February 8, 2023

Joseph Gittinger: Highest Skydiver in 52 Years Dies at 94 | US Army

Retired US Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger, who held the world record for jumping nearly 20 miles (32 km) above the Earth in 1960 and stood for more than 50 years, has died in Florida at the age of 94.

His death was announced Friday by former US Congressman John Micah and other friends. The cause is lung cancer.

Kittinger, then an Air Force captain and pilot, gained worldwide fame when he completed three jumps in 10 months from a gondola lifted into the stratosphere by large helium balloons. Project Excelsior was intended to help design evacuation systems for high-altitude military pilots.

Wearing a pressure suit and 60 pounds (27 kg) of equipment, Kittinger nearly died during the project’s first jump in November 1959 when his gear malfunctioned after jumping from 14.5 miles. He lost consciousness while spinning at 22 times the Earth’s gravity. He was saved when his self-propelled hose was opened.

Joseph Kittinger 1959 in a balloon gondola for his first test jump in New Mexico. Photo: A.P

Four weeks later, Kittinger made his second jump from more than 14 miles above the surface. No problem this time.

Kittinger’s record jump came on August 16, 1960 in the New Mexico desert. His pressure suit malfunctioned as he soared, unable to close his right arm, which swelled to twice its normal size before he jumped from 102,800 feet — more than 19 miles above the surface.

Falling through the thin atmosphere, the Florida airman reached speeds of 600mph (965km/h) before, when his parachute stopped at 18,000ft (5.5km), progressively thickening air slowed his descent to 150mph.

“You can’t imagine speed,” Gittinger told Florida Trend magazine in 2011. “You don’t have depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you don’t know what your speed is. It’s the same thing if you’re free in space. There are no signposts.”

“You know you’re going too fast, but you don’t feel it. There’s no 614 mph wind blowing on you. All I could hear was breathing in the helmet.

His record stood until 2012, when Austrian Felix Baumgartner reached a supersonic speed of 844 mph (1,360 km/h) from an altitude of 24 miles (38.6 km) over the New Mexico desert. Kittinger served as a consultant.

Kittinger stayed in the Air Force after his jumps, serving three tours during the Vietnam War. He was shot down over North Vietnam in May 1972, but ejected. He was captured and tortured for 11 months in a Hanoi POW camp.

He retired from the Air Force in 1978 and settled in the Orlando area, where he became a local icon. A park there is named after him.

He is survived by his wife Sherry.