HomeNewsVietnam War Pilot Famous for 19-Mile Parachute Jump Dead at 94

Vietnam War Pilot Famous for 19-Mile Parachute Jump Dead at 94

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: Christopher Furlong / Staff

A U.S. Air Force pilot who served in the Vietnam War has passed away at 94. Per reports, Col. Joseph Kittinger held the record for the highest parachute jump for over half a century.

According to reports from his longtime friend and colleague, U.S. Rep. John Mica, Kittinger died from lung cancer at his Florida home.

Kittinger, who once held the title of Air Force captain and pilot, garnered international fame when he performed three jumps over ten months from a gondola lifted into the air by helium balloons.

However, during his inaugural jump in 1959, he nearly lost his life when his parachute malfunctioned. As a result, he passed out as he spun vigorously through the air. However, his saving grace was his automatic chute. Then, a month later, he returned and completed his second jump.

He passed out as he went into free fall but was saved when his automatic parachute deployed. About a month later, he made his second jump without any issues.

Kittinger later made headlines on Aug. 16. 1960, while in New Mexico. However, once again, his pressure suit malfunctioned. As a result, his right hand swelled up twice its average size before he made the jump.

Vietnam Veteran narrowly escaped death multiple times while deploying parachute

He went over 600 miles per hour before his parachute deployed at nearly 20,000 feet.

“There’s no way you can visualize the speed,” he said about his parachute experience during an interview in 2011. “There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It’s the same thing if you’re free-falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.”

During his time in the Air Force, he completed three tours during the Vietnam War.

He deployed his parachute in the spring of 1972 but was shot down and captured by the Viet Cong. He then spent nearly a year in a Hanoi prisoner-of-war camp.

Kittinger later retired from the Air Force in 1978. Once home, he became a local legend in the Orlando area.

His record was broken in 2012 when Felix Baumgartner jumped from 24 miles above New Mexico and reached a speed of 844 miles per hour. Kittinger also served as an advisor for the jump.

He leaves behind his wife, Sherri.

“Joe will be greatly missed, but his achievements and legacy will long be admired and remembered by explorers throughout the world, Explorers Club President Richard Garriott de Cayeux wrote in a statement.