Thursday, November 19, 2009

Joseph Kittinger and Project Excelsior

Joseph Kittinger's has one of the most varied and eventful careers of any pilot in the US Air Force. He is most well known for his participation in Project Excelsior, an extreme altitude project but that is just one part of a very interesting mans life. On top of his involvement with this record setting project he is also the first person to make a solo journey across the Atlantic in a gas balloon, holds the record for highest ascent in a gas balloon and holds the record for the most g forces sustained by a human being. On top of this during the Vietnam war in his third tour of duty Kittinger was shot down in a dogfight with a MiG-21, he was then captured and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."

Project Excelsior was used to test Beaupre multi-stage parachute system from 1959-1960. The system used a series of parachutes with the initial chutes being small and used to stabilize a falling person, then releasing larger chutes to slow them down before impact. The testing consisted of a series of extremely high altitude jumps, from 76,000 to 102,100 feet, all of which were performed by Kittinger. He was lifted to the stratosphere by a specially designed gondola attached to 200 foot tall helium balloon. He was also outfitted with a special high altitude suit designed to maintain pressure on his body to combat the effects of the near vacuum at the extreme altitudes he would be jumping from.

The first test jump was made on November 16th, 1959 at an altitude of 76,400 feet. The stabilizer chute designed to balance Kittenger was released two early and caught him around the neck and forced him into a spin at 120 revolutions per minute, scientist later would determine this would cause his body to experience 22 g's making Kittinger the record holder. Kittenger lost consciousness during the jump but was saved because his main chute was designed to deploy automatically. Even though almost loosing his life in the first jump Kittinger volunteered again for a second jump, this time successfully jumping from 74,700 feet, however he deployed his main chute at 55,000 ft.

He made a third and final attempt on August 16, 1960. The ascent took one hour and 31 minutes to reach the final altitude of 102,800 feet, a new record for a gas balloon. During the ascent one his pressurized gloves failed casing severe pain and making his hand swell to twice the normal size despite this he continued on to make the jump. His stabilization chute deployed correctly and Kittinger was in free fall for a total of 4 minutes and 36 seconds before deploying his chute at 17,00 feet. During this free fall he would reach speeds of up to 614 mph.

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