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American aerospace pioneer Joseph Kittinger dies at 94

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A giant of American aerospace history, Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger Jr., who for more than half a century held the world record for parachuting from the confines of space, died Friday in Florida at the age of 94.

During his record-breaking jump in 1960, he emerged from a gondola 102,800 feet (nearly 20 miles) high, an altitude that placed him more than 99% below Earth’s atmosphere.

Can-Capt. Kittinger plummeted for four minutes 37 seconds, reaching speeds over 600 mph.

The jump was among the earliest explorations of the space age, occurring before humans landed on the moon and when it was unclear whether a person could survive a jump from the edge of space.

Colonel 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.

The USPA said in a statement Friday that it was “saddened” by his death, noting that he became a prominent national figure when he “took a long, lonely jump from a hot air balloon at 102,800 feet above the Earth”, on August 1st. 16, 1960, as a US Air Force Captain involved in Project Excelsior.

As part of the project, he made three jumps in 10 months from a pressurized pod hoisted into the stratosphere by large helium balloons – his first attempt was nearly fatal, but he was undeterred. The project aimed to test whether humans could survive bailouts at very high altitudes and to design ejection systems for military pilots.

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On his last record-breaking jump, he took off from the New Mexico desert wearing a bulky pressure suit – which would work briefly – and equipped with gear that nearly doubled his weight, then fell at record speed.

It took him 1 hour 31 minutes to reach his maximum altitude, even as he began to experience severe pain in his right hand due to a failure in his pressure glove. He remained at maximum altitude for approximately 12 minutes before exiting his basket to free fall and then parachute to a landing.

“There’s no way to visualize the speed,” Colonel 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 road signs. I could only hear myself breathing through the headset,” he said.

In 1960, he received the Harmon Trophy from President Dwight D. Eisenhower for outstanding achievement in aeronautics.

His record for highest balloon ascent and longest parachute free fall would stand for 52 years. It was shattered in 2012, when Colonel Kittinger worked as a consultant for Austrian Felix Baumgartner, who jumped from 128,000ft, crashing to Earth at speeds over 800mph.

Joseph Kittinger Jr. was born in Tampa in 1928 and became fascinated with airplanes at an early 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 in the Air Force, including completing three tours of 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 journey as an adventurer, setting another record in 1983 for the longest distance traveled in a 1,000 cubic meter helium balloon.

In 1984, he became the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a helium balloon, from Maine to the Italian Riviera. A jubilant Colonel Kittinger told reporters at the time that the flight had been “a pure, unadulterated adventure”. He added “just go; it’s the American way.

Colonel Kittinger wrote a book in 1961, “The Long, Lonely Leap”, and remained active in aeronautical projects, particularly hot air ballooning, after his retirement. He lived in Orlando, where a park bears his name.

A memorial service will be scheduled for January, the USPA said.



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