Aviator Kittinger Joins Lofty Ranks at Smithsonian

                                       By Tamara Lytle

            CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT-Tribune Publishing

WASHINGTON--He jumped out of a balloon nearly 20 miles high, setting a world record that has lasted nearly 50 years.

He served three tours as a combat pilot in Vietnam before he was shot down and held for 11 months as a prisoner of war.

He became the first person to cross the Atlantic solo in a balloon.

Now retired air Force Col. Joe Kittinger's story will have a place in aviation history at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum which Thursday, April 3, 2008, honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award, putting him in the company of such heroic aviators as John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

Although his red hair has faded mostly to white, Kittinger of Altamonte Springs, Florida still has the perfect eyesight and quick reflexes that pulled him out of tight spots as an Air Force test pilot.  These days, you can still find him floating above Clermont to give documentary-television crews a balloon's eye view of Central Florida, or you can catch him behind the controls of vintage airplanes, doing a modest 150 mph.

Kittinger was honored at the museum's Milestones of Flight gallery, where his flight jacket, his trademark red hunting cap for high-altitude flights and other memorabilia joined the Spirit of St. Louis, Apollo 11 command module and other icons of aviation.

"This building is full of the stories of heroes who performed great feats in the sky," said curator Tom Crouch, 64, who nominated his childhood hero for the award.  "Joe Kittinger has to be at the top of anyone's list of people like that."

Kittinger graced the cover of Life magazine in a photo of his jump from the edge of space in 1960.  He was feted in his beloved hometown of Orlando with a ticker-tape parade after his historic Atlantic crossing in 1984.  The Historical Society of Central Florida gave him its highest award in 2006.

Kittinger brushes off the label of hero and dwells little on the risks and near-death experiences of his career, which fills nine aviator logbooks and clocks in at more than 16,400 hours in the air.

"If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken more chances," Kittinger joked Thursday.

                                    Free-fall records: 102,800 feet in 4:36

Kittinger grew up in Orlando and rode his bike out to the local airport--now Orlando Executive, as a 10-year-old boy with dreams.

"I'd walk around and look at the airplanes and talk to the pilots and dream about the day I'd be flying," he said.  He joined the U.S. Air Force and became a test pilot.

Kittinger's most famous testing was designed with the future astronaut corps in mind.  His balloon jumps, wearing pressure suits, were from the edge of Earth's atmosphere, which some historians argue makes him the first man in space.

He first jumped from a balloon at 96,000 feet in 1957 to show astronauts could eject from spacecraft and live through the descent.

Kittinger's follow-up jump in 1960 set records for free-fall duration--4 minutes, 36 seconds--and altitude--102,800 feet--three times higher than a typical jetliner.  Accounts of his top speed during the free fall range from 614mph to 714 mph, which would break the sound barrier.

Stepping out into that void, "He said, 'Lord, if you're ever going to help me, help me now,'"recalled Bob Snow, developer of Church Street Station in Downtown Orlando.  Snow was best man at Kittinger's 1991 wedding and has spent many long nights aloft with him all over the world.

                                     Survived capture in Vietnam

Kittinger never joined the astronaut corps.  Instead, he went to Vietnam, where he was shot down and captured, serving 11 months at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

After retiring from the Air Force, Kittinger kept flying.  He worked with Snow running Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus, which offered aerial ads and balloon tours.  He flew to air shows, cutting a jaunty figure with his red hair and mustache and a red bandanna.

"Joe brings magic into people's lives with aviation," said Sherry Kittinger, his wife of 17 years and frequent co-pilot.

At 79 years old, Kittinger has no plans to stop flying , saying "the sky is my office."

That was my dream; to be an aviator," Kittinger said.  "It's still what I want to do when I grow up."

 Tamara Lytle can be reached at tlytle@tribune.com