Col. Joe Kittinger may be one of the most interesting people alive today.
Not only did he set the record for the highest and longest skydive in history in 1960, but the 85-year-old retired Air Force colonel was also the first person ever to observe the curvature of the Earth from the edge of outer space, and the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a helium balloon.
Kittinger sat down with “Politics Confidential” to discuss his life’s many adventures and what it was like to help break his own skydiving record in 2012 as part of the Red Bull Stratos project, during which he served as a mentor and capsule communicator to the current highest skydive record holder, Austrian Felix Baumgartner.
“I was the only one that could've been a companion for him the way I was because of what I'd done,” Kittinger said. “It gave him more confidence, because he knew that I knew exactly what he was going through.”
During the skydive mission, Kittinger was the only person allowed to communicate with Baumgartner inside the balloon capsule, walking him through a checklist before giving the final order to jump into the Earth’s stratosphere from an altitude of 24 miles.
“It took courage,” Kittinger said of Baumgartner’s jump, during which Baumgartner was in a free fall for four minutes and 19 seconds and broke the sound barrier at a maximum speed of 843 miles per hour.
“Let me give you the definition of courage,” he added. “John Wayne says courage is being scared to death but still saddling up. And that's what Felix did. Felix was concerned, but he went ahead and did the job the way he had been trained.”
Though Kittinger had to repeat himself when he asked Baumgartner to take off his seatbelt, Kittinger said he was never worried that something had gone wrong. Still, there was a Plan B if something had.
“If he was still in the capsule, I could send a signal and cut the balloon away, and bring him down in the capsule,” Kittinger said. “But once he gets outside on the step and releases his helmet, he cannot get back in. There's no plan B once he gets outside.”
At the time of Kittinger’s jump 54 years ago, no human being had ever attempted such a high skydive. He volunteered for the mission as part of a daring U.S. Air Force project that was testing the waters for eventual space travel.
“We had not gone into space yet, and I worked for a visionary by the name of Dr. John Paul Stapp, and he knew we were going into space and there was certain information that we needed,” Kittinger said. “And so he and I discussed it, and I volunteered to be the project engineer, and he gave me the tools and the people to do it properly.”
Kittinger had a team of 13 people supporting him on the mission. By contrast, Baumgartner had a team of 200 behind him with Red Bull’s sponsorship of the jump.
Kittinger remembered that his own jump felt like it lasted an eternity but also recalled a feeling of great relief and happiness upon successfully engaging his parachute and reaching Earth’s surface.
“My team members worried about me, and when we all got on the ground together we were a happy bunch of people,” Kittinger said. “Just like when Felix landed, the whole team was just ecstatic because we accomplished what we set out to do and he was safe, and we had reached our objective.”
As a member of the U.S. Air Force, Kittinger’s bravery extended beyond his impressive skydive. He also went on to serve three tours of duty in Vietnam as a fighter pilot. During his third tour, Kittinger was shot down.
“The world's greatest fighter pilot on the other side shot me down,” Kittinger said jokingly.
Though he was presumed dead at the time, Kittinger successfully ejected from the plane and was taken prisoner for 11 months in the same jail where Sen. John McCain was held. During his time in captivity, much of which was spent in solitary confinement, Kittinger said his spirit for adventure helped get him through.
“I took all my spare moments to design a system to fly around the world solo in a balloon. That was my goal,” he said.
To hear Kittinger tell the story about his transatlantic balloon flight, and for more details of his skydive missions, check out this episode of “Politics Confidential.”
ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Tom Thornton, Chris Carlson and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.
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- Joe Kittinger
- Felix Baumgartner