Joe Kittinger and Craig Ryan
Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010
“Fighter pilots and test pilots do not accept death. We accept the risks.” — Col. Joe Kittinger
Col. Joe Kittinger had been ballooning upward for two hours. He saw the dark and unforgiving void of space as a backdrop to the curvature of our blue planet. There is a place in the heavens men call the stratosphere. The path there is inhospitable. Turbulence . . . clouds . . . then bitter cold and complete lack of oxygen and atmosphere. The vacuum of space seizes you as the temperature drops to negative one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Then something amazing happens. You enter a stable layer of low gravity where the temperature rises to zero degrees. An unheated space suit would be enough to survive this low gravity veil around the globe. As you pass through it, the heat tapers back down as conditions surrounding you return to a deadly frozen airless void of space.
This flight would be an early attempt to linger in that unexplored area and fall to earth. The space race was in its infancy, with jet engines as the upcoming trend in the Air Force and former Nazi rocket scientists testing for the Mercury missions and selecting those lucky few that would have the right stuff. The question posed at this early stage was: could an astronaut bail out of a space vehicle and safely parachute to the earth?
Sitting in the open canopy of Excelsior I he prepared himself mentally and spiritually for his jump. At seventy-six thousand feet, he was ready. But as soon as he tried to stand he found himself caught on something – trapped in the gondola. The toolkit strapped to his backside was stuck in a Styrofoam box that initially had been a crude insulator for the instruments contained inside. Kittinger’s commanding officer had it replaced with a new slightly smaller one for the sake of aesthetics. The press would be in attendance, and he wanted anything they might see or photograph to look like it was high quality. No one told Kittinger. He struggled like a fish in a net to free himself. There were slots containing water bottles in the sides of this new smaller box and they had frozen and expanded. Finally, he was able to wrench himself from the spot he’d been pinned to. Without wasting anymore precious seconds he muttered a prayer and leaped. Unfortunately, in the preceding struggle he’d inadvertently armed the timer on his drogue shoot. Set to deploy sixteen seconds after his jump to keep him from entering a lethal tailspin the chute popped out two seconds into his free fall.
The result almost cost Kittinger his life. As he plummeted to earth the drogue chute wrapped around his neck and he entered a flat spin of one hundred and twenty revolutions per minute. That’s two per second. Three and a half revolutions would have been lethal. He lost consciousness. At 18,000 feet, his main canopy popped out and became tangled with the drogue shoot. It wasn’t going well for the Air Force Captain. Thanks to the foresight of engineer Francis Boprey, who had placed reduced strength shroud lines on the main canopy, it broke away shortly after Kittinger’s reserve chute deployed. Barely conscious he landed safely on the white sands outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Once he got his wits about him and realized what went wrong he was determined to make a second jump as soon as possible.
After the fiasco that was Excelsior I, not much of the top brass wanted to explore this line of testing further. It was Col. John Stapp, MD, PhD who went to bat for the mission. One month later Excelsior II was launched. It was a complete success. This would gain the Excelsior team– already operating on a shoestring budget — the permission for their final test: a free fall from the stratosphere at just over 100,000 feet . . .
A Precious Gift
The Foreword of Colonel Joe Kittinger’s autobiography was written by none other than (the usually terse) Neil Armstrong himself. Armstrong encourages the reader to appreciate the skill and daring, as well as the historical significance of this often over-shadowed chapter of space exploration. The autobiography was narrated to Craig Ryan who’s written several books on pre-NASA flight missions. His ability to weave a narrative of adventure and tragedy is superb and those who wish to research this crucial part of American history will become used to hearing his essential commentaries in documentaries on the subject.
Joe Kittinger grew up with the gift of adventure — the title aptly given to the first chapter of his autobiography. It’s in this short life sketch that we come to understand the nature of such a man. The excitement of reward versus risk and the elation of achieving in the face of great odds. Joe Kittinger was not a daredevil. He never was.
Southern born and self-assured, life on the Saint John’s River was paradise to the young red head in lowlands of central Florida. That slow-moving river, its wildlife, and the society of men that lived and worked on it would teach young Joe much of what he needed to learn about the world. How to assess a risk and then overcome it. When to bail out and when to stay the course. Above all those experiences that shaped his formative years were always most valuable to him, in that they gave him “the precious gift of adventure.”
In Come Up and Get Me, Col. Joe Kittinger takes us to the world born of that river. It’s an old world many have forgotten and still many more will never see. His father owned a ramshackle houseboat christened The John Henry. He describes it as mostly cypress and looking like “a steamship on top of a box.” With a 10-horse power Evinrude motor and a Coleman gas stove for a kitchen, the flat bottom boat wasn’t much to look at. But it was perfect to while away the days on the shallow St. John’s. A roof fifteen feet above the water line was ideal to cast a line off of to catch black bass.
Born in Tampa in 1928, he was taken to Orlando three months later. It was a nice little city of only thirty thousand at the time. It was, as Kittinger would later describe in his autobiography, the heart of America’s citrus industry.
Gator hunting was a popular pastime. They were a protected species, but it didn’t take long to notice there were no large ones. Gators were known to take down cattle and dogs, so the river men would kill and eat any they thought were getting big enough to pose a serious threat.
Joe’s family informed him he got his red mane from his maternal aunt — great-aunt Agnes. On the back part of her property lived two former slaves, both of whom had been owned by Agnes’ father during the antebellum. They had no use for electricity and lit their little two room house with only a kerosene lantern. Joe was fascinated by them. He’d never seen people who looked so old. After Agnes caught him peering through the bushes at these people he found so exotic he was instructed to never scare or embarrass them. He brought food to their tiny house once a day. They were simple people who only wanted to live the rest of their lives out in peace and dignity and the community obliged. Joe would recall them as a rare last remnant of the Old South, feeling fortunate that he’d been just old enough to catch a glimpse “. . . of something that would soon be gone with the wind.”
It was at this early stage in life he began to show a fascination with flying. He would build model airplanes and launch them off the roof with other children until the planes were so beat up he afforded them a ritual burial or simply set them on fire for one final flight. By sixteen he was known to pedal his bike down to Orlando Airport, a place he would later refer to as “my field of dreams.” He began to inquire about becoming a fighter pilot. He became wary of one young army recruiter who tried to convince him to sign up for the Army and then apply for flight school. It sounded too fishy to the sharp-witted teen. He had to pry a little, but finally the recruiter reluctantly admitted that with two years of college he could apply directly for the Aviation Cadet Program.
At this time, Phil Orr entered his life. Phil was a WWII vet whom Joe’s father had hired as an adding machine mechanic. Thanks to the G.I. Bill Phil was eligible to learn to fly at the government’s expense, and he had every intention of taking full advantage of it. This was how Joe would get his first chance behind the controls. Phil would fly an old Piper Cub with floats on down to the family’s summer cabin and land it on the lake. Joe would tag a long on short flights for a chance to take the controls in mid-air. Eventually Phil let him make take offs and landings. Phil Orr didn’t even have a license to fly yet. Joe Kittinger was hooked.
During his short time in college he raced speed boats and hydroplanes. He found a sponsor, and found acceptance and a pat on the shoulder when he won. His sponsor — the hydroplane owner — would pocket the winnings and Joe could keep the trophy and all the glory.
On September 18th, 1947 the United States Air Force was established as a separate branch of the service. By June of the next year Kittinger would apply for the Aviation Cadet Program. The wait was unbearable. He was nervous about his performance on some of the physical exams, noting that fifty percent of applicants are denied due to some slight physical imperfection — usually vision. To compound his anxiety every doctor refused to tell him how he did. It was a month before he found an envelope from the Air Force in his mailbox, only to frustrate him further. It was a notice informing him when and where to go for an interview in front of the selection board. They were poker faced and seemingly indifferent to the fact that he was on the cusp of his dreams of being a great pilot. The entire process was unnerving.
In January of 1949 he finally received a letter informing him he was to report to pilot training in March. His prayers had been answered.
Having spent time at a military academy in his youth, Joe Kittinger had leadership training. He was put in charge of his barracks, making sure everything was clean and marching the men to the mess hall to eat silently. He and his men would receive demerits if their shoes were not perfectly lined up. He couldn’t stand the room inspections. He hated the demand for conformity. But every time he took flight into the wild blue he felt it was all worth it.
He graduated with 110 hours of flight training. With 93 different planes flown during his career the P-51 was his all-time favorite. Though aviation technology would improve in a myriad of ways, Joe claims he never encountered a better combination of airframe, engine, and flight controls than he did with the P-51. He began flying formations and cross-countries. His graduated and his mother pinned his wings on him in Nevada. Like many graduates in that area he bought a car from a local pilot turned salesman. His new orders required him to be in Germany soon and he made arrangements to have the car — with a heater, which didn’t come in most cars in those days — shipped overseas. On the drive to the Brooklyn Naval Yard from Baltimore an announcement came over the radio that war had begun. South Korea had been invaded. He drove straight to Fort Dix Army Base (where all transportation of US serviceman to Europe was handled) and found a captain. He volunteered for Korea, requesting not to be sent to Germany. The captain was Army, not Air Force. He informed Joe that he couldn’t change his orders, and if the young man had not yet come to his senses by the time he got to Germany he could volunteer for Korea from there. He walked away from Joe shaking his head.
In Germany he would see the devastation wrought by the Allied bombing campaigns. It looked like the war had ended the day before they got there. The train stations had been targets and they saw piles of rubble and twisted wreckage nearby when they boarded. The Munich station served as a reminder of how the German people had suffered and what the Americans were really training for.
From there on he traveled to North Africa and trained Italian pilots on airstrips built by Mussolini. He began to volunteer for test pilot work, being stuck in camel country for Christmas. By the time he returned to Germany he’d already developed protocols for working out the bugs in some of the new aircraft the Armed Services had commissioned. Rising in rank, he found a wife in Germany and became a father. He returned home without ever seeing combat in Korea — a job he’d attempted to volunteer for as well. Kittinger would get his chance to fight later through three tours of duty in the Vietnam War. It was his work as test pilot that earned him early international recognition.
Col. John Stapp
June of 1953 found the now-Captain Kittinger at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Living the aviators dream he flew as test pilot over the high desert of White Sands Proving Grounds. One fateful day his commanding officer announced a request for a zero gravity project, working for Col. John Stapp (MD., PhD). The mission was technical, but relatively straight forward in purpose. Col. Stapp was strapping nine rockets onto an aluminum sled and firing it down a 3,500 foot track in order to achieve Mach 1 and then come to an abrupt stop within one second in order to test the effects on the human body. Capt. Kittinger had to fly over for aerial photography. After several test runs he felt he had the timing down, and Col. Stapp scheduled the test.
It wasn’t until the day of the sled run that Kittinger learned Stapp planned to be his own guinea pig. The test was a success. They had an ambulance waiting with the motor running at the end of the track. The footage is available on YouTube, but the results are not the kind of thing you want to see if you avoid horror movies or blood sports. His eyes had gone completely bloodshot — the whites were turned crimson, and he lost vision for a full ten minutes. There were visible abrasions on his sides with deep purple bruising. The effect of the high speeds attained had sandblasted his epidermis with sub-sonic dust particles. Col. Stapp knew the risks and he volunteered for over twenty tests. Time magazine dubbed him “the fastest man in the world.” Col. Kittinger would forever refer to Stapp as “the bravest man I have ever met.” The data they gathered saved countless lives, and he was willing to put himself through very dangerous experiments to do so. Later Stapp would realize he was losing more test pilots from automobile crashes than flight crashes. It was assumed until that period surviving a high-speed car crash was extremely unlikely. Stapp’s efforts to provide proof and safety equipment for the car industry resulted in the trend of seat belts sweeping the globe.
Project Manhigh was the first space program, and preceded the Mercury missions. The goal was to raise a test pilot to a space-equivalent environment above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere and leave him there for a twenty-four-hour test period. This isn’t possible without a pressurized suit or the lack of atmosphere would cause an ebullism — a condition where liquid inside the human body bubbles up and turns to gas (boiling, essentially). This predicament is caused when a pilot crosses the Armstrong Line, a barrier at about 60,000 feet named for the founder of the US Department of Space Medicine, Major General Henry George Armstrong. At that height water boils at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Meaning the average human body temperature. The water in your saliva and lungs. The water in your organs and blood stream. It was incredibly painful and often lethal. Test pilots would breathe pure oxygen for an hour and a half just to flush out the nitrogen from their blood stream (which would turn to gas even earlier than water). This preventative measure is known as pre-breathing, and without it the goals of Project Manhigh would be unattainable. Team work and preparation saw them through those early tests.
Roswell, New Mexico – No Autopsy Required
In the early days of Project Manhigh and Project Mogul rodents, apes, and guinea pigs were used to test the effects of high altitude. Since none of these critters could pilot the balloon what resulted was a good deal of chasing the flight crafts down and clearing residential areas when the test crew was unfortunate enough to see their balloons go down close to the newly emerging urban sprawl. Rushing to get to the animals before their capsule overheated was next to impossible and it became obvious that this sort of unidentified flying object — at the height of Cold War tensions — would draw a crowd where ever it touched down. Weather balloons were always being mistaken for UFOs. Especially at twilight, just after sundown, when a balloon at altitude would catch the last rays and glow after darkness had fallen for onlookers on the ground.
One such incident caused a seemingly endless amount of controversy. You’ve probably heard at least one side of the story before.
By May of 1959 Project Manhigh was testing with human subjects. It was on a routine flight in an experimental weather balloon a medical emergency would generate headlines and conspiracy theories for over half a century. Kittinger had been training Dan Fulgham and Bill Kaufman for short flights and landings. Alamogordo has a 10,000 foot mountain range, and leaving Holloman Air Force Base Kittinger instructed the two to keep the balloon at 11,000 feet while he took a short nap. That may sound odd, but sleeping in shifts was routine on flights, and in a balloon moving no more than twenty miles per hour it can be quite peaceful. Neither Kaufman or Fulgham were certified balloon pilots.
When he awoke, Capt. Kittinger checked the altimeter. Five hundred feet?! They’d already cleared the mountains and were trying to bring it down gradually. Joe had neglected to tell them he’d been warned by their meteorologist to avoid incoming weather on the east side of those mountains. Right where they were heading. Initially his plan had been to keep the balloon high, find a good spot, and then come down right on top of it. He could already see ground winds whipping up as they approached a small New Mexico town called Roswell. He chose to let Dan Fulgham land. Dan hit a button that cut away the balloon and deployed a cargo chute. Generally, they would let the basket drag a little and open a gas valve. The gondola flipped upside down, yet the test pilots remained inside due to centrifugal force. The lip of the gondola slammed into Dan Fulgham’s head and burst all of the blood vessels in his scalp. He’d been the only one wearing a helmet at the time, and if he had neglected that as well he would certainly would have died from the impact to his cranium. They managed to get the helmet off, but his head was swelling as the vessels filled with blood. The men became scared they were going to watch a man die. They had a helicopter following their flight, with an Air Force medic on board. It was 5:30 in the morning when they got Dan on board. Walker Air Force Base was nearby. By the time they got their Fulgham’s head was the size of a basketball. All the blood vessels in his face and scalp had hemorrhaged, and you could barely see his nose. Kittinger realized that an accident investigator would be dispatched and in no way wanted any part of that guy. He wouldn’t let the missions end as a result of this. Funding was still very limited until Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made his orbital flight and America officially took up the cause of the Space Race. Until that point, all of this testing was to develop bailout procedures for jet pilots.
Captain Kittinger bullied the hospital to put Dan into an ambulance and drive him to Alamogordo Hospital. They wanted to air lift him but the sudden change in pressure could kill the man. When asked if they should wait for the accident investigator Kittinger demanded “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
His attitude at the hospital and attempts to keep away the rubbernecking public at the crash site earned Joe Kittinger a place in the annals of conspiracy theory. A crash-landed weather balloon in Roswell, New Mexico? An individual with an abnormal head and a belligerent red-haired Captain shooing onlookers away and shouting down medical experts? You guessed it. The famous Roswell UFO crash and subsequent myths of an “alien autopsy” would become an American legend. Both Crash at Corona by Stanton Friedman and Don Berliner and The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore would share “eyewitness accounts” (now debunked) of a pushy red-haired Captain — a man one witness claimed the vague memory of his name: Armstrong — trying to keep everyone away from the experimental weather balloon and the creature with the misshapen head. It was in fact Kittinger. Part of the rumor mill begins with Glenn Dennis, a local mortician who has conveniently changed his story to reflect a more paranoid and conspiratorial edge. He benefited from his rumor-mongering, serving as president of the board of directors for one of the UFO museums in Roswell. The way he depicted the serviceman and nurses involved with this tragic incident is disgusting.
Due to his name coming up in so many reports, a major television network requested a word with the retired Colonel. Although Kittinger’s crash took place twelve years after the 1947 date attributed to the crash by conspiracy theorists, accounts of his story were attached to the Roswell mythology as it developed over the years. On July 5th, 1997, they took a live feed from a local network affiliate in Orlando while the national news anchor was broadcasting from Roswell for the 50th anniversary of the so-called Roswell Incident. It was the day after the NASA lander had touched down on Mars and began sending pictures of the Red Planet back to Earth. The anchor introduced Col. Kittinger and asked “Well, what’s your opinion, Colonel Kittinger, about the incidents so many years ago here in Roswell that we’re celebrating today?”
“Well,” came his response, “do you know that right now there’s a real scientific incident happening on the planet Mars? It’s sending back real pictures. To tell you the truth, I’m afraid what you’re celebrating there is more like a nonevent.”
There was a long pause, and the anchor cleared his throat. “Thank you very much, Colonel,” he said. They never asked for the Colonel’s opinion again.
Excelsior III Mission
Joe was elated. Singing songs and handing out sodas to the flight crew. His coworkers would relay this story later with a sense of awe. This man was so daring, and here they were on edge each moment leading up to the launch. The balloon rose without incident. During a routine equipment check at forty thousand feet Captain Kittinger realized the right glove of the pressure suit was damaged, and his hand was exposed. He realized that if ground control knew about his status they would abort. He chose to say nothing. Just passed one hundred thousand feet he stood, prayed . . . and jumped!
Nothing. He was floating sideways. Staring out at the void of space. It began to cross his mind that his instruments may have been off. That there may have been some unseen calculation no one performed and here he was suspended in micro-gravity, waiting for his oxygen to slowly run out, turning his flight suit into an ergonomic coffin. He turned slowly and spied the gondola above. It was rushing away from him, rising at an incredible speed into space. That’s when he realized that he actually was in a free fall! Without air in the atmosphere there was no rustling of fabric to indicate he was moving at all. It wasn’t until turning a little more and gaining the visual feedback of an increasingly larger terrain below that he confirmed he was on his way back home. The free fall would last four minutes and thirty-six seconds. He slowed from 614 mph to around 250 as he entered the troposphere. The dynamic tension on a human body in a pressurized suit is relative, no matter what the speed. This is called the Q force. Skydivers, leaping from planes in breathable atmosphere reach terminal velocity at 120 mph. It all feels the same regardless of the speed you’re traveling at. Kittinger tucked up his knees and descended into the cloud canopy below. For just a moment everything was dark.
At eighteen thousand feet, he left the clouds and deployed his main chute, gliding to the ground for a hard landing on the desert floor. His hand ached with stiffness. It was a chunk of frozen meat twice it’s usual size. It had swollen enough to block the leak in the glove but would return to normal later that evening. He did it. He’d shown that future space travelers could bail out at 100,000 feet and survive.
People asked Joe Kittinger — now a retired Colonel of the United States Air Force — how he could muster the courage for such a dangerous mission. In a fashion I’ve become all too familiar with from hearing other interviews with test pilots and astronauts he stated as a matter-of-fact that he was too concerned with the mission and the thousand item checklist to explore his emotions or even have a time to consider how he felt about what he was doing. He wanted to win. It’s always that simple with these men. Also, he would add, jumping off the edge of the gondola was the fastest route to where he wanted to be — back on earth. “It was the quickest way down.” He’d tell the curious with a grin.
One of the most important contributions Project Manhigh made was the testing of the multi-gas cabin atmosphere. Mixing helium with oxygen gave them a breathable atmosphere and alleviated concerns of fire aloft. Later, in 1962 Kittinger presented a paper at Brooks Air Force Base after which a NASA engineer in the front row asked skeptically if they really needed a multi-gas environment. He’d told them it wasn’t worth the risk. Hell, he’d lingered in the stratosphere long enough to know it could be endured with the proper suit without ebullism. The three brave men of the Apollo 1 disaster had their light extinguished because someone had deferred that responsibility to the eggheads instead of the men with experience. To make matters worse he had helped Ed White get into the astronaut program. When that kind of warning goes unheeded it’s hard not to walk around with a sick feeling in your gut for a year or two. Kittinger relays their error in his autobiography as “NIH syndrome.” Not Invented Here.
After all of this pioneering and adventure Captain Kittinger still had the Vietnam War to look forward to. He’d finally found the arena he was meant to test his martial skills in. His preference for the F-4D Phantom II is well known, and models of that plane grace several of the parks named for the Colonel. During 1971 to 1972, in his third tour of duty as a fighter pilot he flew with the Triple Nickel Squadron and shot down a MiG-21 over North Vietnam. On May 11th of 1972 Joe Kittinger — now a Lieutenant Colonel — was shot down and captured with his co-pilot. They were held for eleven months in captivity at the notorious Hanoi Hilton. In his autobiography, he talks about the “rope torture” he endured. Hỏa Lò Prison was built by French colonialists to hold political prisoners. Once it became part of Viet Cong-held territory it was turned into a house of horrors. Starvation and tropical disease were commonplace. The prisoners passed the days trying to wish away the beatings and choke down the contaminated food. It was there John McCain was interned and produced his now famous Tokyo Rose tapes, cowering before his captors and collaborating with the enemy.
In the Hanoi Hilton Kittinger served as SRO — senior ranking officer — for the men. They prided themselves on maintaining their organizational structure. It is the duty of all captured soldiers of the American Armed Forces to resist their captors. When possible, to escape. Of course, he appointed a man as head of the escape committee as a means to practice continued resistance, but he always knew if they could make it out alive it would be impossible to blend with the crowd in a city like Hanoi. The enemy they had to keep constant vigilance for was the encroaching despair. He’d seen lack of morale effect men under his command before his capture. Some had even seemed indifferent to demotion. Quitting has to be treated like an infectious disease in a war of attrition. An outbreak can be virulent if rank and file discipline aren’t established quickly to avert a potential epidemic.
Many of these men had already succumbed to torture. They’d been broken. For the few that were unable to snap out of it, there awaited horrors worse than the Hanoi Hilton. The insane asylums were dangerous places you could be sent to. You would die surrounded by madness. Remembering their training these men kept up morale by investing time and effort in the soldiers that were giving in to hopelessness. Taking notice of a man who became distant or socially alienated, he would be ordered to start talking, and several men would chat with him through the days after to help him snap out of it. These men were constantly being told by their captors the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them. They were not soldiers in the eyes of the Viet Cong, they were “criminal Yankee pirates.”
Near the end of his stay at the prison the men were allowed to receive packages, and that was when Kittinger learned he had been promoted to Colonel. All told, Col. Kittinger spent eleven months as a POW before he and his men were released. Others had been there for seven years. Prior to his third and final tour of duty in Vietnam he and other fighter pilots had been called into the Pentagon in a publicity stunt on behalf of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They were coached on what to say in front of the press, and all of them refused. They were told to lie, to say that the war was going well. Col. Joe Kittinger has always maintained the most intelligent course of action would have been to declare war on North Vietnam and leave the planning of it to the generals rather than LBJ and various Pentagon officials. Another professional opinion that could have saved lives was ignored for the sake of the ego of others. He endured that prison by not giving in to bitterness or contempt of the men refusing to listen to those with the experience. He knew that his own men depended on him to be a better leader than those who thought they could plan everything from Washington D.C.
Col. Joe Kittinger would go on to find new challenges and adventures. He remarried. He became VP of Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus and tried to inspire a new generation of aviators. He began a career as professional balloonist, racing for wealthy patrons much like the way he raced boats for the well-to-do on the Saint John’s River in his youth. Never wavering in his admiration for Charles Lindbergh he vowed to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a solo balloon flight. It was an idea he’d first entertained himself with while a POW in Vietnam. Between September 14th and 18th of 1984 he achieved that dream, setting a new world record of longest gas balloon flight. In 1997 Col. Kittinger received what he described as one of the greatest honors of his life when he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He invited everyone he cared about to turn it into a celebration. His wife Sherry had the idea to supply each member of their party with a red bandanna to put in the pocket of their tuxedos or tucked into the collars of the women’s gowns. As they were walking down the steps Bob Snow — a fellow balloonist and friend of Kittinger — said “Here comes the redneck squadron!” and Team Kittinger had it’s new name. The autobiography leaves us with the retired Colonel now well into his eighties returning to the Saint John’s River. To the place that shaped him, where he still hunts the gators at night — looking to bag the biggest.
What first was an experimental safety procedure for two cold war super powers became the patriotic pursuit of a dream. One that Nick Piantanida gave his life for after the day he flew a manned balloon higher than any man before him, setting a new world record in 1966 that would go unbroken until 2012, when Felix Baumgartner — trained by Kittinger and sponsored by Red Bull. Finally, in 2014 Alan Eustace — the Senior Vice President of Knowledge at Google — would fund his own stratosphere dive without the marketing machine of Red Bull. Eustace had the right contacts to develop a five-hundred-pound flight suit and remove the capsule altogether. Suspended by a balloon now only one fifth of the size of the dimensions required to lift a space vehicle he ascended to 135,889 feet. The descent was 26 miles down and took 15 minutes, setting new world records for the highest free-fall jump, and total free-fall distance 123,334 feet. Due to his use of a drogue parachute to stabilize himself during the descent his record is in a different category than Baumgartner’s.
One would assume that with all of these inspired flights record setting space-dives — now without the capsule altogether — there would be little more for the untameable white to explore with this sort of extreme sport.
On May 23rd of 2012 professional stuntman Gary Connery would jump from a helicopter 2,400 feet off the ground in a wing suit, wearing no parachute. Connery landed safely on a landing strip made of approximately 18,600 cardboard boxes of varying dimensions.
On June 30th of 2016 veteran skydiver Luke Aikins leaped out of a perfectly decent airplane and plummeted twenty-five thousand feet without a parachute. Landing on a one-hundred by one-hundred-foot net with four air compressors to slow him down after impact he set a record achieving something many experts thought too dangerous to attempt.
These men are profiles in courage. More than that, they demonstrate a rebellious streak that inspires many adventurers. These men had a drive and passion that are all to fleeting these days. A Faustian spirit that reaches higher and demands to go further than any before them. They exemplify an untameable whiteness that we must embrace and distill if we are to endure the coming conflicts. I write these reviews and biographical sketches of white heroes, villains, and eccentrics to search for what makes Western man daring. It is this daring of a small fraction of our people that motivates us as a mass. These men teach us that we can dare, and if we do, we can win.