Admittedly, the first thing that drew us to superstar Orlandoan, Joe Kittinger, was his world record status as the first person to cross the Atlantic in a balloon. But when we started to delve into some of the records about him at the Orange County Regional History Center (Facebook | Website) we discovered a bucket-load of interesting tidbits.
Kittinger (who is still alive) was a professional “experimental parachutist” and balloonist. We’re not sure if that means he could make balloon animals or not, we never asked him, but he could definitely fly a hot air balloon.
During the ’60s, the government was trying to figure out why so many pilots (who, when shot down in high altitudes) were unable to open their parachutes or save themselves when in the air. Kittinger was hired to test the effects of a high altitude descent on his body and hopefully try to shed some light on the problem. The mission was called “Project Excelsior.”
Editor’s Note: We also read that another reason Kittinger was sent up in the balloon was to test the effects of “cosmic rays” on the human body. Supposedly if his hair were to turn grey, he would have been exposed. We thought that story sounded too similar to the origin stories of the Fantastic Four to be true.
Kittinger flew his balloon approximately 102,000 feet up into the sky, wearing a special suit to protect against the pressure change – past 62,000 feet an unprotected human would boil up. A malfunction in the aforementioned suit caused his hand to swell to twice the size. He decided not to radio the doctor, fearing that they would scrap the mission.
When he reached his target height and tried to jump, he made a mistake and got a little hung up on the door, which delayed his jump and threw off the timing of his first parachute. When the parachute ejected, he was still too high up and the force of the opening chute sent Kittinger head over heals, spinning at about 80 revolutions per minute. He fell to the earth for 13 minutes at almost the speed of sound, and survived rewarding him with three world records; the highest open-gondola balloon ascent, the longest free-fall, and the longest parachute descent.
After the jump, he became somewhat of a celebrity and actually volunteered twice to fight overseas in Vietnam. At one point, his plane was shot down and he was held captive in a POW camp in Northern Vietnam, infamously known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. It made national headlines.
When he got back to America, he took up hot air ballooning for local big wig, Bob Snow, and became the Vice President of Flight Operations for Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus.
The two became fast friends and went on a number of balloon trips together, one of which saw them tossed about in a thunderstorm and sent them so far off course that they crash-landed in Chicoutimi, Northern Quebec.
Snow ended up sponsoring the actual balloon that Kittinger flew across the Atlantic, and it was adorned with a Rosie O’Grady’s banner on two sides.
The record-breaking flight took Kittinger from Maine to Savona, Italy, and lasted about 90 hours from start to finish.
There is a park named after him, next to the Executive Airport [GMap].