Thanks to a TLC special today, I learned a bit about Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., a man who actually jumped out of an open helium balloon at 102,800 feet (that’s 19 and a half miles) above the surface of Earth.

As part of military research into the best ways to secure the safety of pilots who had to eject at high altitude, Kittinger made a series of jumps from balloons, testing parachutes meant to stabilize a pilot against flat spin during the freefall part of descent. On August 16th, 1960, the project Excelsior III got underway, as Kittinger’s twenty-story tall balloon sprung skyward from the White Sands Missile Range at 1,200 feet a minute. It took an hour and a half to settle into the float altitude of over 19 miles above sea level; twelve minutes later, Kittinger started the cameras pointing down from the gondola and stepped off. He plummeted 16 miles in total freefall before his main parachute opened, reaching a top speed of 714 mph. To this day, it marks the first time that man exceeded the speed of sound without the aid of engines, as well as the longest duration of freefall. (It was the highest to date that anyone had gone in unpowered flight, broken by the current recordholders one year later.)

For some good reading on Kittinger’s legacy, check out his own description of Excelsior III in the National Geographic article “The Long, Lonely Leap”, as well as the Airman article “Leap of Faith.”


This guy is a man after my own heart:
[on one of his long balloon rides] “It was no picnic; it was a tough flight,” Kittinger said. “The only thing I had to keep me company was my Willie Nelson tapes.”

• Posted by: steve on Nov 4, 2002, 9:34 AM

One time I jumped off my house, but I dont think that I broke the sound barrier doing it.

• Posted by: The Professor on Nov 4, 2002, 11:13 AM

Don’t forget about Cheryl Stearns, Michel Fournier {watchable flash simulation!}, and a couple others. It’s a hot field, much like the balloon circumnavigation race a couple of years ago.

• Posted by: Dan Hartung on Nov 4, 2002, 9:48 PM
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