Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian
At 93, aviation legend Joe Kittinger added another adventure to his list of accomplishments. Recently, he took seven laps around the Daytona International Speedway in a race car courtesy of the NASCAR Racing Experience reaching speeds of 170 mph. It was undoubtedly an unforgettable experience, one of many Kittinger has had in his life.
The retired U.S. Air Force colonel was a fighter pilot, test pilot, decorated war hero who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, a prisoner of war, and he was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a helium balloon. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment happened in 1960 when he stepped into history by riding a balloon up to the very edge of space; and with nothing but a parachute, he fell 102,800 feet back to earth.
Hurtling to earth, Kittinger’s free fall reached speeds over 600 mph setting records for the longest parachute free fall and highest balloon ascent. He did it to advance the U.S. space program, because NASA needed to prove that humans could survive emergency ejections at high altitude. Kittinger proved they could.
Kittinger described his experiences to Growing Bolder, explaining that unlike many record-breaking feats, his was done purely for research purposes.
“The theory we established and the equipment we used is still being used today,” Kittinger said. “Every ejection seat in the world uses a small stabilization parachute to get down to low altitude, which we developed. It makes us happy that we contributed to the safety and well-being of aviators and astronauts.”
Kittinger, who lives in Central Florida with his wife Sherry, says his experiences have taught him to never take his life for granted. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take risks. Even at 93, Kittinger believes life is all about adventure, about making a difference, and about taking chances.
“As a matter of fact, if I had known I was going to live this long I’d have taken even more chances,” he said with a smile.
Kittinger, who was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, has a Civil Air Patrol squadron named after him, and has been honored in ceremonies around the world, said he believes it is our responsibility to step forward to help wherever we are needed. And he also believes the actions we take to truly make a difference are what define us as people and is ultimately the legacy we leave behind.
“I’ve had a wonderful and adventurous life all because I never hesitated to volunteer for just about everything I could,” Kittinger said. “Some people say never volunteer for anything. I say volunteer for everything. Everything I did in the research business, everything I did in fighters, everything I did in my career I did because I put my hand up to volunteer. I don’t think I ever had an assignment that I did not volunteer for. And I helped direct my path through life by looking for opportunities, by working for opportunities, by setting goals, and I was just a very, very fortunate person.”
You can find out more about Col. Kittinger’s amazing life in his book, “Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography by Colonel Joe Kittinger.”