Vertically Challenged

If Joe Kittinger’s 50-year-old, high-altitude jump records fall, it could be with the legendary aviator’s help.

At 82, Joe Kittinger isn’t exactly Red Bull’s target consumer. But had the energy drink been around 50 years ago, when Kittinger was working 80-hour weeks as an Air Force test pilot, he might have been tempted to avail himself of it. And Red Bull might have come in handy as recently as 1984, when Kittinger spent more than three days aloft in an open gondola as he made the first solo trans-Atlantic balloon crossing, with 10-minute naps sufficing as sleep. But those days are well in his rearview mirror. Besides, Red Bull’s slogan is “it gives you wings,” and Kittinger was born with ’em.

Orlandoans of a certain age will recall Kittinger as the local military hero who survived 11 hellish months as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam’s notorious “Hanoi Hilton.” Others know him as the gregarious promoter and habitué of Church Street Station during its heyday, when the blue sky of Central Florida was the backdrop for his skywriting on behalf of Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium.

Kittinger is legendary among military veterans and aviation buffs worldwide as the courageous test pilot who, in 1960, ascended to 102,800 feet—19 miles to the edge of space—in an open gondola hoisted by a helium balloon, then jumped.

Done as Air Force research on high-altitude escape, Kittinger’s jump set records that still stand after nearly 51 years. And that brings us to the unlikely juxtaposition of an aviator from a bygone era and an energy drink for today’s caffeine generation.

Red Bull has been engaged in the Stratos project, a sophisticated assault on Kittinger’s high-altitude jump records—but done with the intention of advancing research on the “next generation” pressure suit and spacecraft escape systems. 

Snow and Kittinger (shown here in 1980) have flown airplanes and balloons all over the world.

Red Bull intends to send Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner to an altitude of at least 120,000 feet over New Mexico in a pressurized capsule lifted by a helium balloon. From there, roughly four miles higher than Kittinger’s jumping off point, the 41-year-old skydiver and base jumper (someone who leaps from fixed objects such as buildings and cliffs) would take the plunge. He’d fall so fast that he’d break the sound barrier as he descended to an altitude where his parachute would open, rewriting history on his way back to Earth.

Red Bull is confident that Baumgartner would survive, partly because it has enlisted Kittinger—the only human to have been there, done that—as a consultant. And in a well-crafted sidebar, the company’s formidable PR machine has introduced a local hero to a new generation, giving his legacy a Red Bull-esque second wind.

“The Red Bull program brought me back to life because of the publicity associated with me being associated with it,” says Kittinger, who contributed to the design of the Stratos capsule’s life-support system and is the chief architect of the team’s testing and training procedures. “People are amazed my record is almost 51 years old. The fun thing has been people finding out about the jump and learning that the record still stands.”

Kittinger deserves the attention and the opportunity to help update aviation history, says Bob Snow, the creator of Church Street Station. Snow has flown all over the world with Kittinger in gas balloons and single-engine planes.

“It’s refreshing to see that he’s kind of been discovered,” says Snow, “and rightfully so—he’s a great American hero. . . . He stands for everything that makes America great, as far as I’m concerned.”

Kittinger has, indeed, been discovered. Or rediscovered, depending on your familiarity with his name. Since Red Bull announced Stratos 14 months ago and began actively promoting it—with, among other things, its slick website—the project has been the subject of lengthy articles in Popular Mechanics, Esquire, The New York Times and Britain’s Observer newspaper. Videos about Kittinger’s 1960 jump and Red Bull Stratos have been viewed more than 3.5 million times on YouTube. Not coincidentally, Kittinger’s lively, anecdote-filled autobiography, Come Up and Get Me, was published last June.

“I’ve been very busy,” says Kittinger, sipping tea in the Altamonte Springs home he built in 1979, surrounded by posters, photos, awards and other mementos of his 60-plus years as an aviator. His later retirement years have claimed his solid fighter pilot physique and turned his red hair white, but Kittinger still possesses the mental sharpness, energy and enthusiasm of a much younger man. Presented with the idea of being photographed for the cover of this magazine in a skydiving simulation wind tunnel, his eyes light up. “Yeah!” he responds.

Of the Stratos project, he says: “I’ve been delighted, at my age, to have the opportunity to be involved in an exciting program like this. . . . It’s a shame we haven’t done it yet. If it hadn’t been for the legal aspect, we probably would have.”

Ah, that pesky legal aspect. Last April, Daniel Hogan, a native Dutch promoter from California, sued Red Bull, claiming the company stole his plan, called Space Dive, and applied it to Stratos. Hogan’s suit claims he pitched the concept to Red Bull in 2004 as a “marriage of daredevil, record-breaking ‘stuntsmanship’ and cutting-edge technology.” Three years after informing Hogan it had lost interest in Space Dive, Red Bull began work on Stratos, which the suit says is nothing more than a Space Dive knockoff.

Red Bull has declined comment on the matter since Oct. 12, when it issued a terse announcement that Stratos had been suspended because of Hogan’s suit.  A company spokeswoman declined to discuss Kittinger’s role in the project, saying only the Orlandoan is a “treasure.” A scheduled phone interview with Baumgartner, who travels from one extreme sports event to another around the world promoting Red Bull, was greeted with a voice mail message in German. Follow-up calls to his business manager, who had set up the interview and provided this magazine with a photo of Baumgartner and Kittinger, were not returned. The official silence over Stratos is remarkable in light of Red Bull’s publicity efforts leading up to the lawsuit.

“We’re all frustrated,” says Kittinger, who reckons it would take two or three months to get Stratos back on track if and when the legal challenge is resolved. “The whole team is frustrated because we’re so close to going and we’re being held up by a frivolous

There are plenty of reasons why Kittinger’s record freefall from the stratosphere has never been broken. It’s technologically challenging. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It’s fraught with danger. But a legal challenge, says Kittinger, “would have been the last thing I’d have ever put down as a handicap.”

Red Bull figures already to have spent many millions of dollars on Stratos. There are fees and expenses for the nearly 40 engineers, scientists and consultants involved. A high-altitude helium balloon alone costs roughly $200,000 and the project requires several for test flights and backup. Baumgartner’s “next generation” pressure suit cost a quarter of a million dollars. The value of the pressurized capsule, with its communication and life-support systems, is anyone’s guess. The vehicle is equipped with 15 high-tech video and still cameras, and there are plans for a live webcast of the jump.

Assuming Red Bull goes through with it, Baumgartner’s free fall is expected to reach a speed of 640 mph, 26 miles per hour faster than Kittinger had reached. How his body might react to breaking the sound barrier falls under the category of informed speculation. One fear is the shock waves could shred Baumgartner’s pressure suit. The result wouldn’t be pretty; exposed to the vacuum of near space, blood boils. Any kind of leak in the pressure suit, for that matter, would cause ebullism (the formation of bubbles in body fluids owing to reduced ambient pressure), resulting in loss of consciousness within seconds. Another danger is uncontrolled spin. If Baumgartner doesn’t achieve the desired body position when he hops from the capsule, he won’t be able to correct it for lack of air density. The resulting spin, at something like 140 revolutions per minute, would cause him to black out. That’s what happened to Kittinger in 1959, when he jumped from 76,400 feet and a series of calamities with a multistage parachute sent him into a flat spin with a small drogue chute wrapped around his neck.  He survived only because a reserve chute opened about a mile above ground, and Kittinger ranks it as one of his two “hairiest” brushes with death that didn’t involve combat. (The other being a seemingly routine test flight that ended with his ejection from a burning jet at 800 feet.)

“For the last 50 years, I’ve been getting phone calls from people all around the world who want to jump higher than I have,” says Kittinger. “Ninety-nine percent of them had no idea what the challenge was, had no idea about pressure suits, no idea about the atmosphere, no sponsorship. . . . And none of them were interested in advancing science or technology. They just wanted to set a new record. I didn’t get involved with them because I didn’t want to be associated with something that would get somebody killed.”

There have been a handful of attempts to exceed Kittinger’s feat, but only two challengers have actually gotten off the ground: In 1962, the Soviet Union’s space agency gave it a shot but its balloon got no higher than 93,970 feet. A test pilot named Pyotr Dolgov jumped from that height, but his parachute opened prematurely and he died during the prolonged descent. In 1966, Nick Piantanida, a 34-year-old truck driver and adventurer from New Jersey, managed to pull together the financial backing and technical support for Project Strato-Jump. His first two attempts were scuttled by equipment failures, including one at 123,500 feet. As Piantanida ascended for his third attempt, chronicled by Life magazine, his suit mysteriously decompressed. His ground crew initiated an emergency descent, but Piantanida was unconscious when he landed. Comatose, he died four months later.

Kittinger had declined to assist with Piantanida’s effort and recommended that the Air Force distance itself. “He was kind of a smart-ass,” says Kittinger. “It was a tragedy. The guy was poorly trained, had a crappy team, undisciplined, no checklist. It was a throw-it-together-and-just-do-it kind of environment.”

More recently, a former French paratrooper named Michel Fournier has mounted several efforts to break Kittinger’s records. In May 2008, all systems appeared to be “go” for Fournier, who was 64 at the time, but as his balloon inflated, a malfunction in the release system caused it to separate from the capsule and float away without him. Fournier reckons he has burned through $20 million in 20 years of chasing Kittinger’s mark.

“I feel sorry for the guy,” Kittinger says of Fournier. “He’s had bad luck. Bless his heart, he’s tried and tried and tried. He’s spent all of his money and he’s looking for sponsors . . . but I think he’s getting too old.”

Kittinger says he got involved with Red Bull’s program because the company was willing to take a measured, scientific approach to the project, including incremental jumps and extensive testing of the next generation of pressure suits. “They listened to people who knew what we were talking about,” says Kittinger, adding that Red Bull has “spared no expense” to train Baumgartner and ensure his safety. “This is not a stunt. It’s a scientific program.”

Asked how much Red Bull has paid for his services, Kittinger will only say: “I’ve been on the project since August 2008, and they’ve been very generous to me.”

His favorite words are “profound” and “hostile,” as in the profound effect his imprisonment during the Vietnam War had on him, and the hostile environment Kittinger encountered in the stratosphere before jumping back to terra firma. If his spiel seems well rehearsed, it’s with good reason. When you’ve defied death as many times as he has, and accomplished a feat of derring-do no human has ever duplicated, you get asked about your exploits a lot.

But he first made news not for an extraordinary accomplishment but for how he, at age 9, boldly dealt with a mundane financial setback. In 1937, the then Morning Sentinel ran a story about Kittinger when he went to a local bank and applied for a one-dollar loan so he could buy a ticket to the Orange County Fair. Kittinger’s father had chided him for not saving his 25-cent weekly allowance for that purpose, refused to spring for the ticket and suggested he instead ask the bank. So that’s what Joe did. In the process, he learned about collateral (his bicycle), interest (a nickel on the loan amount) and public relations (the banker was clever enough to know a cute human-interest story when he saw one).

Twenty years later, an eight-column headline on page one of the Sentinel Star  trumpeted: “Orlando Flier Sets Balloon Altitude Mark,” with the subheads, “Giant Bag Ascends To 96,000 Ft.” and “Capt. Kittinger In Air 6 Hours.” The account quoted Kittinger’s parents as being “supremely confident” that their son could fly anything. Informed that the young pilot lost radio contact on his ascent to 96,000 feet, his mother replied, “Oh, that’s nothing. Joe can fly without any help.” His record ascent was officially pegged at 96,760 feet and it earned him an appearance on the popular TV quiz show What’s My Line? (which can be found on YouTube).

America’s space program was in its infancy, and Kittinger was part of the fraternity of test pilots described in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 best-seller,

After becoming the first person to solo across the Atlantic in a balloon, in 1984, Kittinger came home to a ticker-tape parade.

The Right Stuff. He likely would have been a Mercury astronaut had he not decided to honor his commitment to the Air Force’s Excelsior high-altitude jump project. “I was very much involved with some very interesting research on escape systems in space, stuff that I had originated myself,” says Kittinger. “I made a decision not to volunteer for [the Mercury program] because I didn’t want to handicap the research I was doing, and I never regretted it.’’

His jump from the stratosphere on Aug. 16, 1960, merited only a wire service story “below the fold” on the Sentinel’s front page the next day. Kittinger says his feat “kind of went by the wayside because there were so many other exciting things going on as we were going into space.” Only a week earlier, a manned X-15 rocket plane had reached a record 136,000 feet.

With Kittinger seated in an open gondola, Excelsior III lifted off from the New Mexico desert, rising at 1,200 feet per minute. Wearing 160 pounds of equipment attached to his partial-pressure suit, Kittinger passed through temperatures of minus 94-degrees Fahrenheit. During the climb, pressurization to the suit’s right glove malfunctioned, and Kittinger’s hand swelled to twice its normal size. Figuring he could manage the mission without the use of that hand, Kittinger decided against telling ground control to avoid being ordered to abort the jump.  

The balloon floated for 12 minutes at peak altitude while Kittinger went through a 46-point checklist. Once over the jump zone, he pushed a button to start the cameras, said a brief prayer and stepped over the threshold. Thirteen seconds later a 6-foot canopy parachute opened, stabilizing his fall as he hurtled through space, reaching a speed of 614 mph, or Mach .9 —just short of going supersonic. His free fall lasted four minutes and 36 seconds, with Kittinger’s velocity slowing as he fell through thicker air density. At 17,500 feet his main chute opened. His leap set records for highest parachute jump, longest free fall, highest altitude balloon flight and fastest speed by a human unassisted by a vehicle.

More importantly, the jump proved the survivability of a super-high-altitude jump at a time when the United States was developing military aircraft and spacecraft for low-orbit flight. Kissinger says astronauts on the Challenger and Columbia might have survived had they been equipped—as he was many years before the space shuttle disasters—for high-altitude escape.

A dozen years would pass before Kittinger garnered headlines of another sort. First they mourned his presumed death after his fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam, and later they celebrated his release after 11 months as a POW. Kittinger was 42 and his third tour of duty in Vietnam was drawing to a close when his Phantom F-4D was hit by an air-to-air missile. The date was May 11, 1972, and it was Kittinger’s 483rd combat mission. He and his rear-seat navigator ejected. They were captured immediately and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp at Hoa Lo.

Mark Kittinger was a senior at Edgewater High School and his brother, Joe, was attending the University of Colorado when their father’s plane was shot down. “In the Vietnam War, when the chaplain and the captain came to your door, you knew what it meant,” Mark, 55, recalls. “We just figured it was over, because they said no one [in the returning planes] saw a parachute. But he was too tough to die.”

Kittinger’s left shin had been gashed open when his plane was hit. “I came very close to losing my leg,” he says. “I had a very bad infection and they gave me no treatment. Part of their torture was not giving you medical treatment.” He was given just enough water to survive; the only way he could clean the leg wound was to urinate on it. For days on end, he endured the horrifically painful “rope torture”—forced to the ground facedown, then bound behind his back to steel bars at the ankles and elbows. Each time he refused to answer a question, his tormentors would winch the bars closer together with ropes, forcing his back into a reverse C. All this while his leg festered. The torture eased after several weeks, his solitary confinement ended and his leg slowly healed, but Kittinger remained defiant for the duration of his imprisonment.

Back home, he was listed for eight months as missing in action. His release on March 29, 1973, prompted much fanfare and was an emotional high for his family, but the demands of Kittinger’s military career had taken a toll. Within a year of his return, he and his wife, Pauline, were divorced.

He spent five more years in the service at the rank of colonel. After retiring, he took an engineering job at Martin Marietta, but, as he wrote in his autobiography, it was “hard to get excited about a desk and a stack of paper.” So in 1983 he accepted a longstanding offer from Snow to manage his aerial advertising company, Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus, where Kittinger also put his flying skills to work as a skywriter.
Meanwhile, Kittinger pursued balloon racing as a way to keep his competitive edge. Four times in the 1980s he won the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race, an endurance-distance contest, setting records along the way. His support team included Sherry Reed, 31 years his junior, whom he had met when she was a UCF student and marketing intern with the Flying Circus. Their relationship blossomed and they married in 1991.

His ballooning coup de maitre came in September 1984 when, at age 56, he became the first person to make a solo trans-Atlantic flight, drifting in the Rosie O’Grady’s Balloon of Peace from Caribou, Maine, to Cairo Montenotte, Italy. The 3,535-mile, 83-hour and 40-minute voyage made him an international celebrity and the winner of a wager with Snow, who had bet his pal he would land in water. When

Kittinger crash-landed in woods, breaking a foot in the process, Snow was on the hook for dinner at the legendary restaurant Maxim’s in Paris, but it was hardly an intimate celebratory evening among good friends. The tab came close to $10,000, recalls Snow. “About 50 people at about $150 per person, not including wine and champagne and booze,” he says, laughing. “We don’t party cheap.”

Kittinger was given a hero’s welcome when he returned home, riding atop the back seat of a convertible Rolls-Royce down Orange Avenue in a ticker-tape parade.

His historic achievements might have faded with time if not for Red Bull’s Stratos project. He has re-entered the media spotlight as the intrepid record holder of the stratospheric jump, and his effort to help Baumgartner eclipse his feat only adds to the story.

Kittinger is eager to see his records broken, as long as he can contribute to the effort. “He wants to be part of it,” Snow says, “just to keep the guy alive.”

Aviators have a saying: There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there aren’t any old, bold pilots. Kittinger would seem to defy that logic, but he guffaws at the suggestion he was endowed with incredibly big cajones. Any risks he’s taken, he says, have been carefully calculated. “Everything I did was planned, programmed,” he says. “I always surrounded myself with people smarter than I was. I always had a great team that was dedicated to my well-being. I never did anything I didn’t think I was going to survive.”

It wasn’t until Kittinger began to race balloons that he focused on setting records. When he made his “long lonely leap” in 1960, becoming, some would say, the first man in space, he was simply performing his job. If the Red Bull Stratos project restarts and Baumgartner succeeds—and Kittinger is confident he will, because among their shared personality traits is “the desire to accomplish a task”—a chapter of aviation history would be rewritten, with Kittinger relegated to a footnote.

That prospect doesn’t bother him in the least. “It’s only human nature to go faster, higher and deeper,” says Kittinger. “That’s progress.”

Mike Boslet contributed to this article.

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