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Skydiving legend Joseph Kittinger dies at 94

Dec. 10 (UPI) — Colonel Joseph Kittinger, who held the record for the highest skydive for 52 years, has died at the age of 94, the United States Parachute Association announced.

Kittinger worked with the U.S. Air Force’s Project Excelsior in 1959 and 1960, which saw him travel to the edge of space aboard balloons on multiple occasions. During this time he became the first person to witness the curvature of the Earth with their own eyes.

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On Aug. 16, 1960, Kittinger boarded a high-altitude balloon and floated 102,800 feet above the Earth, where the atmosphere is so thin that a human’s blood would boil without protective gear. It was higher than any human had ever travelled at the time.

He disconnected his oxygen supply, said a prayer, and jumped out of the balloon. Kittinger plummeted for 4 minutes, 36 seconds, reaching a top speed of 614 mph, before releasing his parachute at 18,000 feet.

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That day Kittinger broke three world records — the highest altitude ever reached by a human, the fastest speed a human had ever traveled through he atmosphere outside of a vehicle and the highest skydive.

“There’s no way you can visualize the speed. There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going,” Kittinger told Florida Icon in 2011.

“You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is,” he said. “It’s the same thing if you’re free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.”

After Project Excelsior, Kittinger served three combat tours in Vietnam where he flew 483 combat missions, shooting down a North Vietnamese MIG-21 during his deployment.

On May 11, 1972, Kittenger’s F-4D was shot down by a North Vietnamese fighter. He was captured with his weapons officer, Lt. William Reich, and brought to Hanoi as a prisoner of war, where he was subjected to rope torture by his captors.

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“They kept me at the Hanoi Hilton, first in solitary and then in a very small room with 30 other guys. I lost 40 pounds,” he recalled.

“The majority of the food they gave us was pumpkin soup. We had pumpkin soup a couple of times a day. There was no meat. We were always hungry, but we would never talk about food because why torture yourself? Today, I would walk 100 miles to keep from eating a bowl of pumpkin soup.”

Kittinger was repatriated to the United States as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973.

In 1984. Kittinger completed the first solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and went on to assist an ultimately unsuccessful NASA project to break his skydiving record during the 1990s.

Kittinger also served as capsule communicator for the Red Bull Stratos project, in which Felix Baumgartner finally broke the 52-year record when he leapt from a balloon 128,100 feet above the Earth on Oct. 14, 2012.

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