Faster Than the Speed of Sound

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Kittinger in Manhigh (June 2, 1957)

Kittinger in Manhigh (June 2, 1957)

More often than not, the actions for which people are most well-known are but a glimpse into their real accomplishments. Such is the case with Joseph William Kittinger II, the man who broke the speed of sound during a skydive.

Born on July 27, 1928, Kittinger raced speedboats during his teens and entered the USAF in March 1949. After completing aviation cadet training in March 1950, he was assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. There, he flew the F-84 Thunderjet and the F-86 Sabre.

In 1954, Kittinger was transferred to the Air Force Missile Development Center, where he flew the observation plane monitoring flight surgeon Colonel John Stapp’s rocket sled run of 632 mph. Impressed by his work, Stapp recommended Kittinger for space-related aviation research.

The First Astronaut?

Kittinger participated in a handful of pre-Space Age projects. During Project Manhigh I (1957), Kittinger set a balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1959 and 1960, he participated in Project Excelsior – a testing program created with hopes to design a parachute system that would allow a safe, controlled descent after a high-altitude ejection from an airplane.

It was during Project Excelsior that Kittinger set several world records:

  • The highest parachute jump (over 102,800 feet).
  • The longest parachute drogue fall. During this jump he towed a small drogue parachute for initial stabilization then fell for four minutes, thirty-six seconds before opening his main parachute. The jump is referred to as “The Long, Lonely Leap”.
  • The fastest speed by a human alone through the atmosphere. During his highest jump he reached speeds up to 714 mph, breaking the speed of sound.
Stargazer Gondola

The Stargazer gondola now resides at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. (source:

Due to the heights and speeds, many refer to Kittinger as the first astronaut. Later, Kittinger explained his experience quite bluntly:

“The most fascinating thing is that it’s just black overhead – the transition from normal blue to black is very stark… I was struck with the beauty of it.  But I was also struck by how hostile it is:  more than 100 degrees below zero, no air.  If my protection suit failed, I would be dead in a few seconds.  Blood actually boils above 62,000 feet.”

All of Kittinger’s Excelsior jumps were from a helium balloon supported gondola, which incidentally set another record for the highest balloon ascent. As a result of the jumps, Kittinger received a second Distinguished Flying Cross and was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Eisenhower.

In December 1963, Kittinger and astronomer William C. White took an open-gondola helium balloon up to about 82,200 feet. From there they spent more than 18 hours making astronomical observations.

A True Hero

Kittinger went on to volunteer for three combat tours during the Vietnam War, during which he flew more than 480 missions. During his third tour he commanded the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron (aka “Triple Nickel”). On May 11, 1972, Kittinger was leading a flight of Phantoms in North Vietnam when they were engaged by MiG-21 fighter planes. While Kittinger and his wingman made a chase, Kittinger’s Phantom II was hit by an air-to-air missile that caused the airplane to catch fire. He and his Weapons Systems Operator, 1st Lt.William J. Reich, ejected from the plane and were captured and taken to Hanoi where they spent 11 months as prisoners of war. They were released March 28, 1973, and both continued their Air Force careers. Soon after, Kittinger was promoted to the rank of full Colonel.

Kittinger retired from  the USAF in 1978, but continued ballooning and skydiving. In 1984 he traveled more than 3,500 miles from Maine to nothern Italy, setting the record for longest solo balloon flight in both time (86 hours) and distance.

Kittinger was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997 and has received scores of military and civilian awards. In 1992, the Col. Joe Kittinger Park in Orlando, Florida was dedicated.

There are several videos depicting Kittinger’s 1960 ascent and jump. Many have been set to modern music and amplified with effects. This one shows authentic footage with an interview from the late ’90s:

Col. Joe Kittinger will always be known as the man who broke speed and height records and pulled out all the stops to secure the safety of air crews and astronauts. From POW to parachuting record setter, he is a modern day aviation living legend.

Last updated: Sep 11, 2012
Filed under: Legends, Retro Museum Tagged with: aircraft, military, space