Then-Capt. Kittinger free-fell for four minutes 37 seconds, reaching speeds over 600 mph.
The jump was part of early space-age exploration, occurring before humans had landed on the moon and when it was unclear whether a person could survive a jump from the edge of space.
Col. Kittinger died of lung cancer, according to a friend, former U.S. representative John L. Mica, the Associated Press reported. The United States Parachute Association (USPA) also announced his death.
It is with great sadness that we share news of the passing of legendary Club member Colonel Joseph “Joe” Kittinger, II MED ’63, a distinguished recipient of the 2001 Explorers Club Medal and an aerospace pioneer. Col. Kittinger passed away today – Friday, December 9, 2022, at 94. pic.twitter.com/xQCYKqUXdx
— ExplorersClub (@ExplorersClub) December 9, 2022
USPA said in a statement late Friday that it was “saddened” by his death, noting that he became a prominent national figure when “he made a long, lonely leap from a hot-air balloon 102,800 feet above the Earth,” on Aug. 16, 1960, as a U.S. Air Force captain involved in Project Excelsior.
As part of the project, he completed three jumps over 10 months from a pressurized gondola hoisted into the stratosphere by large helium balloons — his first attempt was almost fatal, but he was undeterred. The project sought to test whether humans could survive extremely high-altitude bailouts and to design ejection systems for military pilots.
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In his final record-breaking jump, he took off from the New Mexico desert wearing a cumbersome pressure suit — that would briefly malfunction — and rigged with gear that almost doubled his weight, then fell at record speeds.
It took him 1 hour 31 minutes to climb to his maximum altitude, even as he began experiencing severe pain in his right hand because of a failure in his pressure glove. He remained at peak altitude for around 12 minutes before stepping out of his gondola to free fall, then parachute down to a landing.
“There’s no way you can visualize the speed,” Col. Kittinger told Florida Trend magazine in 2011. “There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. … There are no signposts. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet,” he said.
In 1960, he was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for outstanding accomplishments in aeronautics.
His record for the highest balloon ascent and the longest parachute free fall would stand for 52 years. It was broken in 2012, when Col. Kittinger worked as a consultant to the Austrian Felix Baumgartner, who jumped from 128,000 feet, plummeting to Earth at speeds over 800 mph.
Joseph Kittinger Jr. was born in Tampa in 1928 and became fascinated with planes at a very young age, according to the New Mexico Museum of Space History. He attended the University of Florida before applying for Air Force cadet training. He received his pilot wings in 1950.
He retired as a colonel in 1978 after a decorated career with the Air Force, including serving three tours in Vietnam as a pilot, where he spent 11 months as a prisoner of war, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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He continued his trailblazing as an adventurer, setting another record in 1983 for the longest distance flown in a 1,000 cubic meter helium balloon.
In 1984, he became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a helium balloon, from Maine, to the Italian Riviera. A jubilant Col. Kittinger told reporters at the time that the flight had been “pure, unadulterated adventure.” He added “you just have to go for it; that’s the American way.”
Col. Kittinger wrote a book in 1961, “The Long, Lonely Leap,” and remained active in aeronautics projects, especially ballooning, after his retirement. He lived in Orlando, where a park is named after him.
A memorial service will be planned for January, USPA said.