Joe Kittinger

World Record: Highest skydive — 102,800 feet (31.3 km) — from 1960 until 2012

A Gutsy Aviator

One Giant Step (from Forbes Magazine), James M. Clash, December 8, 2003

Joe Kittinger is not a household aviation name like Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager. But what he did for the U.S. space program is comparable.

On Aug. 16, 1960, as research for the then- fledgling U.S. space program, Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger rode a helium balloon to the edge of space, 102,800 feet above the earth, a feat in itself.  Then, wearing just a thin pressure suit and breathing supplemental oxygen, he leaned over the cramped confines of his gondola and jumped–into the 110-degree-below- zero, near-vacuum of space. Within seconds his body accelerated to 714mph in the thin air, breaking the sound barrier. After free- falling for more than four and a half minutes, slowed finally by friction from the heavier air below, he felt his parachute open at 14,000 feet, and he coasted gently down to the New Mexico desert floor.

Kittinger’s feat showed scientists that astronauts could survive the harshness of space with just a pressure suit and that man could eject from aircraft at extreme altitudes and survive. Upon Kittinger’s return to base, a congratulatory telegram was waiting from the Mercury Seven astronauts–including Alan Shepard and John Glenn.

More than four decades later Kittinger’s two world records–the highest parachute jump, and the only man to break the sound barrier without a craft and live–still stand. We decided to visit the retired colonel and Aviation Hall of Famer, now 75, at his home in Altamonte Springs, Florida, to recall his historic jump.

FORBES GLOBAL: Take us back to New Mexico and Aug.16, 1960.

Joe Kittinger: We got up at 2 a.m. to start filling the helium balloon. At sea level, it was 35 to 40 feet wide and 200 feet high; at altitude, due to the low air pressure, it expanded to 25 stories in width, and still was 20 stories high! At 4 a.m. I began breathing pure oxygen for two hours. That’s how long it takes to remove all the nitrogen from your blood so you don’t get the bends going so high so fast. Then it was a lengthy dress procedure layering warm clothing under my pressure suit. They kept me in air- conditioning until it was time to launch because we were in the desert and I wasn’t supposed to sweat. If I did, my clothes would freeze on the way up.

How was your ascent?

It took an hour and a half to get to altitude. It was cold. At 40,000 feet, the glove on my right hand hadn’t inflated. I knew that if I radioed my doctor, he would abort the flight. If that happened, I knew I might never get another chance because there were lots of people who didn’t want this test to happen. I took a calculated risk, that I might lose use of my right hand. It quickly swelled up, and I did lose use for the duration of the flight. But the rest of the pressure suit worked. When I reached 102,800 feet, maximum altitude, I wasn’t quite over the target. So I drifted for 11 minutes. The winds were out of the east.

What’s it look like from so high up?

You can see about 400 miles in every direction. The formula is 1.25 x the sq. root of the altitude in thousands of feet. Sq. root of 102,000 ft. is 319 X 1.25 = 399 miles.  The most fascinating thing is that it’s just black overhead–the transition from normal blue to black is very stark. You can’t see stars because there’s a lot of glare from the sun, so your pupils are too small. I was struck with the beauty of it.  But I was also struck by how hostile it is: more than 100 degrees below zero, no air. If my protection suit failed, I would be dead in a few seconds. Blood actually boils above 62,000 feet.

I went through my 46-step checklist, disconnected from the balloon’s power supply and lost all communication with the ground. I was totally under power from the kit on my back. When everything was done, I stood up, turned around to the door, took one final look out and said a silent prayer: “Lord, take care of me now.” Then I just jumped over the side.

What were you thinking as you took that step?

It’s the beginning of a test. I had gone through simulations many times–more than 100. I rolled over and looked up, and there was the balloon just roaring into space. I realized that the balloon wasn’t roaring into space; I was going down at a fantastic rate! At about

90,000 feet, I reached 714mph. The altimeter on my wrist was unwinding very rapidly. But there was no sense of speed. Where you determine speed is visual–if you see something go flashing by. But nothing flashes by 20 miles up–there are no signposts there, and you are way above any clouds. When the chute opened, the rest of the jump was anticlimactic because everything had worked perfectly. I landed 12 or 13 minutes later, and there was my crew waiting. We were elated.

How about your right hand?

It hurt–there was quite a bit of swelling and the blood pressure in my arm was high. But that went away in a few days, and I regained full use of my hand.

What about attempts to break your record?

We did it for air crews and astronauts–for the learning, not to set a record. They will be going up as skydivers. Somebody will beat it someday. Records are made to be busted. And I’ll be elated. But I’ll also be concerned that they’re properly trained. If they’re not, they’re taking a heck of a risk.

Joseph Kittinger, Jr. is best known for his high-altitude balloon flights and parachute jumps that he made while heading the U.S. Air Force’s “Project Excelsior” in the 1950s. The project’s goal was to solve the problems of high-altitude bailout. It used a high-altitude balloon with an open gondola to travel to the edge of space, with the pilot parachuting from the gondola to the ground. 

On November 16, 1959, Kittinger piloted Excelsior I to 76,000 feet (23,165 meters) and returned to Earth by jumping, free falling, and parachuting to the desert floor in New Mexico. He followed this with the flight of Excelsior II, launched on December 11, 1959. This balloon climbed to 74,700 feet (22,769 meters) before Kittinger jumped from his gondola. 

The third flight, on August 16, 1960, broke records. The Excelsior III climbed to 102,800 feet (31,333 meters), and on his descent, Kittinger freefell at speeds up to 614 miles per hour, approaching the speed of sound without the protection of an aircraft or space vehicle and experiencing temperatures as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius). He was in freefall for 4.5 minutes before he opened his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters). For his work on this project, on October 3,

1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Kittinger the C.B Harmon Trophy, and he also received an oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross, the J.J. Jeffries Award, the Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, and the Wingfoot Lighter-Than-Air Society Achievement Award.  

Kittinger also participated in “Project Stargazer,” a balloon astronomy experiment in December 1962, along with astronomer William C. White. The two men rose to an altitude of 82,200 feet (25,055 meters) in a balloon over Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico and hovered for 18.5 hours to check variations in the brightness of star images caused by the atmosphere.

Kittinger also served three combat tours in Vietnam and spent eleven months in captivity as a prisoner of war. He retired from the military in 1978. After his retirement, he continued working in aeronautics. He won the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race four times during the 1980s and retired the trophy with three consecutive victories. In November 1983, Kittinger established a new world record by flying a 35,300 cubic-foot (1,000 cubic-meter) helium balloon from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Franklinville, New York, covering 2,001 miles (3,220 kilometers) in 72 hours. He expended all available ballast during this trip and landed in only his underwear.

In September 1984, Kittinger set another record by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean. He flew the 105,944-cubic-foot (3,000 cubic meter) helium-filled Rosie O’Grady from Presque Island, Maine to the Italian Riviera near Savona, Italy. His trip covered 3,535 miles (5,690 kilometers) in 86 hours. 

Joe Kittingers world record setting skydive of 102,800 feet (31.3 km)

Felix Baumgartner Space Jump World Record 2012 (broke Kittinger’s record which stood from 1960 – 2012. Kittinger was on hand to support Felix.

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Trophy, the museum's highest honor, was awarded to world record-setting parachutist and balloonist Col. Joseph W. Kittinger Jr

Doug Burns

World Record:
  1. Shortest takeoff (1,369 ft)
  2. Shortest landing (1,356 ft)
  3. Time-to-climb to 7,000 meters
John Douglass "Doug" Burns

On 3 June 1994, Doug Burns as pilot and Air Force Major Andy Gerner as his co-pilot established three world records in the C-17 aircraft at Edwards AFB. The records were witnessed and certified by members of the International Aeronautic Association on that date.

The records were for an aircraft in the 360,000 pound category. All of the records were previously held for many years by the Russians. The records set were:

1 Takeoff in 1369 feet

2 Landing in 1356 feet

3 Time to climb to 7,000 meters

All 3 records still stand as of November 2023.

John Douglass "Doug" Burns