U.S.

Legendary Air Force pilot who parachuted 29 miles above Earth dies at 94


Retired US Air Force pilot Col. Joseph Kittinger died Friday in Florida.

Kittinger, 94, held the record for the highest skydive for more than 50 years.

The cause of his death, announced by former U.S. Rep. John Mica and other friends, was lung cancer.

Previously an Air Force captain and pilotKittinger gained international fame when he performed three jumps over 10 months from a gondola that was lifted into the stratosphere by large helium balloons.

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Project Excelsior was aimed at helping design ejection systems for military pilots flying high-altitude missions.

During his first jump in November 1959, Kittinger nearly died when his equipment failed after a 14.5-mile jump above the surface.

FILE – Retired Air Force Col. Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. smiles during his induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame, Saturday, July 19, 1997, in Dayton, Ohio. Kittinger, the U.S. Air Force pilot who held the record for the highest parachute jump for more than 50 years, died Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, in Florida at age 94.
(AP Photo/Michael Heinz, File)

He lost consciousness when he spun, which was 22 times the force of gravity, but was saved when his automatic chute opened.

About a month later he made his second jump without a problem of just over 14 miles.

Kittinger’s entry is August 16, 1960, in the desert of New Mexico. This time, however, his spacesuit malfunctioned as he ascended, causing his right arm to swell to twice its normal size before the 19-mile jump above the surface.

Legendary Air Force pilot who parachuted 29 miles above Earth dies at 94

On August 16, 1960, Colonel Kittinger descended from a balloon-supported gondola at an altitude of 102,800 feet. Freefalling for 4.5 minutes at speeds of up to 614 miles per hour and temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit, he opened his parachute at 18,000 feet.
(NASA/Corbis via Getty Images)

He topped 600 mph before gradually thickening air slowed his fall to about 150 mph when his parachute opened at 18,000 feet.

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“There’s no way to visualize speed,” the Tampa native told Florida Trend magazine in 2011. “There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car, driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It’s the same if you’re free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you’re going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have 614 mph wind. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.”

Kittinger remained in the Air Force after jumping and serving three tours of duty during the Vietnam War.

FILE - In this photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, Capt. Joseph Kittinger Jr., director of the aerospace laboratory, sits in the open balloon gondola after his first parachute test jump for Project Excelsior at the Air Force Missile Development Center, N.M. November 16, 1959. The gondola carries him to an altitude of 76,400 feet for his record freefall jump of more than 12 miles.  On the left is David Willard, who designed and developed special equipment for the gondola.

FILE – In this photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, Capt. Joseph Kittinger Jr., director of the aerospace laboratory, sits in the open balloon gondola after his first parachute test jump for Project Excelsior at the Air Force Missile Development Center, N.M. November 16, 1959. The gondola carries him to an altitude of 76,400 feet for his record freefall jump of more than 12 miles. On the left is David Willard, who designed and developed special equipment for the gondola.
(AP Photo/File)

In May 1972, he was shot down but ejected and was later captured, spending 11 months in a Hanoi POW camp and being tortured.

Kittinger retired from the Air Force in 1978 and became a local icon in the Orlando area.

His record was broken in 2012 by Austrian Felix Baumgartner, jumping from 24 miles above the New Mexico desert and reaching a speed of 844 miles per hour. Kittinger was an adviser.

He is survived by his wife, Sherry.

Joseph Kittinger Jr. (right), balloon pilot who broke the highest altitude record by flying to 102,800 feet, speaks to the media as Paul Tibbetts listens during a press conference July 19, 2003 in Dayton, Ohio.

Joseph Kittinger Jr. (right), balloon pilot who broke the highest altitude record by flying to 102,800 feet, speaks to the media as Paul Tibbetts listens during a press conference July 19, 2003 in Dayton, Ohio.
(Mike Simons/Getty Images)

“Joe will be greatly missed, but his achievements and legacy will long be admired and remembered by explorers around the world,” Explorers Club President Richard Garriott de Caio said in a statement.

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Kittinger, a member of the club, was a distinguished recipient of the 2001 Explorers Club Medal.

Garriott de Cayeux noted that among his many accolades, he was the first person to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas-powered balloon, as well as the first person to fully witness the curvature of the Earth.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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