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Project Excelsior

Project Excelsior

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Project Excelsior was a series of high-altitude parachute jumps made by Colonel (then Captain) Joseph Kittinger
Joseph Kittinger
Joseph William Kittinger II is a former Command Pilot and career military officer in the United States Air Force. He is most famous for his participation in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior, holding the records for having the highest, fastest and longest skydive, from a height greater than...

 of the United States Air Force
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of...

 (USAF) in 1959 and 1960 to test the Beaupre multi-stage parachute
A parachute is a device used to slow the motion of an object through an atmosphere by creating drag, or in the case of ram-air parachutes, aerodynamic lift. Parachutes are usually made out of light, strong cloth, originally silk, now most commonly nylon...

 system. In one of these jumps Kittinger set world record
World record
A world record is usually the best global performance ever recorded and verified in a specific skill or sport. The book Guinness World Records collates and publishes notable records of all types, from first and best to worst human achievements, to extremes in the natural world and beyond...

s for the highest parachute jump, the longest parachute drogue fall
Drogue parachute
A drogue parachute is a parachute designed to be deployed from a rapidly moving object in order to slow the object, or to provide control and stability, or as a pilot parachute to deploy a larger parachute...

 and the fastest speed by a human through the atmosphere, all of which still stand.


As jet planes flew higher and faster in the 1950s, the USAF became increasingly worried about the safety of flight crews who had to eject at high altitude. Tests with dummies had shown that a body in free-fall
Free fall is any motion of a body where gravity is the only force acting upon it, at least initially. These conditions produce an inertial trajectory so long as gravity remains the only force. Since this definition does not specify velocity, it also applies to objects initially moving upward...

 at high altitude would often go into a flat spin
Spin (flight)
In aviation, a spin is an aggravated stall resulting in autorotation about the spin axis wherein the aircraft follows a corkscrew downward path. Spins can be entered intentionally or unintentionally, from any flight attitude and from practically any airspeed—all that is required is sufficient yaw...

 at a rate of up to 200 revolutions per minute. This would be potentially fatal.

Project Excelsior was initiated in 1958 to design a parachute system that would allow a safe, controlled descent after a high-altitude ejection. Francis Beaupre, a technician at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, devised a multi-stage parachute system to facilitate manned tests. This consisted of a small 6 feet (2 m) stabilizer or "drogue" parachute, designed to prevent uncontrolled spinning at high altitudes, and a 28 ft (8.5 m) main parachute that deployed at a lower altitude. The system included timers and altitude sensors
An altimeter is an instrument used to measure the altitude of an object above a fixed level. The measurement of altitude is called altimetry, which is related to the term bathymetry, the measurement of depth underwater.-Pressure altimeter:...

 that automatically deployed both parachutes at the correct points in the descent, even if the parachutist were unconscious or disabled.

To test the parachute system, staff at Wright Field built a 200 ft (61 m) high helium
Helium is the chemical element with atomic number 2 and an atomic weight of 4.002602, which is represented by the symbol He. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table...

Balloon (aircraft)
A balloon is a type of aircraft that remains aloft due to its buoyancy. A balloon travels by moving with the wind. It is distinct from an airship, which is a buoyant aircraft that can be propelled through the air in a controlled manner....

 with a capacity of nearly 3 million cubic feet (85,000 m³) that could lift an open gondola and test pilot
Test pilot
A test pilot is an aviator who flies new and modified aircraft in specific maneuvers, known as flight test techniques or FTTs, allowing the results to be measured and the design to be evaluated....

 into the stratosphere
The stratosphere is the second major layer of Earth's atmosphere, just above the troposphere, and below the mesosphere. It is stratified in temperature, with warmer layers higher up and cooler layers farther down. This is in contrast to the troposphere near the Earth's surface, which is cooler...

. Kittinger, who was test director for the project, made three ascents and test jumps. As the gondola was unpressurized, Kittinger had to wear a full pressure suit
Pressure suit
A pressure suit is a protective suit worn by high-altitude pilots who may fly at altitudes where the air pressure is too low for an unprotected person to survive, even breathing pure oxygen at positive pressure. Such suits may be either full-pressure or partial-pressure...

 during these tests, plus additional layers of clothing to protect him from the extreme cold at high altitude and the parachute system itself. This almost doubled his weight.

Test jumps

The first test, Excelsior I, was made on November 16, 1959. Kittinger ascended in the gondola and jumped from an altitude of 23,300 m (76,400 ft). In this first test, the stabilizer parachute was deployed too soon, catching Kittinger around the neck and causing him to spin at 120 revolutions per minute. This caused Kittinger to lose consciousness, but his life was saved by his main parachute which opened automatically at a height of 3,000 m (10,000 ft).

Despite this near-disaster on the first test, Kittinger went ahead with another test only three weeks later. The second test, Excelsior II, was made on December 11, 1959. This time, Kittinger jumped from an altitude of 22,800 m (74,700 ft) and descended in free-fall for 17,000 m (55,000 ft) before opening his main parachute.

The third and final test, Excelsior III, was made on August 16, 1960. During the ascent, the pressure seal in Kittinger's right glove failed, and he began to experience severe pain in his right hand from the encroaching effects of frostbite. (See Effects of vacuum on humans.) He decided not to inform the ground crew about this, in case they should decide to abort the test. Despite temporarily losing the use of his right hand, he continued with the ascent, climbing to an altitude of 31,333 m (102,800 ft). The ascent took one hour and 31 minutes and broke the previous manned balloon altitude record of 30,942 m (101,516 ft), which was set by Major David Simons as part of Project Man High in 1957. Kittinger stayed at peak altitude for 12 minutes, waiting for the balloon to drift over the landing target area. He then stepped out of the gondola to begin his descent.

The small stabilizer parachute deployed successfully and Kittinger fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a still-standing world record for the longest parachute free-fall. At an altitude of 5,330 m (17,500 ft), Kittinger opened his main parachute and landed safely in the New Mexico desert. The whole descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds and set the current world record for the highest parachute jump. During the descent, Kittinger experienced temperatures as low as -94 °F. In the free-fall stage, he reached a top speed of 988 km/h (614 mph).

An hour and thirty-one minutes after launch, my pressure altimeter halts at 103,300 feet. At ground control the radar altimeters also have stopped-on readings of 102,800 feet, the figure that we later agree upon as the more reliable. It is 7 o'clock in the morning, and I have reached float altitude ... Though my stabilization chute opens at 96,000 feet, I accelerate for 6,000 feet more before hitting a peak of 614 miles an hour, nine-tenths the speed of sound at my altitude.

A plaque attached below the open door of the Excelsior III gondola read, "This is the highest step in the world".


Kittinger's efforts during Project Excelsior proved that it was possible for an air crew to descend safely after ejecting at high altitudes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general in the United States Army...

 awarded Kittinger the C.B. Harmon Trophy
Harmon Trophy
The Harmon Trophy is a set of three international trophies, to be awarded annually to the world's outstanding aviator, aviatrix , and aeronaut...

 for his work on Excelsior. Kittinger also received an oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross, the J.J. Jeffries Award, the A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal
A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal
The A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal is named after Albert Leo Stevens. It was first awarded to Joe Crane of Mineola, New York on September 4, 1948 by Augustus Post at the Early Birds of Aviation banquet held in the Hotel Carter in Cleveland, Ohio, during the National Air Race.-Winners:*1948 Joe...

, and the Wingfoot Lighter-Than-Air Society Achievement Award.

See also

  • Operation High Dive
    Operation High Dive
    Operation High Dive was a secret project carried out during the 1950s by the United States Air Force. It tested high-altitude parachutes using anthropomorphic dummies. The dummies went into a 200 rpm flat spin, which would be fatal to a human. Further investigations on this led to Project Excelsior...

  • Le Grand Saut
  • Auguste Piccard
    Auguste Piccard
    Auguste Antoine Piccard was a Swiss physicist, inventor and explorer.-Biography:Piccard and his twin brother Jean Felix were born in Basel, Switzerland...

     Swiss physicist who in 1931 went to 15,785 m (51,775 ft) in a helium balloon in a spherical gondola.
  • Space diving
    Space diving
    Space diving refers to the theoretical idea of an individual falling from outer space into the Earth's atmosphere and then parachuting to a landing. This is similar to sky diving but would occur from space...

External links

On Stratocat website