The holder of numerous world ballooning records, Joseph Kittinger began his Air Force career in 1950 through the Aviation Cadet Program. Following a tour in fighters, he was assigned to several Air Force high-altitude balloon projects and became one of the pioneers of the early space program. In 1957, he made the first flight of the Manhigh program, setting a balloon altitude record of 96,000 feet while wearing a full pressure suit inside a tiny sealed capsule.
His next program was Project Excelsior, which tested man's ability to survive high altitude bailouts. His first parachute jump from a balloon at 76,000 feet nearly ended in disaster when a failure of his stabilization chute caused a spin which rendered him unconscious. He was saved by his automatic parachute opener and continued undaunted in the program of high altitude jumps. His most significant jump occurred in 1960 when he stepped from a balloon at an altitude of 102,800 feet, freefalling to 18,000 feet before opening his parachute and landing in the desert of New Mexico.
Falling at speeds up to 714 mph through air temperatures down to minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, this 4 1/2-minute jump set records that still stand today for the highest ascent in a balloon, the highest parachute jump, the longest freefall, and the fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere. Frustrated at not flying in the Korean War, Kittinger volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam, and served as commander of the famous 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4s. He downed a MiG-21 before he himself was shot down on 11 May 72, after which he spent 11 months in captivity as a POW.
He subsequently continued his distinguished career and retired as a colonel in 1978. While working at Martin Marietta Aerospace as an engineer, he was able to devote his time to his old love of ballooning. He won the Gordon-Bennett balloon races in 1982, 1984, and 1985 before accomplishing his most ambitious feat--a solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic.
On 14 September 1984, a crowd of 1,000 joined in Caribou, Maine, to sing "God Bless America" as Joe Kittinger boarded a helium balloon called Rosie O'Grady to begin his most dangerous flight. His objective was to be the first aviator to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a balloon--a feat at which six men had previously failed. After launch, Kittinger traveled over 3,500 miles at altitudes ranging between 10,000 and 17,000 feet. Although beset by cold, fatigue, and tricky winds, he successfully completed the historic flight in 3 1/2 days, crash-landing in northern Italy on 18 September. With this successful flight, Kittinger also set a record for the longest solo balloon flight as well as a distance record for this class of balloon.