October 20, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Joseph Kittinger

Art Levy | 5/31/2011
Editor's Note:
For over four decades, Joseph Kittinger held the record for the highest highest parachute jump (19 miles from space), which he did in 1960. On Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, Kittinger participated in the Red Bull Stratos project as capsule communicator, directing Felix Baumgartner on his record-breaking 24-mile freefall from Earth's stratosphere. Kittinger lives in Altamonte Springs, Florida. The interview below is part of Florida Trend's "Icon" series.

Joseph Kittinger
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

» When I got involved in Project Excelsior in 1959, I was working for a visionary by the name of Col. John Paul Stapp. He was a man who knew we were going to go into space and he knew there was research that needed to be done. We needed to research how to put a man into space, how to protect a man in a space environment and how to communicate from space. The next part was providing a means of escape from that altitude.

» You had to go up to 100,000 feet, and the only way to go up there was a balloon. I actually made three balloon flights, 76,000 feet, 75,000 feet and 103,000 feet. To get down, I jumped.

» I had a mother and father who were very loving and very concerned about my future. They were bound and determined that I was going to be a success. I don't think my boys had the advantage that I did because my mother and father were there all the time and I wasn't. I was in Vietnam. I was doing research, so I wasn't there as frequently as I wish I could have been. But both of my boys grew up very successfully. I'm proud of both of them.

» The free fall was 4 minutes and 36 seconds. You've got to remember that space is a vacuum. There's no pressure, so when I jumped I accelerated for about the first 20 seconds and reached terminal velocity at 614 mph. From then on, I slowed down. When the parachute opened, I was doing about 150 mph.

» I think I got my confidence from my childhood, going hunting and fishing, being outside and racing boats. My mother and father would challenge me constantly to exert myself and take responsibility. They had confidence in me, and I think that gave me my spirit of adventure, my spirit of trying to contribute.

» There's no way you can visualize the speed. There's nothing you can see to see how fast you're going. You have no depth perception. If you're in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It's the same thing if you're free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don't feel it. You don't have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.

» My wife is a Harry Potter junkie. We've been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter a few times. Yeah, I go on the rides. If you go, you've got to get some of that Butterbeer.

» The goal was not to set the record for the highest jump. The goal was to get the data we needed. But it's still a record some 51 years later.

» On May 11, 1972, I was shot down about 35 miles northwest of Hanoi and spent the next 11 months as a POW. They kept me at the Hanoi Hilton, first in solitary and then in a very small room with 30 other guys. I lost 40 pounds. The majority of the food they gave us was pumpkin soup. We had pumpkin soup a couple of times a day. There was no meat. We were always hungry, but we would never talk about food because why torture yourself? Today, I would walk 100 miles to keep from eating a bowl of pumpkin soup.

» When I was a young'un, I used to get on my bicycle and ride out to the airport, the Orlando Executive Airport, and watch the airplanes. That was my field of dreams. When I retired and came back to Orlando, all the area around the airport had been encroached by businesses and there wasn't anyplace for a kid to go and watch airplanes land and take off. So a friend of mine, he and I thought we'd see if we could get some interest in a park for kids. I had no idea they were going to name the park after me, but now the kids have a place to play and watch the airplanes.

» I was tortured for not giving them information, but mainly they just wanted to break me. They knew how to torture without killing you. They were diabolical. They were cruel. They did not adhere to the Geneva Convention. When I hear about waterboarding, it doesn't bother me a bit because waterboarding would have been the least torture we ever had.

» The national debt is atrocious and getting worse. I worry about that quite a bit.

» When I was in the balloon, getting ready to jump, there were no second thoughts. No fear. I had confidence in my team. My only thing was just do the job and get the data.

» Some people say never volunteer. I say always volunteer. Every great thing I ever did was because I volunteered for it. I'd be in a room full of people and the boss would say we need a volunteer for this, and I'd be the only one to stick my hand up. I'd think, 'Gosh, what's wrong with me?' But I ended up with some very interesting projects.

Below, video of Kittinger's record-breaking jump:

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