Life Magazine – Joe Kittinger 1960

This is the August 29, 1960 issue of Life magazine with a cover article on the historic balloon flight and freefall jump back to earth of US Air Force (USAF) Captain Joe Kittinger.

Kittinger was test director for high altitude balloon flights under the name Project Excelsior. The USAF project was created to test the Beaupre multi-stage parachute system for use by pilots ejecting from high altitude.

In his third flight during the project, Kittinger reached an altitude of 102,800 feet / 19.5 miles (31,334 m / 31.3 km), setting a world record for the highest skydive. Once reaching that altitude, he stayed there for 12 minutes, until he drifted over the landing target area. He then stepped out of the gondola to begin his descent. With a small stabilizer parachute that was deployed soon after he left the balloon, he reached a speed of 614 mph (988 km/h) making him the fastest human unaided by some sort of propulsion. He nearly reached the speed of sound for his altitude.

Kittinger fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, which set the record for the longest freefall. Including the time that his main parachute was deployed, he fell for a total of 13 minutes and 45 seconds. President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Kittinger the C. B. Harmon Trophy for his work on Excelsior.

The flight happened above New Mexico, not Florida, so why is it on Stingray Tom’s Florida? Kittinger (who retired from the USAF as a colonel) was born in Tampa, raised in Orlando and schooled in Jacksonville and Gainesville (University of Florida). Because of his lifetime of service to the US he’s considered a Florida favorite son.

After retirement from the USAF, he was employed by Orlando’s Martin Marietta (today Lockheed Martin). He was the vice president of flight operations for Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus. The Flying Circus was connected with Church Street Station, the nighttime entertainment complex in downtown Orlando. Often flown by Kittinger, the aircraft of the Flying Circus were used for promotion, pulling banners and skywriting.

In 1992, the city of Orlando and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) dedicated a park to Kittinger on the shore of Lake Underhill and adjacent to the Orlando Executive Airport. In 2014, a restored McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter jet was placed on display in the park. During part of the Vietnam War, Kittinger flew F-4s and through research, it was discovered that it was one of the jets he piloted.

Visit Joe Kittinger Park

The Life issue also includes an image from Cypress Gardens of Jim Noles piloting a speedboat through a flaming wood and straw structure for a movie. Cypress Gardens has regularly been the site for movie productions from the 1950s onward.