Freefall Record Holder Col. Joe Kittinger Dead At 94


Col. Joe Kittinger, who held the record for the longest freefall for 52 years, died Friday (Dec. 9, 2022) in Florida at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife Sherri. Kittinger was an Air Force captain and pilot who did three high-altitude parachute jumps from a gondola suspended from helium balloons in 1959 and 1960 as part of a test program to develop ejection systems for high altitude aircraft.

After two jumps from more than 14 miles, on Aug. 16, 1960, he rode the balloons to 102,800 feet. He reached a speed of more than 600 MPH on the way to the New Mexico desert below. “There’s no way you can visualize the speed,” 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.”

After the jumps, Kittinger served three tours as a fighter pilot, the last of which ended with him being shot down over North Vietnam in May of 1972. He spent 11 months in a POW camp. He retired in 1978 and settled in Orlando where he became a local celebrity. In 2011, he became a consultant for the effort that would finally break his record. In 2012 Austrian Felix Baumgartner jumped from 24 miles over New Mexico and went supersonic (844 MPH) during his freefall.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Vale Joe Kittinger. Maybe it was your job, 5 days a week, but you clearly went above and beyond in your attitude and ability.

  2. Joe had a very interesting life. I was lucky to get to know Joe in person and he was always in good spirits and a loving individual who was clearly loving aviation with all its aspects. He had a wealth of knowledge and shared it with those who were interested in it.

    Thank you Joe and I wish you Blue Skies.

  3. Col.Joe was the the Real Top Gun …’Airshow’ wrote,
    ‘Character checklist for the next generation…On the surface Kittinger’s story appears to be an account of super human courage.
    Courage comes in several forms. “Blind Courage” generally underpinned by ego and pride and “Calculated Courage ” underpinned by “Will” and “Skill”. Kittinger’s is clearly the latter. The will to study, dig and probe every eventuality and the skill to determine and execute the best possible course of action.

    The “Determination” Kittinger displayed during his internment as a prisoner of war speaks volumes about his character.

    The many aviation episodes also testify to the vital role “Passion” plays in achieving great things. Kittinger’s extraordinary passion to fly for noble purposes(a very important distinction) propelled him well beyond the average self centered adventurer.

    Kittinger’s selfless “Generosity” in faithfully recognizing the contributions others, great and small, made to all of his achievements. Clearly displaying the value he places on “Intregity” in everything, both diminishing values in this age.’

  4. Joe Kittinger lived life to the fullest. After he came home from the Hanoi Hilton he was in a balloon race across the English Channel to France. Upon arrival they were met with thunderstorms causing his balloon to crash. There is a wonderful picture of him leaning against a tree smoking a cigar and drinking champagne from the bottle while a beautiful nurse is tending his broken leg.

    • William, I have tried to find it several times online and have never had any luck. I should have saved it when I first saw it. Sorry!

  5. I was in a recurrent class discussing high altitude physiology. Col. Kittinger’s exploits came up and the instructor said, “And he jumped”. This guy in the back of the class said, “No he didn’t”.

    The instructor insisted that he did.

    Our hero in the back of the class said, “No he didn’t, he through his ball$ out and the rest of him had to follow!”