Project Excelsior

614 miles per hour fall, almost hitting the speed of sound

On August 16, 1960, US Air Force Captain Joseph W. Kittinger jumped into aviation history. Project Excelsior was a series of parachute jumps made in 1959 and 1960 from helium balloons in the stratosphere. The purpose was to test the Beaupre multi-stage parachute system[1] intended to be used by pilots ejecting from high altitude

To test the parachute system, staff at Wright Field built a high helium balloon with a capacity of nearly 3 million cubic feet that could lift an open gondola and test pilot into the stratosphere. Kittinger, who was the test director for the project, made three ascents and test jumps. The first test, Excelsior I, was made on November 16, 1959.

As the gondola was unpressurized, Kittinger had to wear special clothing during these tests, a modified David Clark MC-3A partial pressure suit and MA-3 helmet. Over this was a coverall garment to keep the pressure suit’s lacings and capstans from catching on anything as he jumped from the balloon gondola. He breathed a combination of 60% oxygen, 20% nitrogen, and 20% helium. This ensemble doubled his weight. Kittinger ascended in the gondola and jumped from an altitude of 76,400 feet.

In the Excelsior I test the stabilizer parachute opened too soon catching Kittinger around the neck and causing him to go into a spin at 120 revolutions per second. This caused him to lose consciousness, but his life was saved by his main chute which opened automatically at a height of 10,000 ft. For the Excelsior II test three weeks later (December 11, 1959), the very brave Kittinger jumped from an altitude of 74,700 feet and descended in free-fall for 55,000 feet before opening his main parachute.

A little over half a year later on August 16, 1960, Kittinger would perform the third and final test, Excelsior III. During the ascent, the pressure seal in Kittinger’s right glove failed, and he began to experience severe pain in his right hand from the exposure of his hand to extremely low pressure. Climbing one hour and 31 minutes to an altitude of 102,800 feet, and reaching the target zone, he jumped from the platform that read “This is the highest step in the world”.

In temperatures as low as -94 °F. Captain Kittinger free-fell for 4 minutes, 36 seconds, and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour. During the free fall descent, he trailed a small drogue parachute for stabilization. His 28-foot diameter main parachute opened at 17,500 feet and he touched the ground 9 minutes, 9 seconds later.

An hour and thirty-one minutes after launch, my pressure altimeter halts at 103,300 feet. At ground control the radar altimeters also have stopped-on readings of 102,800 feet, the figure that we later agree upon as the more reliable. It is 7 o’clock in the morning, and I have reached float altitude … Though my stabilization chute opens at 96,000 feet, I accelerate for 6,000 feet more before hitting a peak of 614 miles an hour, nine-tenths the speed of sound at my altitude.

Captain Joseph W. Kittinger

He had not reported the glove pressure problem knowing the jump would be aborted. His hand would recover. After the flight, he was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross. Kittinger held the world records for the highest parachute jump and highest speed of a human in the atmosphere until October 14, 2012, when Felix Baumgartner jumped from 127,852 feet and reached a speed of 843.59 mph as part of the Red Bull Stratos project,

with Kittinger serving as a technical advisor to Baumgartner. Kittinger does, however, still hold the records for longest drogue fall and longest freefall. After returning to operations, Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War.

After two tours flying the Douglas B-26K Invader, he transitioned to the McDonnell F-4D Phantom II and returned to Southeast Asia for a voluntary third tour with the famed 555th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (“The Triple Nickel”)[2]. He is credited with shooting down a MiG 21 fighter. Almost to the end of his third combat tour, Lieutenant Colonel Kittinger was himself shot down and he and his Weapons System Officer were captured. They spent 11 months at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

  1. Francis Beaupre, a technician at Wright Field, Ohio, devised a multi-stage parachute system to facilitate manned tests. This consisted of a small stabilizer parachute designed to prevent uncontrolled spinning at high altitudes and a main parachute that deployed at a lower altitude. The system included timers and altitude sensors that automatically deployed both parachutes at the correct point in the descent. [Back]
  2. On 8 January 1964, the 555th re-emerged at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida as the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron (555 TFS), operating the McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II. The squadron was organized from elements of the 557th, 558th, and 559 TFS at MacDill, when the parent 12th Tactical Fighter Wing (12 TFW) reduced the number of aircraft from three squadrons of 25 aircraft each to four squadrons of 18 aircraft. [Back]
  3. Hỏa Lò Prison was a prison in Hanoi originally used by the French colonists in Indochina for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. During this later period, it was known to American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, although the gatehouse remains a museum. [Back]


This Day in Aviation

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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