Colonel Joseph William Kittinger Jr., a decorated Air Force Veteran, whose service career spanned 29 years passed away on December 9, 2022, in Orlando, Florida. He was born July 27,1928, in Tampa, Florida.
From an early age, Kittinger was fascinated with aircraft. He soloed in a Piper Cub when he was 17 and that was the beginning of his lifelong involvement in aviation. In March 1949, after attending the University of Florida for two years, he was accepted as an aviation cadet into the United States Air Force aviation school at Goodfellow Air Force Base (AFB), Texas.
In March 1950, he completed his aviation cadet training, received his pilot wings, and was assigned as a fighter pilot flying the F-84 Thunderjet and the F-86 Sabre with the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing at Neubiberg Air Base, West Germany, In 1953, he was transferred to the Air Force Missile Development Center at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, where he flew experimental jet fighters and participated in aerospace medical research.
In 1955, Kittinger was recruited as a test pilot for Project Man High, which involved studying the effects of cosmic rays from Earth’s atmosphere on the mental and physical capabilities of humans in space-like altitudes. In 1958, he was assigned to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, for Project Excelsior. The project’s goal was to put a man into space and test a person’s ability to survive an extremely high-altitude bailout. On August 16, 1960, he set records for the highest parachute jump and the longest freefall at 4 minutes and 36 seconds before deploying his parachute after jumping out of a gondola at 102,800 feet. He took part in Project Stargazer in 1962, where he and astronomer William C. White took an open-gondola helium balloon to perform astronomical observations for 18 hours.
Kittinger served three combat tours during the Vietnam War, where he flew 483.5 combat missions. During his first two tours, he was an aircraft commander in the Douglas A-26 Invader and a modified On Mark Engineering B-26K Counter-Invader as part of Operations Farm Gate and Big Eagle. During his third tour, he commanded the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron and shot down a MiG-21 North Vietnamese jet. Later that same year, his plane was shot down just four days before being scheduled to return home. He was captured and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam, where he spent 11 months. He returned to the United States during Operation Homecoming in 1973. Following his return, he attended Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Afterward, he became Vice Wing Commander of an F-4 fighter wing in England. In 1978, Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., retired at the rank of Colonel.
During his 29-year USAF career, Colonel Kittinger accumulated 7,679 flying hours, including over 948 combat flying hours from his three tours during the Vietnam War. In addition, he flew over 9,100 hours in various civilian aircraft. He received several military awards, including two Silver Stars; two Legions of Merit; six Distinguished Flying Crosses (one each for Projects Man High and Excelsior); two Bronze Stars; 24 Air Medals; two Purple Hearts; and a POW Medal.
During his lifetime, he also received various civilian awards and honors, including the Harmon International Trophy (Aeronaut) for outstanding accomplishments in aeronautics, given personally by President Eisenhower in 1960. Additionally, he received the Aeronaut Leo Stevens Parachute Medal; a John Jeffries Award for outstanding contributions to medical research; an Aerospace Primus Award; a National Aeronautic Association Elder Statesman of Aviation Award; an Order of Daedalians Distinguished Achievement Award; a Barnstormer of the Year Award; and an FAI Montgolfier Diploma. Colonel Kittinger was also inducted into the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Hall of Fame. He was also inducted as a Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and in the Royal Aeronautical Society. In 1997, he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. He is also enshrined in the Living Legends of Aviation; the International Skydiving Hall of Fame; the Balloon Pilots Hall of Fame; the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame and as a Medalist in the Explorers Club. In 2008, he was awarded the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019, he was awarded the National Training & Simulation Association Lifetime Achievement.
After his long military career, he still participated in several flight ventures, including flying and doing sky writing for Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus at Church Street Station in Orlando, Florida and barnstorming in a 1929 New Standard D-25 aircraft. In 1984, he made the first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Caribou, Maine to Cairo Montenotte, Italy – a distance of 3,586 miles.
In 2012, he was the capsule commander for the Red Bull Stratos project and helped Felix Baumgartner break his record for the highest parachute jump. In 2014, friends of Kittinger placed an F-4 Phantom on a pedestal in the Col Joe Kittinger Park in Orlando, FL, and Joe dedicated it to all those who served in Vietnam.
In 2022, Kittinger received the Civil Air Patrol’s (CAP) Frank G. Brewer Memorial Aerospace Award for his lifelong dedication to aviation education and contributions to the CAP. A CAP squadron in Austin, Texas, was named for him, the Joseph W. Kittinger Phantom Senior Squadron. When CAP created the first national STEM challenge for cadets, the National High Altitude Balloon Challenge, he became the ambassador and benefactor of the Kittinger Cup and a $5000 prize for the winning CAP cadet team. He was honored to meet the winning cadets and present them with signed copies of his book, Come Up and Get Me.
Throughout his life, Kittinger gave back to the community and to his great country he loved. He was always generous with his time to speak to various groups, both locally and nationally, continuing into 2022.
He had a burning desire to share his love of aviation and science with young people and inspire them to pursue such careers, Thus, he mentored and supported teachers and their students through the years. Continuing with his desire for others to be recognized for their work in aviation, in 2022, he nominated two educators for national awards of which they were both recipients. Jill Weaver, a teacher in Ohio, was selected for the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s A. Scott Crossfield National Teacher of the Year Award and Susan Mallett, from Alabama, was selected for the National Aeronautic Association’s Frank G. Brewer Trophy for excellence in Aerospace Education .
Colonel Joe Kittinger was a friend and inspiration to all who knew and loved him. He treasured the world-wide aviation community; honored those who served in the military; and was a true American hero.
He is survived by his wife, Sherry; sons, Joseph William Kittinger, III, M.D. of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Mark Steven Kittinger, of Longwood, Florida; four grandchildren, Jack Kittinger, Ph.D., of Honolulu, Hawaii; Brooke Weinberger, PAC, of Lafayette, Colorado; Benjamin Kittinger, M.D. of Owensboro, Kentucky; and Mitchell Kittinger of Orlando, Florida; and eight great-grandchildren.
A Celebration of Life service is planned for January 28, 2023, at the First Orlando Church, (formerly First Baptist Church) 3000 S. John Young Parkway, Orlando, Florida 32805 at 11:00am.
In lieu of flowers Joe requested that everyone take a boy or girl fishing. Memorial contributions can be made to the Central Florida Council, Boy Scouts of America,
1951 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Apopka FL 32703 or be made at this online link: (http://weblink.donorperfect.com/kittinger) or to the International Skydiving Museum Hall of Fame (www.skydivingmuseum.org).
Baldwin Fairchild Funeral Home