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Space Diver Drops in on Wright Brothers Banquet

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Joe Kittinger Jr. addresses the 300 attendees of the 8th Annual Wright Brothers Memorial Banquet December 17 in EAA’s Eagle Hangar.

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Joe Kittinger dispels the rumor that Paul Poberezny was the man on the right in the photo behind him.

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EAA Founder Paul Poberezny, Joe Kittinger Jr., and EAA President Rod Hightower give the annual toast to the Wright Brothers.

December 18, 2010 —Calling the Wright Brothers the original EAAers who test flew an experimental aircraft that they fabricated in their workshop, Joe Kittinger Jr. opened his address to the 300 attendees at the 8th annual Wright Brothers Memorial Banquet on December 17. Kittinger noted that “the [flight’s] 40 foot takeoff roll was a STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) takeoff. Flew 120 feet for 12 seconds—man had made the first step into the skies." Kittinger, who tested high-altitude pressure suits in the 1960s and set the record for highest parachute jump by leaping out of a balloon 102,000 feet above the earth, recounted a life full of exciting, important, and harrowing aviation exploits, which also included combat tours in Vietnam, and later racing gas balloons in the Gordon Bennett Balloon Cup series.

Following an introduction by EAA President Rod Hightower, Kittinger motioned to the large photograph of the Wright Brothers first flight behind him and joked that he wanted to dispel a rumor saying, “That is not Paul (Poberezny) on the side on the right”

The journey to that leap from over 100,000 feet began in 1957 when Joe was assigned to the Project Manhigh which was to study cosmic rays on humans. Joe made a gas balloon ascent to over 96,000 feet, setting an interim record. In 1959 he joined project Excelsior which set out to research the effects of high-altitude bailouts.

In all he made three jumps with the last (Excelsior II) from 102,800 feet which is a current United States Air Force Record but was never submitted as a world aerospace record. "The way you train for a Gas Balloon flight is put all the clothes on that you have, get in the shower and turn on the cold water and stuff $100 bills down the drain." Kittinger said.

A short film was shown which detailed the build up to the final jump including an earlier jump from 76,000 feet where he entered a flat spin due to an equipment malfunction. At the 18,000 feet the automatic parachute was deployed and saved his life.

Kittinger would meet adversity later in Vietnam flying two tours in the Douglas A-26 before transitioning to the F-4D Phantom II. He returned to Vietnam to command the Triple Nickel Squadron 555. During this third tour in 1972 he was shot down. He spent 11 months in the North Vietnamese prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton” which included torture.

"..It was a crappy Hilton. The food was lousy, the waiters were surly." Kittinger told the audience.

Following his address, Paul Poberezny joined Joe onstage as he reprised his light-hearted reference to people younger than him by inviting Rod Hightower to the stage by saying, “Come up here son.” Then Paul led everyone in a toast to the spirit of the Wright Brothers, EAA, and “our aviation family.”

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