Tuesday, May 08, 2012


High in the azure blue sky, looking down on the seven hills of Fayetteville, I clenched the floor of the plane with curled toes. Seated behind me, Joe tilted the small bi-wing plane till one wing was straight above us, the other out of sight below. Then we dropped toward the ground. Wind whipped at my face, grabbing each breath.  My stomach lurched and the adrenaline rush sent squeals of delight that melted in the hot summer air over Drake Field.

I learned later, while watching Joe perform for the crowd, he'd only illustrated a bit of his wild and crazy barnstorming act for me. Touring the country, offering rides and performing high in the sky was something he had done for years. A man like Joe could scarcely keep his feet on the ground for any length of time. In 1960 his daredevil act bailing out of a balloon had set records and proved man could survive a fall from 102,800 feet above the earth. At least a man like Colonel Joseph Kittinger.

How'd I manage to take a flight with America's first spaceman? A true American hero? All things come together in strange ways. After I went to work for the local rural weekly newspaper in 1990, each time air shows of any type came to town, free rides were offered to reporters. I was the first to volunteer to take advantage of the opportunity. When I heard Joe Kittinger was at Drake Field, I stood up. And so, there I was, hanging on for dear life in an open cockpit plane, sitting up front only a foot or so behind the propeller, and having the time of my life.

It'd been a while since I thought about that day---after all it was 20 years ago---until the news broke that a stuntman from the UK, Steve Truglia will attempt to break Kittinger's record. He's going to jump from a balloon at 120,000 feet. His body will break the sound barrier at 700 mph. It's been over 50 years since Joe accomplished this and lived to tell about it. He had far less equipment to insure his survival. He blacked out while free falling, as will Steve Truglia. But Steve will have a lot of fancy "fail-safes" to keep him from going into a spin, and that's good. Read about Truglia's plans here.

All this brought back such memories of my meeting with Joe Kittinger. My ride in his plane, and later interview that brought about two separate articles on this daredevil hero. His book is available on Amazon, and no, I wasn't paid to say that. Bought a copy myself. Joe is quite a guy and I'll never forget my time spent with him, on the ground and above the earth.