By: Terese Schlachter,“RECON” Senior Producer
It’s hard to keep a good man down- especially one who’s holding the world record for the highest parachute jump. In 1960, then Captain Joseph Kittinger floated in a balloon gondola nearly 103- thousand feet above earth, then jumped out. He was testing parachute systems and other gear. What it didn’t seem to test were his nerves.
“I’d made the jump a thousand times in my mind so when it came time to go I said a silent prayer, hit the button and jumped,” the retired Colonel told SSgt Josh Hauser.
He couldn’t have known that a dozen years later his nerves would be tested again, in a very different descent.
“I was leader of a (mission) over in Hanoi … probably 100 airplanes … and I started chasing a MiG. I was very close to getting him- to shooting him down – when another MiG crawled up my rear and shot me down,” recalls Col Kittinger. “I was immediately hog tied, thrown into a vehicle and taken … to the Hanoi Hilton.”
He spent eleven months there as the senior ranking officer among the newest captives, who were kept separate from those who’d been taken prisoner earlier.
“You have to make decisions that affect other men’s lives in a very hostile environment.” But Kittinger says they were able to maintain discipline and seniority and it became like another tour of duty. He spent 30 days in solitary confinement.
“When the US started bombing Hanoi and I heard that first bomb come down I knew it was the B-52s. I knew the war was over. I was in the deepest, darkest dungeon there was in Hanoi and they needed that area for the B-52 crews they were shooting down so they moved me into another prison cell.” He wound up with American POW’s who’d been held for six or seven years. “It was like Rip Van Winkle,” Kittinger says, “For the next 40 days I was interrogated by the guys in that room about hair styles and what was going on in the world!” He was released in March of 1973, but calls the experience one of the greatest of his life. “Every one of us was a better person when we came out of there.”
The Colonel retired in 1978. But the former POW and record-holder wasn’t finished accumulating titles. In 1984, he was the first solo balloonist to cross the Atlantic Ocean. One early morning, during that passage, he made radio contact with a random nearby commercial flight. Turns out, his wife, Sherry and his crew were on board. The pilot let them chat for a while. Sherry and the crew were all in Italy a day and a half later when he landed – grounding it at about 30 miles per hour.
“I got knocked out of the gondola and fell about ten feet and hit the only rock within a half mile and broke my foot,” he told Josh. “But it was an awful lot of fun.”
Of all of his adventures he counts as the “hairiest” the 1989 Gordon Bennett Cup- the premier event of world balloon racing. Somewhere over Baja he stalled and ran out of ballast. The water temperature was 59 degrees. “If we went in the water we were dead. We finally started drifting and about four o’clock in the morning we landed on an uninhabited island, and that saved us.”
The name of the island: Guardian Angel. Probably not the first time Kittinger’s run into his.
In 2012 Kittinger played a key role in the Red Bull Sratos launch in which Austrian Felix Baumgardner broke the Colonel’s own record. Kittinger currently lives with this wife in Orlando. His story and other adventures in military ballooning are featured in “RECON: Lighter Than Air”. Click here to watch!