However, in the midst of everyone handing out plaudits to Baumgartner for his record-setting skydive, I would like to take this opportunity to remind readers about the man who paved the way decades earlier, Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger. So I ask you to bear with me as I engage in a bit of jingoism and explain why Kittinger was even nuttier than ‘ol Felix.
It was an exciting time to be a pilot in the 1950s. Chuck Yeager and the boys were doing crazy things out at Muroc (now Edwards) Air Force base. Jet planes were flying faster, farther, and higher than ever. With these new capabilities, the Air Force was understandably growing concerned with the ability of their pilots and aircrew to safely bail out at high altitudes.
Impressed with his flying skills, shown chasing jet cars through the salt flats at low levels without turning his plane into a smoking crater, the Air Force invited then-Captain Joe Kittinger to be part of the project to test high altitude parachute capabilities the project was to be named Excelsior, Latin for “ever upward.”
Knowing that he would be jumping higher than any B-52 had ever flown apparently didn’t trouble Kittinger or his humongous balls. On the first try, the chute malfunctioned wrapped around his neck, and choked him out. Thankfully, his automatic opening device operated as intended and saved his life.
Back then, pesky near-death experiences didn’t really have much of a deterrent on men like Kittinger. So, a couple of weeks later, he went up in the balloon again. This time, the pressurization in his suit failed, and his hand swelled to twice its normal size, rendering it unusable. Not wanting the mission to be aborted, and while in extreme pain, Kittinger said nothing to ground control. Then, looking out from his perch at 102,800 feet, he said “Fuck it” and jumped.
Remember, Project Excelsior was in 1960. I’m pretty sure science didn’t actually exist yet. There were probably a couple of guys smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes and swigging scotch working out the geometry with their slide rules and working with computers with hundreds of
mega kilo bytes of computing power. I’m sure old timey words like “swell” and “chum” were tossed around like crazy. And the clipboards… there were many clipboards.
For his efforts, Kittinger was awarded his salary of slightly over $3000 a month, in today’s dollars. The story barely made the papers.
After his historic jump, Captain Kittenger was deployed to Vietnam, engaging the enemy in both aerial and ground combat. He shot down a MIG fighter jet, who returned the favor later that deployment by shooting him down, resulting in his being captured by the enemy.
After capture, Kittinger was a POW at the Hanoi Hilton for almost a year. During this time, he was routinely tormented by the enemy, including the infamous Vietnamese “rope torture.” He distinguished himself further while in captivity, bravely resisting the enemy to the best of his ability and maintaining command and control.
During his remarkable career, Colonel Joseph Kittinger was awarded 2 Silver Stars, 3 Bronze Stars with Valor device, 5 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 2 Purple Hearts, and 23 air medals! Beat THAT, Baumgartner!
Retiring in 1978 at the age of 50, still interested in ballooning and bored with civilian life, Colonel Kittinger married a hot chick 30 years his junior, and took up balloon racing. He became the first man to solo across the Atlantic ocean in a hot air balloon in 1984, and was a regular on the balloon racing circuit. (Yes, that is a thing.)
Red Bull is to be commended for including Colonel Kittinger in the Stratos project. And the Colonel, as one would expect, has been nothing but a class act in supporting Baumgartner. But you know, deep down, that 89 year old Colonel Joe wants to get back up there now and kick his ass back to Austria and take back his record.
In all seriousness, Felix: you did a hell of a job. Big ups to you, my man.
*On a side note, as far as Baumgartner’s jump itself: After taking an informal survey of all the HALO guys I know, they agree: They’d still rather do Felix’s jump than one of these.