12/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
It was a pilot's dream, a waking dream. Every day when it came, Joe Kittinger would perfect it, a bit more each time. First, in the workshop of his mind, he built the great, gas-filled balloon. Then he fashioned a gondola to hang beneath the shimmering edifice of air. He provisioned the gondola down to the last tin of spaghetti and meatballs, and gave it every instrument it would need to carry him across the ocean, the first man ever to make the flight. He calculated the winds, studied the weather patterns, and carefully picked his takeoff point. And when his captors came and dragged him from his cell at the "Hanoi Hilton" and tortured him, grilled him, beat him and ignored his reminders that the Geneva Convention guaranteed him treatment for the pustular shrapnel wound that was burgeoning on his leg, Joe Kittinger escaped in that beautiful mental balloon.
Wars end, prisoners return. Col. Joseph W. Kittinger came back in 1973. After his 483 combat missions in Vietnam, he was a hero. He had been an Air Force legend since a research project in 1960, when he climbed into a balloon, rode it to almost 103,000 feet—practically out of the earth's atmosphere—stepped out and fell for 16 miles before his parachute opened. Technically, that made him the first human being in space, and he doesn't mind very much if you give him that title. But eventually the Air Force put him at a desk. "I'm not a desk person," he explains, though only a mole with cataracts could miss that point. So Joe Kittinger left the service and moved back to his childhood home of Orlando. But the dream tagged along.
There is a part of Joe Kittinger that pushes stoicism to the outside of the envelope. "That 11 months in Hanoi was a very interesting time," he says, in what for him is a virtual confessional. "I'd been thinking about the balloon trip before, but that gave me an opportunity to really get into detailed planning for it." You cannot expect this natural-born aviator to talk about that fantasy of flying a balloon, solo, across the ocean as if he were some kind of civilian, getting all mushy like a darn poet or even using the word dream. Pilots don't get emotional talking about things like that. They just do things like Joe Kittinger, now 56, did at 8:20 on Friday evening Sept. 14, when he took a swig of champagne, kissed his girlfriend, Sherry Reed, goodbye and stepped into the fiberglass gondola beneath a 10-story high balloon in Caribou, Maine. No high-flown lyricism about what it all meant to him either. "I had three objectives," the professional pilot reports, "To be the first to fly the Atlantic solo, and to set world records for distance and duration." By the following Tuesday, his mission was accomplished.
Any dramatization of that 85 hours will not come from Joe Kittinger's lips. The gas stove erupted into flames and set fire to the gondola, but that was just "interesting." (He had a fire extinguisher, after all.) Kittinger remembers thinking no deep thoughts about his life (Orlando businessman's son, U of Florida for two years, aviation cadet, commissioned 1950, divorced, two sons). He certainly did not frustrate himself thinking about the few things that anger him, like Lyndon Johnson, who "got us into war without the will of the Congress or the people," and Jane Fonda, "who came back from Hanoi and told everybody that the POWs were being well treated. That was bull. She's a traitor, and she should be treated as a traitor." He didn't even have time for the one diversion he had planned: listening to Willie Nelson tapes on a portable stereo. "I spent all my time navigating and communicating," he says. He is a pilot. He just flew.
The people in Savona, Italy didn't quite know what to make of it when his balloon fell into their midst. Still, it didn't take them long to figure out that the red-headed man in the U.S. Air Force colonel's flight suit must be some kind of hero. It was impressive enough when he tumbled from his crash-landed gondola at treetop level, broke his foot in the fall and never complained about the pain. When they found out that he had come 3,543 miles and done what experts said could never be done, the people of Italy took him to meet their Prime Minister and their President. At the Vatican, he met an archbishop. (The Pope was out of town.) Then the Mayor of Paris and the President of the United States had their pictures taken with Joe Kittinger. He even got Orlando's first ticker-tape parade. The stoic pilot's mask slipped for a minute when he landed, and he doused himself in champagne. "It was a great adventure," said the pilot—and that was higher praise than he had given all the high-altitude jumps and test planes and combat missions and F-4s in his career.
But there was one more thing. In 11 months in the Hanoi Hilton, a man has time for more than one balloon flight. "Next year I'm going to fly across the Pacific," Kittinger announces in the tone that one of his neighbors would use to say, "Tomorrow I'm going to drive to Tampa." The longer distance, the greater expanse of water, the trickier air currents, the higher altitude at which a balloon would have to fly—all these make a Pacific flight next to impossible. Joe Kittinger plans to get permission for a takeoff from the People's Republic of China by the fall.
"Then I'm going to fly around the world solo," he says. "The big drawback is that I can't get a balloon right now. But we can make one; I'm going to do it."
The flight cannot be done, of course. Any expert will tell you that the wind, the weather, the gravity, all conspire against it. But these are mere forces of nature, and there is one force stronger than all of them.
The force of Joe Kittinger's dream.