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Last week we met John Stapp and his courageous efforts to improve the safety of aircrew and car drivers alike. Crash safety was only one of many projects Stapp undertook. After the Gee Whiz, John rode another rocket sled, the Sonic Wind. The Sonic Wind exposed John to the wind blast pilots would encounter on ejection, up to a brutal top speed of 632 mph. It’s a story in itself, but this post isn’t about John, it’s about a good colleague of his who flew a chase plane behind the Sonic Wind, Joseph Kittinger.

Kittinger heard about Stapp in the early 50s. When Stapp needed a pilot to fly parabolic arcs so people could experience weightlessness, Kittinger volunteered. The knowledge they gained in exposing people to weightlessness is still in use today in NASA’s Vomit Comet (facing forward doesn’t make much difference in this aircraft, Diane). Kittinger volunteered again when Stapp needed subjects for a project called Manhigh.

Project Manhigh – could a man survive at altitude?

Manhigh involved an aluminum gondola packed with monitoring equipment and suspended beneath a giant helium balloon. The space age was dawning, and among the many questions that needed answering was the effect of cosmic rays on human beings. In 1957, Joe rode the gondola up to 96, 784ft.

There were several problems during the assent. The first seems trivial; the plastic knob on the frequency dial of his radio came off. This sounds farcical, but it meant Joe couldn’t tune his radio into the correct channel, so Joe could hear the ground controllers, but they couldn’t hear him. Fortunately, there was a second radio link, but Joe was limited to communicating in Morse code.

The bigger problem was that the gondola was losing oxygen. When he reached 96,000ft, there was only enough remaining for the descent, so the ground crew ordered him to abort the flight and descend. Joe was disappointed and signaled back “Come up and get me” in Morse. Believing Joe was suffering delirious effects from oxygen deprivation, the ground crew had a few anxious moments, until they remembered his sense of humor and found he was already descending.

Project Excelsior – could a man return from altitude?

After Manhigh, Kittinger joined another Stapp effort designed to explore the edges of the envelope, Project Excelsior. The Air Force had done a good job of powering aircraft into the upper atmosphere, they had developed ejection seats to blast the pilot out of the cockpit, but would he survive after ejection at such extreme altitudes? Kittinger volunteered to find out.

Project Excelsior had numerous challenges. A pilot ejecting at high altitude would need oxygen, protection from the extreme cold, and a parachute system that would bring him down to earth in a controlled manner. The latter was a vital part of the experiment; it was already known that at extreme altitudes parachutists could enter a flat spin, rotating them so fast their internal organs would be ruptured.

Francis Beaupre, a technician and Wright-Patterson AFB, developed a parachute system that deployed a small drogue chute to reduce the chance of spinning, followed by a main chute for landing. A pressure suit provided oxygen, kept his body fluids from boiling, and protected him from the cold.

The Excelsior team didn’t have a high flying aircraft, instead they used a 200 ft high, 3 million cubic feet Helium balloon with an open gondola suspended beneath it.

In November of 1959, Kittinger took off for his first flight from, the aptly named, Truth and Consequences in New Mexico. He had problems with his suit on the ride up, but reached 76,000ft, put his problems aside, and jumped.

Soon after he stepped out of the gondola, his drogue chute deployed early and the cords wrapped themselves around his neck, rendering him unconscious. He had 70,000ft to go.

During his unconscious descent, with his drogue chute not functioning, he entered a flat spin, reaching 120rpm. That means he rotated twice a second, with his arms and legs stretched out, subjecting them to some 22g. As bad as it was, it wasn’t the brain and organ damaging 200rpm the Excelsior team had feared.

Joe’s life was saved at 10,000 ft by the automatic system on his reserve chute (Francis Beaupre certainly earned his money that day). The jolt of the parachute opening shook him awake just before landing.

I’d have been kissing the ground and swearing never to leave it again, but not Joe. A month later he repeated the jump, this time without the problems of the first.

Excelsior III – The Highest Step in the World

On August 16, 1960, Kittinger took off for his third and final test, Excelsior III. His pressure suit, oxygen, parachute and other equipment gave him an all-up weight of 320lbs. The suit and equipment was formed into a seating position, exactly as if he were ejecting from an aircraft.

The sign below the door reads “This is the highest step in the world.”

At 40,000 ft the pressure seal on his right glove failed. The leak caused severe pain from both the cold and the effects of near zero atmospheric pressure. His hand swelled to twice its normal size and he (temporarily) lost the use of it. Fearing the jump would be cancelled, Joe kept this information from the ground crew and continued the ascent.

After 1 hour 31 minutes the balloon stabilized at 102,800 ft, twenty miles, straight up. He admired the view, waited for the balloon to drift over his landing area, switched on the cameras, and stepped out.

At 100,000 ft the atmosphere is very thin, and he fell fast. Before his drogue chute was triggered he reached a peak speed of 614 mph, about 90% of the speed of sound at that altitude. The camera on the gondola recorded his departure as he raced towards the clouds and ground below.

Here is Kittinger talking about his jump and footage from Kittinger’s descent.

Four minutes thirty six seconds later he reached 18,000ft, deployed his main chute, and landed safely. From that high step to the ground took 13 minutes 45 seconds.

Joe’s jump set several records

  1. highest balloon ascent
  2. highest parachute jump
  3. longest drogue-fall
  4. and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere

Fifty years later, these records still stand.

Who Owed Who?

After these feats, Joe could have taken up further research work, but the Vietnam War was underway and he felt he “owed it to the United States Air Force” to serve. He returned from two tours and volunteered for a third. Seventeen days before he was due to rotate out, he was shot down. He and his Weapon Systems Officer, 1st Lieutenant William Reich, were captured and sent to the Hanoi Hilton, where, like many, they were subjected to rope torture. After 11 months they were released.

Joe was promoted to Colonel and finally left the Air Force, but continued to set records. Among them was the first solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic in the “Balloon of Peace” in 1984. He has also been advising Felix Baumgartner/Red Bull on a planned (on-again/off-again) free-fall from 120,000 feet. This jump may result in the first “person” to break the sound barrier.

Colonel Kittinger is clearly no ordinary man. Yet one of his quotes could apply to a school mom just as much as an aviation hero.

Everything good that had happened during my life had come from volunteering.

I think he makes a good point.


100,000 ft and the highest step in the world. Could you do it? Would you do it?

Or have you already leapt from a perfectly serviceable airplane?




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