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
- highest balloon ascent
- highest parachute jump
- longest drogue-fall
- 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?
Love Joe’s sense of humour. Come up and get me. Snort.
Listen up, fellas. We need a volunteer to jump from a redokulous height risk of death…
Wonder if his experimentation was the result of a smart-ass ‘Pick me!’ Pick me!’ remark.
Bravo, Joe! me? I’ll watch the videos of your jumps with both feet on the ground, thank you very much.
Yes, Joe has a good sense of humor. I think if you’re going to do the sort of things he did that a solid sense of humor would be a requirement to stop you going nuts. Did you watch the video? I had dreams about falling out of the gondola for nights afterwards.
“Vomit Comet”. Ouch. I’m not volunteering to ride, backward or forward. And I can’t imagine what would make a man take the risks he took. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he did, and I’m awe-inspired. But I think you’d have to be more than a little crazy.
I’ve never jumped out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft, and I have no intention of ever doing so. I’ve ridden in a hot-air balloon, and I’ve flown to remote outposts in northern Manitoba with a crazy cowboy bush pilot in a tiny Cessna. I have yet to decide whether it’s worse to worry about running out of lake in a float plane or running out of grass landing strip and having to choose between forest or lake.
Pretty tame compared to Kittinger, but that’s about as much risk as I can stand.
LOL. I worry about running out of anything in an airplane is cause for worry. Even those small bottles of vodka are important sometimes!
I think Kittinger handled the “craziness” with humor.
Another great post Nigel. I do enjoy your articles. They serve as a nice brake from my normal reading material.
Jump? Sure, lots of times. At night? It’s more fun. Land in water? More fun still. HALO? It gets my attention but yes. HAHO? More complicated still but OK some times a rental car won’t get you there.
102,800 feet? In that antique gear? %$#& no. Not this boy.
That guy had nerves of steel.
By the way. It was debris from one of those baloon jumps in N M that started the whole silly “Roswell incident”. The Air Force was always happy to promote the UFO mythology.
Ah, so you have jumped. I’m sure there’s some stories there. I’m sure if I tried it I might get hooked, but I don’t think I’ll ever try it. Even with modern gear! That’s what amazes me so much about so many of the guys from the 50s and 60s, they did so much with so little. Of course, people in 2030 will say the same about us, but in that case they’ll be laughing at our iPhones and such.
Fascinating stuff, Nigel. I probably wouldn’t attempt such feats myself. I generally avoid activities that greatly increases my risk of severe injury. 😉 That said, I bet the view would be amazing.
Yes, bodily injury is always at the top of my no-no list. I’m sure the adrenaline rush could be addicting. The view would be amazing, for sure.
Wow. Where does that amount of physical courage come from? Some things you can work up to slowly, but–this is so far off the meter!
Who were his mother and father? His role models? What does he believe about life and its shroud of reality? How does a mind, which is attached to a body no less human than any other body, decide to fall through the sky for longer than it takes to make breakfast?
And now look at us. NASA is kaput, we are kaput, the communists run VietNam, and everyone who worked, risked, and died to accomplish that which we abandoned–well, they’re still worn out or dead. Somebody needs to start thinking, before and after we throw our best citizens into the fire.
Let me just say, I respect, admire, and can not possibly understand courage like this. Or guys like you, Holmes.
Joe had done plenty of jumps by the time he did the big one. What amazes me is that they really knew nothing of what might happen with the jet stream, metal fillings, bodily organs etc, and he volunteered. But I think he’s got a good point about volunteering leading to good things in life, even if what you step up for isn’t quite life threatening.
NASA’s lost its way because it’s trying to be everything to everyone. The next big leap in exploring the universe is very big and the reward will only be academic. But it does drive national pride and galvanizes people whose talents would otherwise be wasted. Sometimes a life’s work is only a small step in a journey.
Thanks for the comment :). Have a great weekend.
Only academic? I wonder why you say that. The benefits of the space program so far have not been only academic.
In American hands, all knowledge becomes useful.
Sadly, we are saddled with Higher Powers who think only in terns of votes in the coming election and not in terms of long-range benefits.
Keep up the fascinating posts. I keep trying to get my husband to read blogs, as he would have more intelligent comments for you, but he’s always nose-down on another trail. (Refers to the noses of hunting dogs, not aircraft.)
When I said academic, I was referring to going to Mars. We gain a lot of technology, but often we’re very poor at finding a use for it and then we let it be forgotten by the workforce. We went to the moon, and three flights later moon shots were minor news until they had their famous problem. We still haven’t got a good reason to return to the moon, let alone Mars. That leaves much of the results of a Mars shot as academic knowledge. Not that I’m in anyway against a Mars shot. My feeling with govt spending is to spend it towards the top of the economic tree because it will then trickle down through the economy before it gets out of the country. We then get gains in knowledge, and employment of large numbers of people in one blow.
Hope you’re husband’s hunting is going well!
Sorry, I just realized how cryptic my last remark sounded. I mean, where do guys like you get the courage for the jumps you do? It’s just not something I understand.
Fascinating stuff. Would I ever have tried such a thing if I’d been given the opportunity? I don’t know. But, I tend to think a life is defined by the things we do living it. Not by how long we live, but how well we live. I can only say that Joe Kittinger has my profound regard, admiration … and a bit of envy.
Red Bull is supposed to be mounting an attempt from 120,000 ft if you like to sign up. From what I’ve seen their attempt is way more sophisticated that the open gondola the joe rode. It’d certainly be something to mention when some interviewer ask you to say “what’s defined you as a person”!