The Bolles community is saddened to learn of the passing of distinguished alumnus Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger ’46 on December 9 in Florida. He was 94.
Kittinger’s accomplishments in the military and in aviation are a display in courage, character and determination. During his distinguished career as a United States Air Force pilot and officer, Kittinger volunteered for three tours of duty in Vietnam. After being shot down, he became a Prisoner of War and even served a stint in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Over his military career, he earned two Silver Stars, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars with a V for Valor in Combat, and 24 air medals.
Prior to the Vietnam War, Kittinger accomplished what is perhaps his most famous achievement as a pioneer in human flight. In 1960, wearing a prototype NASA space suit, he jumped from a helium-balloon-tethered gondola at an altitude of 102,800 feet – the first human ever to reach an altitude of almost 20 miles. During his free fall, he became the first human to break the sound barrier without an aircraft as he reached a speed of 714 miles per hour. An image of his jump appeared on the cover of the August 29, 1960 issue of LIFE magazine. In 1984, he performed the first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean and set a world record, spending 84 hours in the gondola of a balloon, traveling at altitudes between 18,000 and 22,000 feet and traveling 3,542 miles. Kittinger appeared in a segment on ESPN’s E:60 program titled “Air, Sea, and Land” and was also featured in an episode of the PBS series American Experience titled “Space Men.”
Kittinger has been awarded a Lifetime Achievement in Aviation trophy from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame and the National Skydiving Museum Hall of Fame. He also served as Mission Consultant in the Red Bull company’s Stratos project, an effort that allowed Felix Baumgartner to break Kittinger’s record by jumping from 128,100 feet.
In 2012, Kittinger visited the Bolles Upper School San Jose Campus as the Bolles Crew dedicated a new rowing shell to him in honor of his distinguished career. At the dedication ceremony, Kittinger expressed how proud he was to be associated with Bolles.
“It’s a wonderful school and a wonderful staff,” Kittinger said. “What I’ve accomplished in life is because of the lessons I learned here at The Bolles School.”
Kittinger lived in the Orlando area and is survived by his wife, Sherri. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.
(Images courtesy of The Associated Press and LIFE Magazine)