August 16 is National Airborne Day and paratroopers all over the country are remembering their own experiences and sharing some of them via social media. 

President George Bush created National Airborne Day in 2002. It was designated by Congress to honor America’s paratroopers. 

Airborne combat continues to be driven by the bravery and daring spirit of sky soldiers. Often called into action with little notice, these forces have earned an enduring reputation for dedication, excellence, and honor. As we face the challenges of a new era, I encourage all people to recognize the contributions of these courageous soldiers to our Nation and the world,” President Bush had said. 

National Airborne Day falls on the day of the Army’s first parachute jumps. On August 16, 1940, Lt. William Ryder was credited with being the first Army paratrooper to “jump from a perfectly good airplane.” He was the first commander of the Parachute Test Platoon in 1940.

Also on 16 August, 20 years later, Colonel Joe Kittinger, participating in the high altitude balloon Project Excelsior III, would set several world records for the time: the highest skydive from a height greater than 19 miles (31 km, 102,800 ft), highest balloon ascent, longest-duration drogue-fall (four minutes), and the highest speed achieved by a human through the atmosphere. Besides the Excelsior projects, Colonel Kittinger also participated in Project Manhigh.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were interested in these ultra-high balloon flights on the edge of space. That was just the beginning of the “space race” and at that point, the Soviets were ahead. 

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In the mid-1950s, the U.S. Air Force had a piloted high-altitude balloon project — Project Manhigh. The project would not only test the effects of cosmic radiation on the human body by placing a pilot above 100,000 feet, but would also serve as a prototype for future spacecraft. Between June 1957 and October 1958, there were three piloted Manhigh flights. Kittinger piloted Manhigh-1, which reached 97,000 feet on June 2, 1957. After he conducted the second Manhigh flight the following August, Kittinger was posted to the Aero Medical Laboratory where the Air Force tested parachuting from extreme altitudes.

Project Excelsior followed Manhigh. (The name Excelsior was selected because it means “ever upward” in Latin.)

The pilots involved in Project Excelsior were not trained skydivers so Francis Beaupre, a technician, designed a three-stage parachute system. After leaping from a gondola, Kittinger would fall for 16 seconds to build up speed. Then, a spring-loaded 18-inch diameter pilot chute would deploy. The pilot chute would then deploy a six-foot diameter drogue chute that would stabilize Kittinger in a feet-to-earth position. This drogue chute would keep Kettinger from going into a flat spin, which is a common issue with anyone or anything that is falling from the sky and is not stable.

As he would fall to earth with the drogue chute deployed, about one-third of the 28-foot diameter main canopy would be released from the parachute pack. Once he reached 18,000 feet, an automatic opening device would then deploy the rest of the main chute. 

Kittinger wore an Air Force MC-3 partial pressure suit covered by insulated winter flying coveralls. If either the suit or helmet failed, unconsciousness would come in 10-12 seconds, followed by death in just 2-3 minutes at that altitude. In addition to the pressure suit and parachute system, Kittinger also carried a box containing oxygen, instruments, and cameras. Something that all paratroopers can fully appreciate is that with all of the gear strapped to his body, Kittinger weighed in at 320 pounds — more than twice his normal weight.

Excelsior I nearly ended in disaster. Kittinger drifted to 76,400 feet, nearly 16,000 feet (three miles) higher than the intended 60,000-foot altitude. An equipment malfunction caused the pilot chute to deploy early and then flop around, eventually wrapping itself around his neck. He immediately went into a flat spin, which he could control, but soon he blacked out. 

Kittinger regained consciousness. He was floating beneath the reserve parachute several thousand feet above the ground. The pilot parachute had never deployed the drogue because it was tangled around his neck, so the main parachute never deployed either. 

An automatic opening device opened the reserve parachute at 10,000 feet, but due to the spin, that too tangled around him. Fortunately, Beaupre had installed a reserve parachute pilot chute; the reserve cleared itself at 6,000 feet and inflated.

Excelsior II was conducted on December 11, 1959. Kittinger jumped from the gondola 74,700 feet above New Mexico. That time, everything worked perfectly. Just 14 seconds after leaving the balloon, the pilot parachute deployed. The small parachute deployed the drogue perfectly and the main canopy deployed at 18,000 feet, exactly as planned.

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On August 16, 1960, Excelsior III launched from Tularosa, New Mexico. It carried Kittinger to 102,800 feet. During the ascent, the pressurization in his right glove failed. His hand swelled to nearly twice its normal size paining him a lot. Afraid that he would be ordered to jump early because of the malfunction, Kittinger did not report the problem until he arrived at jumping altitude. 

On Aug. 16, 1960, Col. Kittinger stepped from a balloon-supported gondola at 102,800 feet of altitude. In freefall for 4.5 minutes at speeds of up to 714 mph and temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit, he opened his parachute at 18,000 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

As Kittinger launched from “the highest step in the world,” he rolled over on his back to glance at the balloon against a black sky. He fell for 16 seconds before the pilot chute popped, followed by the drogue that stabilized him. At 90,000 feet, he reached an incredible top speed of 625.2 miles per hour. 

His main parachute deployed after a 4.5 minutes freefall. At that point, he had fallen a distance of over 16 miles. He emerged from the clouds at 15,000 feet. Two helicopters circled around him as he descended to the desert floor.

Prior to landing, Kittinger was supposed to release the instrument box beneath his container. Nevertheless, only one side released, due to the swelling of his right hand, so he landed with its additional weight. Luckily he only bruised and didn’t break his leg upon landing. The entire sequence of jumping from the balloon to landing lasted 13 minutes and 45 seconds. 

In a piece that he wrote for National Geographic, Kittinger recalled his experience.

“At zero count I step into space. No wind whistles or billows my clothing. I have absolutely no sensation of the increasing speed with which I fall.

I drop facing the clouds. Then I roll over on my back and find an eerie sight. The white balloon contrasts starkly with a sky as black as night, though it is 7:12 in the morning and I am bathed in sunshine. Again I look for stars, but see none…”

“I am on the ground, apparently in one piece. I am surrounded by sand, salt grass, and sage, but no Garden of Eden could look more beautiful. The elapsed time since bail-out is 13 minutes, 45 seconds.

The helicopters land, and George Post, Gene Fritz, Beau, and Dr. Dick Chubb dash toward me, all wearing big smiles. They remove my helmet and heavy flight garments.

Dick looks at the swollen hand with concern. Three hours later the swelling will have disappeared with no ill effect. As clean, fresh air washes over me, I say, ‘I’m very glad to be back with you all.'”

Kittinger returned to the regular Air Force and served three tours of duty in Vietnam, flying a total of 483 combat missions. On his final one, his F-4 Phantom was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired by a MiG-21. He languished for 11.5 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He retired from the Air Force in 1978.