Tag Archives: Joseph William Kittinger II

1 March 1972

Lieutenat Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, in the cockpit of a McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, Udorn RTAFB, 1972. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, in the cockpit of a McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, Udorn RTAFB, 1972. (U.S. Air Force)

1 March 1972: Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force, and 1st Lieutenant Leigh A. Hodgdon, were flying McDonnell F-4D-29-MC  Phantom II serial number 66-7463, call sign Falcon 54. Along with a second F-4, they were assigned to a combat air patrol (MiGCAP) mission over northern Laos.

At approximately 2000 hours, Disco, a Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star airborne early warning aircraft, alerted Kittinger to the presence of several Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 21 interceptors and gave him radar vectors toward the enemy aircraft.

Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star. (U.S. Air Force)

Colonel Kittinger reported:

At approximately 18 miles the system broke lock but it was quickly reacquired. A slow left turn ensued to keep the dot centered. Altitudes were slowly increased from 8,200 feet to 11,500 feet. The Vc on the scope was extremely difficult to interpret; however, it appeared that we were not really overtaking the target, so the outboard tanks were dropped. Heading of the aircraft changed to approximately 360° at time of firing. At approximately 6 miles the “in-range” light illuminated, followed by an increase in the ASE circle. Trigger was squeezed and crew felt a thump as the missile was ejected; however, missile motor did not ignite. The trigger was squeezed again and held for approximately 3 seconds; however missile did not fire. Trigger was squeezed again and missile #3 fired. The missile made a small correction to the left then back to the right and guided straight away. Pilot maintained the dot centered.

Approximately 5 to 6 seconds after launch, detonation was observed. Almost simultaneously, two enemy missiles were observed coming from the vicinity of the detonation. Evasive action prevented more thorough observations of detonation. The flight turned to a heading of 210°, maintained 9,000 feet, airspeed 500 knots, and egressed the area.

— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Page 87.

Joe Kittinger is officially credited with the destruction of the MiG 21.

McDonnell F-4D-29-MC Phantom II 66-7463, flown by Captains Richie and DeBellevue, 28 August 1972. (U.S. Air Force)
This McDonnell F-4D-29-MC Phantom II, 66-7463, was flown by LCOL Joe Kittinger and 1LT Hodgdon when they shot down a MiG-21, 1 March 1972. Flown by several different crews, this airplane is officially credited with shooting down 6 enemy fighters. It is on display at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force)

Joseph W. Kittinger II is best known for his participation in experimental high-altitude balloon flights. On 2 June 1957, he ascended to 97,760 feet (29,490 meters) aboard the Project MAN-HIGH 1. On 16 August 1960, he reached 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) and then stepped off for the longest free-fall parachute jump—a record that would stand for 52 years.

Joe Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War. He was shot down 11 May 1972, when his F-4D, 66-0230, was struck by a missile fired by a MiG 21. (Kittinger’s wingman shot down the MiG.) He and Weapons System Officer 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich were captured and held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for the next 11 months.

Captain Kittinger steps off the Excelsior gondola, 102,800 feet above the Earth, 16 August 1960. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Kittinger steps off the Excelsior gondola, 102,800 feet above the Earth, 16 August 1960. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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14–18 September 1984

Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., after setting an FAI World Record for Distance, Montenette, Italy, 18 September 1984. (Joe Kittinger collection)
Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., after setting an FAI World Record for Distance, Montenette, Italy, 18 September 1984. His deflated Yost GB55 helium balloon lies on the ground. (Joseph W. Kittinger Collection)
Yost Mfg. Co. GB55 helium balloon, N53NY, being prepared at Caribou, Maine, 14 September 1984 (Orlando Sentinel)
Yost Mfg. Co. GB55 helium balloon, N53NY, being prepared at Caribou, Maine, 14 September 1984 (Orlando Sentinel)

14–18 September 1984: Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force (Retired), lifted of from Caribou, Maine, at the extreme northeast corner of the United States, aboard Rosie O’Grady’s Balloon of Peace, a 3,000-cubic-meter Yost GB55 helium-filled balloon, registered N53NY. 86 hours later, he came rest at Montenotte, Italy, having completed the very first solo transatlantic balloon flight.

Kittinger established four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Distance, having travelled 5,703.03 kilometers (3,543.70 miles).¹ These records still stand.

This was not the first time Joe Kittinger had ascended in a balloon. The previous year he had set two FAI distance records, covering 3,221.23 kilometers (2,001.58 miles) from Las Vegas, Nevada to Farmersville, New York.² But he is best known for his historic high-altitude balloon flights. On 2 June 1957, Joe Kittinger rode the Project MAN-HIGH I balloon to an altitude of 97,760 feet (29,490 meters). One 16 August 1960, aboard Excelsior III, Kittinger reached 102,800 feet (31,333 meters). He then stepped out of the gondola and began the longest free-fall parachute descent attempted.

During the Vietnam War, Joe Kittinger flew 483 combat missions during three tours. He shot down one enemy MiG-21 fighter, and was later himself shot down. He was captured and held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for 11 months.

Joseph William Kittinger II
Joseph William Kittinger II, 1999. (MSGT Dave Nolan, United States Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Numbers 1045, 1046, 1047 and 1048

² FAI Record File Numbers 1013, 1014

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 August 1960

Captain Kittinger steps out of the Excelsior III gondola, 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) above the Earth, 7:12 a.m., 16 August 1960. (U.S. Air Force)

16 August 1960: At 7:12 a.m., Captain Joseph William (“Red”) Kittinger II, U.S. Air Force, stepped out of a balloon gondola, 102,800 feet (31,333 meters, 19.47 miles) above the Tularosa Valley, New Mexico. This was his third balloon ascent and high altitude parachute jump during Project Excelsior, a series of experiments to investigate the effects of high altitude bailouts.

For protection at the extreme high altitude—above 99% of the atmosphere—Joe Kittinger wore a modified David Clark Co. MC-3A capstan-type partial-pressure suit and MA-3 helmet. Over this was a coverall garment to keep the pressure suit’s lacings and capstans from catching on anything as he jumped from the balloon gondola. He breathed a combination of 60% oxygen, 20% nitrogen and 20% helium. During the 1 hour, 31 minute ascent, the pressure seal of Kittinger’s right glove failed, allowing his hand to painfully swell with the decreasing atmospheric pressure.

In temperatures as low as -94 °F. (-70 °C.) Captain Kittinger free-fell for 4 minutes, 36 seconds, and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour (988 kilometers per hour). During the free fall descent, he trailed a small drogue parachute for stabilization. His 28-foot (8.5 meter) diameter main parachute opened at 17,500 feet (5,334 meters) and he touched the ground 9 minutes, 9 seconds later. The total duration of Kittinger’s descent was 13 minutes, 45 seconds. For this accomplishment, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (his second) and the Harmon Trophy.

Joseph Kittinger had previously worked on Project Man High, and would go on to a third high altitude balloon project, Stargazer.

A recovery team assists Captain Kittinger after his 102,800-foot free fall, 16 August 1960. The helicopter in the background is a Piasecki H-21. (U.S. Air Force)

After returning to operations, Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War. After two tours flying the Douglas B-26K Invader, he transitioned to the McDonnell F-4D Phantom II and returned to Southeast Asia for a voluntary third tour with the famed 555th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (“The Triple Nickel”). He is credited with shooting down a MiG 21 fighter.

Almost to the end of his third combat tour, Lieutenant Colonel Kittinger was himself shot down and and he and his Weapons System Officer were captured. They spent 11 months at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Captain Joseph W. Kitinger, United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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