In 1953 Kittinger was reassigned to Holloman Air Force Base, Alamogordo, New Mexico, Fighter Test Section. He accumulated many hours in a variety of experimental jet fighters and worked extensively with a number of guided missile flights. As a flying safety officer at Holloman, he became an instructor in survival and bailout techniques.
During Kittinger’s tour at Holloman he flew a T-33 aircraft to track the rocket-sled experiments being conducted by John Paul Stapp. This lead Kittinger to being assigned to pilot zero gravity flights for Project Manhigh. Project Manhigh was designed to study cosmic rays, pilot-escape problems, and high-altitude hardware using a high altitude balloon with pressurized gondola. The capsule design and testing, and an entire decision-making process developed in Project Manhigh would be largely inherited by Project Mercury.
On June 2, 1957 Kittinger piloted Manhigh I to a height of 96,000 feet.
In 1958 Kittinger became project engineer in the Escape Section of the Aeromedical Laboratory of the USAF Wright Air Development Division. He worked on a number of projects pertaining to emergency escape from disabled aircraft at extreme altitudes.
Kittinger headed up Project Excelsior with the goal to solve the peculiar problems of high altitude bailout. Project Excelsior used a high altitude balloon with an open gondola to go to the edge of space, the pilot returning by parachute.
November 16, 1959 Kittinger piloted Excelsior I to a height of 76,000 feet and returned to earth by jumping, free falling, and parachuting back to the desert floor in New Mexico.
Kittinger followed this flight with two more. Excelsior II launched on December 11, 1959 and rose to a height of 74,700 before Kittinger left the gondola. His final flight in this series, Excelsior III, took place on August 16, 1960. Kittinger piloted his craft to an altitude of 102,800 feet before exiting the open gondola. On the descent Kittinger became the first man to exceed the Speed of Sound without an aircraft or space vehicle. It is still the highest parachute jump ever. The freefall lasted four minutes and thirty-six seconds, a record.
Kittinger’s next high altitude balloon project was to raise an astronomer, a high-powered telescope, and a stable observation platform far enough above the distorting influence of the earth’s atmosphere to allow the first unencumbered look at our universe. Project Stargazer had one flight. On December 13, 1962 Kittinger piloted Stargazer I to altitude of 81,500 where for thirteen hours the astronomer on board conducted his work. This was Kittinger’s fifth and final high altitude balloon flight to the edge of space.
Kittinger changed tempo and next volunteered for the Air Force’s Aero Commandos. He wanted to be a combat pilot in Vietnam. Kittinger logged over 1,000 hours combat flight in Southeast Asia in the sixties and early seventies. During his three tours of duty, he flew a total of 483 missions, including one in March of 1972 in which he shot down a Soviet MiG-21. Two months later, he was himself shot down over North Vietnam and taken prisoner. He spent 11 months in solitary confinement in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton".
Kittinger used his time in solitary confinement to work on an idea that he first had in 1958. Back then he asked an Air Force meteorologist if it was possible to fly a balloon around the world. The answer was yes. He spent his time in prison working out the details.
Kittinger’s contributions to aeronautics were not limited to his military experience. In 1976 he served as flight operations director on Ed Yost’s attempted balloon crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in Silver Fox.
Kittinger’s accomplishments during the 1980s are legendary. He finished first four times in the Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race, with three consecutive victories to retire the Gordon Bennett Trophy, and finished second four times.
In November 1983 Kittinger flew a 1,000 cubic meter helium balloon from Las Vegas, Nevada to Franklinville, New York. He covered 2,001 miles in 72 hours establishing a new world record. Having expended all available ballast he landed in his underwear.
In September 1984 Kittinger launched from Caribou, Maine, solo, in a 3,000 cubic meter balloon. 86 hours later he landed near Montenotte, Italy having covered 3,543 miles, establishing a new world record for class of balloon and becoming the first, and only, person to fly the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon solo.
For the last 16 years Kittinger has operated Rosie O’Grady Flying Circus, offering hot air balloon rides and fixed wing banner towing, in the Orlando, Florida area.
Kittinger has logged more than 11,000 hours of flight time in 62 different types of aircraft including 5,300 hours in jet fighters and 1,000 hours of combat flying, is a Master Parachutist with over 100 parachute jumps, made five high altitude balloon flights, and has extensive experience in low altitude helium and hot air balloons.
His many decorations for accomplishments in aeronautics include the Harmon International Trophy, Two Montgolfier Diplomas, Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with five Oak Leaf Clusters, and Bronze Star Medal with "V" device and two Oak Leaf Clusters.
Joe Kittinger, for more than 45 years, has made contributions of significant value to aeronautics as a space pioneer, test pilot, combat aviator, and world record holder in helium balloons.