. Even with their sights set on him, his sights were set on much more important things than playacting some Walter Mitty fantasy for others. He was to become one of the nation’s leading fighter pilots. During the Vietnam War he completed 483 missions during three tours of duty. But before that, he had other things to do.

As a young Captain five years into his career, he was moved to the command of Maj. John Paul Stapp, M.D., Ph.D. Since the end of World War II, Stapp was working on physiology experiments involving altitude sickness and high speed deceleration. Joe was assigned to his unit to pilot the photographic chase-plane during the famous rocket sled studies. Stapp proved that humans, including himself as his most famous subject, could survive in excess of 41g’s during deceleration. Before that it was generally believed the human limit was 15g’s. Stapp was impressed with Joe’s intelligence, dedication and pilot skill and recommended him to lead three future projects:  Manhigh, Excelsior and Stargazer between 1957 and 1960. All the missions involved gas balloon ascents into the stratosphere where cosmic radiation effects were measured, deep space telescopic observations were made and high altitude parachute escape systems were tested, respectively. Joe was dubbed a Pre-Astronaut by author Craig Ryan for his work during these years.

Kittinger made what became known as the long lonely leap at the conclusion of Project Excelsior. After ascending to 102,800 feet in an open gondola protected by a standard Air Force partial pressure suit, Joe disconnected himself from the tiny capsule, stood up, said a prayer and jumped into the void of near space. He hurtled toward earth at the speed of sound. His experimental parachute system deployed nearly five minutes into his free fall.

The system was proven successful in keeping high altitude aviators and future astronauts from entering a fatal flat spin during stratospheric emergency ejections. The related records set that day have never been bettered.  It should be noted, that while Joe is officially recognized as making the highest parachute jump and longest free fall in history, because his actual speed during descent was calculated instead of being taken from certified recording instruments, he is not officially recognized as breaking the speed of sound.

Remember his mission was to test the system, not set records. Among his victories was the downing of a MiG 21 during his 1,000 com combat hours over Vietnam. His third tour as commander of the legendary 555 Tactical  Squadron (the Triple Nickel) ended prematurely when he was downed by a MiG 21 during aerial combat. It was reported that he and his weapons systems officer were missing in action and presumed dead since their Phantom F-4D was last seen as a violent whirling fireball speeding toward the jungle with no sign of parachute deployment. Unseen by his comrades, Joe was indeed alive because he successfully timed the asymmetric centrifugal forces his disintegrating jet was undergoing. He was able to overcome the forces during the point when the cycle ebbed. He made a successful grab for the ejection mechanism in the split second the forces tipped more in his favor than against. The result of his unplanned landing was 11 months for him and Lt. Reich as prisoners of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

It was during this inhumane confinement by the North Vietnamese that he planned his future with only his mind’s eye and memory as a tablet. His eventual triumph in making the first successful solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1984 was part of the plans that kept his brilliant mind and spirits bolstered during his captivity.

The record setting flight took place between Caribou, Maine and an Italian forest near Savona, Italy. Upon landing in trees and boulders he broke his foot falling from his gondola. A champagne soaked celebration took place when his chase team caught up with him. As the adrenalin wore off, he realized he could not walk on his injured leg, so Italian woodsmen triumphantly carried him on their shoulders out of the forest as his fiancé Sherry led the way and National Geographic photographers snapped away.

Joe has and continues to receive many honors and awards. During his military service a partial list of his awards include the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with five Oak Leaf Clusters and two Purple Hearts.

President Eisenhower personally presented him with the Harmon Trophy as a result of his work on Project Excelsior. Joe was presented with the Lifetime Achievement in Aviation Award by the Smithsonian Institution, he was enshrined by the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and this year he was inducted into the Ballooning Hall of Fame and the Skydiving Hall of Fame where President George H.W. Bush thanked him for his service to our country during a special video presentation.

At the age of 82, Joe continues to enjoy life with his wife Sherry as they barnstorm around the country meeting new friends. He is especially close to his grandson Mitchell Kittinger who became an Eagle Scout last year. In his free time he is a consultant to Red Bull Stratos, the project lead by Felix Baumgartner. Felix aims to break Joe’s fifty year space jump record with his own leap from 120,000 feet. Joe is generous when asked if he is concerned about someone surpassing him, “Human progress is about going beyond the boundaries of the present. Someone has to break my record and will.”

In June, Joe authored his autobiography, Come Up and Get Me where he describes himself as “the luckiest man in the sky.”

About the Author

John S. Craparo is both a private pilot, rated in balloons and gliders, and an advanced ground instructor.  He also flies airplanes and seaplanes as a sport pilot. He is a Light Sport Repairman with a Maintenance rating for airplanes, weight-shift control aircraft, and powered parachutes.  The restoration of his 1946 Ercoupe is one of his accomplishments. That plane sits in a hangar next to his 1946 J-3 Cub on straight floats. John can be reached at

April 2011 Light Aviation Edition

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