So I was watching Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum the other day, and a familiar name made its way to my ears: Joe Kittinger. There’s a park named after him at the intersection of the 408 and Crystal Lake Drive, near the Orlando Executive Airport. As I continued to watch the show’s segment, I became more and more fascinated with what this man has done in his career.
Joe Kittinger was born in Tampa, FL, on July 27, 1928, and graduated from the University of Florida, so he’s an area guy. He joined the Air Force in 1949, earned his pilot rating in 1950, and was sent over to Ramstein AFB in then-West Germany. In 1954, he was transferred to Holloman AFB in New Mexico and the Air Force Missile Development Center, where the awesome part of his career took off.
In 1957, Kittinger participated in the Manhigh 1 project, where he set an interim balloon record of 96,760 feet(!), for which he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross.
In 1958 (I believe, I can’t find an exact date), he was transferred to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH. In 1959 and 1960, he participated in a series of jumps for Project Excelsior (“Ever Upward”), setting the still-standing records for Highest Parachute Jump (102,800 ft), Longest Parachute Drogue Fall, Longest Parachute Free-Fall (4 minutes, 36 seconds), and Fastest Speed by a Human Through the Atmosphere (614 mph)
Here’s where things go from “Oh Wow”, to “OH GOD”. The first jump for Project Excelsior nearly killed (then Captain)Kittinger. His stabilizer parachute deployed too soon, catching him at the neck, and sending him into a spin that rendered him unconscious. His saving grace was his main parachute that opened automatically at 3,000 ft. If that were me, I’d never jump again. But this dude decides to jump again…three weeks later! Luckily, things went much better this time around.
The third and final jump was in August of 1960. On his way up to the stratosphere, his right glove sprung a pressure leak, exposing his hand to the low pressure, and swelling it up to about twice its normal size. He endured excruciating pain and lost the use of his hand for the whole hour and a half the ascent took ,and DIDN’T TELL ANYONE, lest the jump be aborted.
When he did finally jump, he entered into a deadly flat-spin until his first parachute deployed. It slowed his spin, but not his overall speed. He ended up free-falling at a top speed of 614 mph.
Overall, the project was a resounding success, helping to save the lives of countless high-altitude pilots, and paving the way for human space exploration.
Kittinger later went on to serve three tours in Vietnam, and was a POW for 11 months in 1972-1973. He was promoted to full Colonel shortly after being returned to American hands. He retired in 1978, and worked for Martin-Marietta here in Orlando (now Lockheed-Martin).
In the 1990’s, Colonel Joe Kittinger park was constructed where the current sign is today. Part of the park was demolished to allow for an expansion of the 408, and what’s left of the park is pretty much fenced off. There are talks of reconstruction and expansion of the park, and if anyone deserves it, it’s the Colonel. If McCoy gets a road and OIA’s call letters named after him, the least we can do for Colonel Joe Kittinger is name a space after him.