Orlando's hall-of-fame aviator Joe Kittinger begins his new book with a moment just before he leaped from a balloon nearly 20 miles up at the edge of space.
"The disc of the sun is sharp and brilliant against the ebony backdrop of deep space," the retired Air Force officer writes in his book "Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger." "Nothing is familiar where I am. Nothing seems real."
Kittinger flew 93 types of aircraft, holds the world record for fastest free fall and highest parachute jump, ejected twice from crippled jets, and was the first person to complete a solo balloon flight nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. He might have retired after such achievements but instead went on to perfect his skywriting skills, race balloons and barnstorm across the country in a vintage airplane, taking nearly 10,000 passengers aloft.
"I always surrounded myself with people who had similar interests and loved life and enjoyed challenges, and that's what made me able to do what I did," Kittinger, who is 82 and lives in Altamonte Springs, said in a recent interview.
"Come Up and Get Me" discloses what happened after his Phantom jet was brought down by an enemy missile in 1972 during the Vietnam War. Held prisoner in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," Kittinger describes the torture he suffered there, the fate of other POWs, and his growing despair.
He was denied medical attention and given no more than a few swallows of water at a time for days on end, forcing him to cleanse a leg wound with urine to prevent a dangerous infection.
His book also provides an account of his 1964 appearance before the U.S. Senate when, accompanied by other pilots, he testified that the nation was not winning in Vietnam and would not prevail unless Congress officially declared war and gave military leaders more control.
The other option, the pilots said during the pressure-cooker hearing, was to bring U.S. troops home.
Kittinger recalls that then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's staff reacted angrily to the group's statements.
"Our largely civilian audience became positively unglued when they heard we'd told the senators that we were losing the war," he writes. "If they'd had the power to run us all out of the Air Force, there's no question they would have done it on the spot."
Kittinger said he has always been grateful for the nation's outpouring of support for its POWs when he and others returned to the U.S. in 1973. Still, he shared little about his war experience for most of his life.
"There is an awful lot in the book I've just never discussed with anyone," Kittinger said.
His book, published this summer by University of New Mexico Press, was written with Craig Ryan, author of "The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space." The two had begun discussing the idea of an autobiography at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington two years ago when Kittinger was presented with a Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement trophy.
The book includes a forward written by Neil Armstrong, the famously attention-shy astronaut who was the first human to set foot on the moon. Armstrong framed Kittinger's main accomplishment in aviation as having explored a vexing, even frightening, mystery.
"Would pilots be able to eject from aircraft in the dangerous conditions at extreme altitudes?" Armstrong wrote. "What kinds of parachutes would be required? What would be the radiation effects on humans at high altitudes and in space?"
Those are questions Kittinger addressed as director of Project Excelsior, jumping from balloons over New Mexico in 1959 and 1960. During the very first plunge, Kittinger went into a spin and passed out; he was saved from certain death by the automatic deployment of a reserve chute.
His book's name comes from a Morse Code message that Kittinger sent to ground controllers after they ordered him to descend from 96,000 feet after a test flight for a balloon.
"C-O-M-E U-P A-N-D G-E-T M-E," Kittinger teased, before informing them that he was venting helium and heading back to Earth.
Record-setting aviator Joe Kittinger details his high-flying life
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