In the epilogue of his autobiography, Come Up and Get Me, Joseph Kittinger Jr. explained, “I was born in the age of the barnstormers and lived to fly supersonic fighter jets. I have flown on four continents, across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and have logged more than 16,800 hours in 93 different aircraft. I flew 483 combat missions, made 102 parachute jumps, and ejected twice from disabled jets. My ambition has been as singular as it has been transparent.  From the instant of that first takeoff in Phil Orr’s Piper Cub at Lake Tibet Butler when I was sixteen, all I’ve ever really wanted to do is fly—which, in my mind, is to be part of something altogether glorious.”

Col. Joseph Kittinger certainly lived a pilot’s life, and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is saddened by his recent passing on December 9, 2022, at the age of 94. 

The moment Joseph Kittinger, Jr., leaped from his gondola during Project Excelsior on August 16, 1960, at an altitude of 102,800 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo, 050316-F-1234P-021)


Kittinger is most well-known for his work in the lighter-than-air world during his distinguished career in the U.S. Air Force. He took part in Project Man High, testing the impact of high-altitude flight on the human body, as well as Project Excelsior. As a part of Project Excelsior, Kittinger helped to test equipment for high altitude flight, as well as aspects of the early space program. On August 16, 1960, Kittinger set several world records that held for numerous decades when he ascended to an altitude of 102,800 feet in a helium balloon and jumped from the gondola. He was in a complete free fall for four minutes and 36 seconds, the longest parachute free fall ever completed at that time, and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour during the fall.  Kittinger’s balloon piloting skills were put to the test once more in 1962, when he helped bring a civilian astronomer and telescope equipment to an altitude of around 80,000 feet during Operation Stargazer.


Captain Joseph Kittinger, Jr.  (Air Force photo, 050316-F-1234P-020)


Kittinger’s 28-year Air Force career also included three combat tours during the Vietnam War. During his third tour in Vietnam, Kittinger was shot down while engaged in air combat near Hanoi. He and his wingman successfully ejected and spent 11 months in the Hỏa Lò Prison, commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Kittinger commented on his imprisonment in his book, stating, “Thoughts of our families and our country kept us going when things were darkest… I came away from the experience with a determination to appreciate the good fortune with which my life has been blessed and to celebrate every single day of the rest of the grand adventure.”

Postal cover carried by Joseph Kittinger during his record-setting solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1984. (Smithsonian Institution)

After retiring from the Air Force, Kittinger continued his record-setting in the civilian lighter-than-air community. Kittinger joined “Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus,” an air show for which he flew balloons and biplanes. He also entered numerous balloon races and events, including the re-established U.S. James Gordon Bennett Balloon Race,  winning the race four times (1982, 1984, 1985, and 1988). In 1984, Kittinger became the first pilot to ever fly across solo across the Atlantic in a balloon, while setting a world record for the longest distance flown with a 3,000 cubic foot balloon, traveling 3,543 miles from Caribou, Maine, to Montenotte, Italy, in 86 hours.  

USAF colonel (ret.) Joe Kittinger of the United States and Felix Baumgartner of Austria pose for a photograph at the press conference at the Hangar 7 in Salzburg, Austria on October 27, 2012. Photographer: Jörg Mitter

Kittinger continued his incredible accomplishments even after his retirement from flying by working with Austrian parachutist Felix Baumgartner on his high altitude balloon flight in the Red Bull Stratos capsule. Kittinger shared his incredible wealth of knowledge and experience with Baumgartner as they prepared for the flight and spoke with Baumgartner during his ascent to above 120,000 feet. On October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner successfully jumped from above 120,000 feet, and broke many of the records set by Kittinger in 1960 as Kittinger watched and provided words of guidance and encouragement. The Red Bull Stratos capsule is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center, providing just one more chapter in this incredible story.

The world will never know another Joseph Kittinger Jr. He showed undaunted courage, sacrifice, and world-record accomplishments throughout his career and life, and received numerous military and civilian awards and honors.  Most of all, however, his life in flight made him part of “something altogether glorious.”

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