Kittinger’s No Ordinary Joe

The thought of Joe being an ethereal figure didn’t come to mind as I watched him begin to gain altitude in the wind tunnel. . .

What was I thinking?

Joe Kittinger is 82 years old, in his twilight years, I believe one could say, and here he is kind of floating, kind of crashing in a skydiving simulator only because I thought it would be a good idea to shoot a cover photo of him appearing to be airborne.

Did I mention that Joe is 82?

Yeah, you probably picked up on that. But you wouldn’t have given his age a second thought, as I didn’t, if you had spent some time with Joe, as I did one afternoon. His energy would astound you. Anyway, that’s when I suggested my idea to the legendary Orlando aviator who’s the subject of contributing writer Dave Seanor’s story (see “Vertically Challenged” on page 40) .

“So, Joe, what would you think about getting in this wind tunnel on I-Drive so we could shoot some photos of you looking like you’re flying?”
He couldn’t wait to do it.

Joe was even more psyched to get into the simulator after he arrived at iFLY Orlando. There he was treated like a rock star by several skydivers and his instructor, 26-year-old Chris Dixon, who only a few months earlier had attended a book signing for Come Up and Get Me, Joe’s autobiography. None of them had even been born when Joe, in 1960, made his ballsy leap from 102,800 feet. Yet most of them knew his name and vaguely knew what he had done. Joe’s high-altitude parachute records still stand today, but maybe not for much longer if an effort that he has aided is successful. Every skydiver at iFLY, including the two French guys who couldn’t speak a lick of English but understood they were in the presence of history, waited for a turn to be photographed with him.

Standing beside me was Joe’s wife, Sherry, who said I was witnessing standard protocol among skydivers who recognize Joe. At parachute conventions, she said, Joe is a god.

The thought of Joe being an ethereal figure didn’t come to mind as I watched him begin to gain altitude in the wind tunnel, with Dixon keeping him from hitting the Plexiglass chamber walls. He was looking all too human for me, like Superman careening to Earth after being hit by a blast of kryptonite in midflight.

I nearly yelled, “Abort! Abort!,” as fears of injury flooded my mind. I did not want to be on the evening news explaining how it was my idea to put a man just a few years younger than my father, who would have advised me against this stunt, into a wind tunnel so Orlando magazine could get a picture of him “flying.”

So I turned away from the scene in the wind tunnel. That’s when I spotted Sherry sitting serenely in the viewing area. She might as well have been home watching a TV documentary on knitting.

Joe has bailed out of flaming Air Force jets, endured torture as a prisoner of war, crash landed in a balloon and hurtled back to Earth at 614 mph powered by nothing but his own velocity. What’s a little bumping around in a wind tunnel for someone born with angels on his shoulders?

Turns out that Joe had such a good time in there that he immediately booked a reservation to come back for a lesson with Dixon.

Joe plans to make a parachute jump this summer in commemoration of the 51st anniversary of his historic leap from space. He’ll be 83 by then and, as he did on his record-setting balloon crossing of the Atlantic in 1984, he will do it alone, he insists, not as baggage hooked to a skydiving instructor.

But why didn’t he make a jump on the 50th anniversary of his historic feat? Kittinger said he would have if he hadn’t undergone bypass surgery last summer.

Geez, I really wish he hadn’t told me that.

Categories: Column