Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Big Step

 Back in August 1960, Col. Joe Kittinger took a big step: 102.800 feet, in fact.
 After he stepped from the open balloon gondola, suspended at the edge of space above the New Mexico desert, Kittinger found himself stepping into the record books. To this day, his parachute jump was the highest, fastest, longest.
 Today {05/12/11] he visited Valley View Middle School in Germantown. I advanced the story last winter for the Dayton Daily News and today I was back to complete the story.

 Kittinger is now 82 but remarkably agile and still at home suspended beneath a balloon. Gentle Breeze Hot Air Balloon Company, Ltd. of Lebanon, Ohio, was kind enough to donate the use of one of their sport balloons for much of the morning. Three students got to take the tethered ride with Kittinger by winning an essay contest on why manned spaceflight is still important.

 The balloon holds 60,000 cubic feet of hot air, has two burners (each produce 800 hp) and can travel as high as 15,000'. Today it barely left the ground ... perhaps it reached 20-30'.

 To the right of the balloon are the three essay winners (their teacher, Jill Weaver, is second from right).

 As each student boarded the balloon - one at a time - the crowd moved back so that the ropes had room to move.

 Kittinger is right at home in a balloon. He'd give the handle on the burner a tug and produce a roar of flame whenever the balloon began to settle to the ground.

 Two tethers held the balloon in place during the rides.

 Here's Kittinger and Brian (with Gentle Breeze). The day was perfect: a calm and warm May morning.

 Above is a shot of the VVMS science teacher, Jill Weaver, climbing aboard for her ride.

 As the four rides came to an end, the crowd was invited to gather close and have a look at the balloon. Then it was time for VVMS students to launch their own creation, a paper balloon with a note attached to a string dangling beneath.

 They placed the paper balloon above a propane burner. The envelope came to life and began lifting skyward.

 When they let it go, the balloon climbed slowly and then began to drift lazily towards the north. Actually, it appears the air in the balloon began to cool rather quickly and I suspect it didn't go very far.

 But this final shot shows it clearing the trees as the north edge of Barker Field as it meanders northward.

 Kittinger (and his wife, Sherry, too) are wonderful people, easy to talk with. I told Kittinger I was just 11 when he made his famous third trip in the Excelsior program (there were previous climbs to 76,000' and 74,700') and that I remembered both a Life magazine and a National Geographic article on his flight. It was certainly an inspiration to me though I never in a million years expected to meet the man.
 I remember most vividly how the seal on his glove broke and how his right hand had swollen to twice normal size during the flight. Kittinger did not tell the ground crew so that the flight would not be aborted. I got to shake that same hand today ... twice.
 What a wonderful story to be able to cover.

 For my Dayton Daily News story, click here.