Joseph William Kittinger II (born July 27, 1928) is a former Command Pilot and career military officer in the United States Air Force. He is most famous for his participation in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior, holding the records for having the highest, fastest and longest skydive and as being the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. Serving as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he was shot down and spent 11 months in a North Vietnamese prison.
Born in Tampa, Florida (U.S.), Kittinger was educated at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, and the University of Florida. After racing speedboats as a teenager, he entered the U.S. Air Force in March 1949. On completion of aviation cadet training in March 1950, he received a pilot rating and a commission as a second lieutenant. He was subsequently assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing based at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany, flying the F-84 Thunderjet and F-86 Sabre.
In 1954 Kittinger was transferred to Holloman AFB, New Mexico and the Air Force Missile Development Center (AFMDC). He flew the observation/chase plane which monitored flight surgeon Colonel John Paul Stapp's rocket sled run of 632 mph (1,017 km/h) in 1955. Kittinger was impressed by Stapp's dedication and leadership as a pioneer in aerospace medicine. Stapp, in turn, was impressed with Kittinger's skillful jet piloting, later recommending him for space-related aviation research work. Stapp was to foster the high altitude balloon tests which would later lead to Kittinger's record-setting leap from over 102,800 feet (31,300 m). In 1957, as part of Project Manhigh, Kittinger set an interim balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet (29,490 m) in Manhigh I, for which he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross.