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Joseph Kittinger
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Joseph Kittinger

Joseph Kittinger (born July 27, 1928) was a pilot in the United States Air Force. He is remembered for his participation in Project Man High and Project Excelsior.

Born in Tampa, Florida he was educated at Bolles School, Jacksonville and the University of Florida. After racing speedboats as a teenager and later completing his aviation cadet training he joined the USAF in March, 1950. He was assigned to the 86th Fighter bomber Wing based at Ramstein AFB in West Germany. In 1954 he was transferred to Holloman AFB in New Mexico and the Air Force Missile Development Center (AFMDC). Kittinger flew the observation plane which monitored Colonel John Paul Stapp's rocket sled run of 632 mph in 1955. Kittinger was impressed by the dedication of Stapp (a pioneer in space medicine). Stapp in turn was impressed with Kittinger's skillful jet piloting, later recommending him for space aviation work. Stapp was to foster the high altitude tests which would lead to Kittingers record leap. In 1957 as part of Man High he set a balloon altitude record of 96,000 feet in Man High I. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He was then assigned to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. For Project Excelsior (meaning 'ever upward', a name given to the project by Colonel Stapp), as part of research into high altitude bailout, he made a series of high altitude parachute jumps, from 76,400 feet (23,287 m) in November, 1958; from 74,700 feet (22,769 m) in December, 1958. In 1959 Kittinger made an open gondola jump from 14 miles. For the jump Kittinger was awarded the Leo Stevens parachute medal. On August 16, 1960 he jumped from the Excelsior III at 102,800 feet (31,300 m). He was in freefall for 4 minutes and reached a maximum speed of 614 mph (982 km/h) before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 m). He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest freefall and fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere. For his jumps he was decorated with an oak leaf cluster to his D.F.C. and awarded the C.B. Harmon Trophy.

Back at Holloman AFB he also took part in Project Stargazer on December 13-14, 1962. He and William C. White, an astronomer, took a balloon of equipment to a height of 82,200 feet (25,055 m) and spent over eighteen hours at that height in performing observations.

Kittinger served three combat tours during the Vietnam War, commanding the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron. He was shot down on May 11, 1972 and spent almost a year as a prisoner of war.

He retired in 1978 and went to work for Martin Marietta. Still interested in ballooning he won the Gordon-Bennett balloon race three times (1982, 1984, 1985) and completed a solo Atlantic crossing in the 3,000 m Rosie O'Grady from September 14-18, 1984.

Kittinger still lives in Tampa where he has a public park named after him.