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Published on May 17, 2010
Courtesy USAF http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/news... Col. Kittinger entered military service in March 1949 as an aviation cadet and was commissioned a second lieutenant in March 1950. Following a tour with the 86th Fighter Bomber Wing in Germany, he was assigned to the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
In 1957 he made the first flight of the Manhigh program, which was designed to study cosmic rays and test human physical and mental capabilities when traveling at extremely high altitudes. On this flight he set a balloon altitude record of nearly 97,000 feet while wearing a full pressure suit inside a tiny sealed gondola - an accomplishment for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Appointed Test Director of Project Excelsior, he made his most significant jump on Aug. 16, 1960, when he stepped from a balloon-supported gondola at the altitude of 102,800 feet to test the use of a parachute for escape from a space capsule or high-altitude aircraft. In free-fall for 4.5 minutes at speeds up to 614 mph and temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit, Col. Kittinger opened his parachute at 18,000 feet. The jump set records that still stand today: the highest ascent in a balloon, the highest parachute jump, the longest free-fall, and the fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere.
In 1962, Col. Kittinger and Astronomer William C. White took part in Project Stargazer, a balloon astronomy experiment in which they hovered for 18.5 hours to check variations in the brightness of star images.
Col. Kittinger changed his focus later that decade and volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam. He flew a total of 483 missions in Southeast Asia during the war, and served as commander of the famous 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4s. He downed a MiG-21 before he himself was shot down on May 11, 1972, after which he spent 11 months in captivity as a prisoner of war.
He retired as a colonel in 1978, and went on to win the Gordon-Bennett balloon races in 1982, 1984 and 1985, before accomplishing his most ambitious feat - a solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The flight went from Maine to Italy, lasting 86 hours and upon completion Col. Kittinger became the first person to fly a balloon alone across the Atlantic Ocean.
In the later part of his career, he operated Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus, offering hot air balloon rides and airplane banner towing in Orlando.