Col. Joe Kittinger, legendary Orlando aerospace pioneer, dies at 94

His hot air balloon jump broke records, helped send Americans to space

ORLANDO, Fla. – Col. Joe Kittinger, an Air Force veteran whose legendary jump from a balloon in the stratosphere above Earth set a milestone in aerospace history and was key to the space program, has died.

The U.S. Parachute Association said Kittinger died this week at the age of 94.

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Florida Sen. Rick Scott reacted to news of the 94-year-old’s death, saying in a tweet, “We’re forever thankful for his service.”

As a pilot for the U.S. Air Force, Kittinger made history when he jumped from a gondola powered by helium balloons 102,800 feet above Earth as part of Project Excelsior in 1960.

Col. Joe Kittinger leaps from a hot-air balloon and begins his skydive over 100,000 feet above the Earth. This picture was featured in Life Magazine. (U.S. Air Force)

His record-beaking skydive was crucial to understanding how humans can survive at those altitudes and helped in sending Americans into space.

Kittinger also served in the Vietnam War and was shot down in 1972, subsequently spending nearly a year in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Even after he retired from the Air Force in 1978, Kittinger continued to be involved with aviation projects. In 1984 he became the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a gas balloon. He served as advisor to daredevil Felix Baumgartner in 2012 when Baumgartner broke Kittinger’s record for the highest parachute jump.

Austria's Felix Baumgartner, right, and Capcom 1 skydive record holder Col. Joe Kittinger, pose for the photographers after a press conference in Salzburg, Austria on Saturday Oct. 27, 2012. Supersonic skydiver Felix Baumgartner has finally come home after his death-defying, record-breaking leap from the edge of space. The Austrian former military parachutist faced reporters in his home city of Salzburg on Saturday, nearly two weeks after his plunge from a balloon to the New Mexico desert made him the first person to reach supersonic speed without traveling in a jet or spacecraft. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson), (Associated Press)

Longtime friend Bob Snow said he spoke with Kittinger one day before his passing.

“I just can’t image Kittinger not being here. I mean, he was such a part of everything we did,” Snow said. “The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting Joe Kittinger because he brought professionalism, he brought excitement.”

In the 1970s Snow purchased and developed the Church Street Entertainment District and Church Street Station in downtown Orlando. In the days before Universal’s Citywalk and Disney Springs, tourists flocked to the downtown venues.

Snow said Kittinger helped run his businesses with discipline learned during his time in the Air Force.

“From being in the Air Force as a colonel, he knew how to run a squadron. So he ran that flying circus and the ballooning and the sky riding and the aerial billboards just as he was running an Air Force function,” Snow said. “He was an engineer. There’s nothing trivial about anything he ever did.”

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Col. Joe Kittinger Park in Orlando is named after Kittinger and features an F-4 Phantom aircraft as a monument to Central Florida’s veterans.

A memorial service for Kittinger is planned for January.

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Correction:

The gondola Joe Kittinger made his record-breaking Project Excelsior jump from used helium balloons, not hot air balloons. We've corrected this.


About the Authors:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.

Troy graduated from California State University Northridge with a Bachelor's Degree in Communication. He has reported on Mexican drug cartel violence on the El Paso/ Juarez border, nuclear testing facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory and severe Winter weather in Michigan.