Voscar recalls Col. Joe Kittinger’s historic solo flight

15 years ago
    CARIBOU, Maine – Col. Joe W. Kittinger Jr. was the first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a helium-filled balloon, Sept. 14, 1984, after leaving from Caribou. A metal model of the Rosie O’Grady, “Balloon of Peace,” forms a monument at the lift-off site on Route 1, south of Caribou.

 A native of Orlando, Fla., and retired from the Air Force, the red-head with a mustache, Joe’s plans had been to fly to France, but he was forced down in bad weather to land at Savona, Italy, four days after take off. He will be in Caribou Saturday, Sept. 5 as part of the 25th anniversary of his flight for the Caribou Bicentennial celebration, the parade, and a community barbecue at Caribou High School.
This year’s Crown of Maine Balloon Festival, Aug. 27-30 in Presque Isle, is dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Kittinger flight.
A small group of people were on hand at sunset for the liftoff, which finally occurred after dark. There had been some concerns about the weather and the schedule for the flight. Joe had been at the Presque Isle air base in the former alert hangers where his balloon, gondola and other equipment were being held. He didn’t have a crew of any size as did the crew of the Double Eagle II. Sherry Rand, who later married Joe, was assisting, as was Ken Hargrove, the project coordinator in charge of radio equipment.
My first contact with Joe was at the alert hanger making photographs as he tried his oxygen equipment and checked out a pair of red Long-Johns he would be wearing during the flight. It was a great photo op as I had Joe, Sherry and Ken all to myself. I was shooting for both Associated Press and United Press International at the time. I guess I wanted to spread it around.
The Kittinger red gondola carried a large Quebec sign as one of his sponsors was out of Montreal. His own name was painted on the side and the rigging was festooned with flags: American, Canadian, the Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus Banner, and flags of France. I remember that before his flight, Joe bowed his head and said a prayer. It took some time to fill the 10-story high, silver and black balloon with helium. As the sky darkened, colored lights were trained on the shinny surface.
In the spring of 1985, Kittinger returned to Caribou and addressed the Caribou Rotary Club, wearing a gold sleeve garter on his arm with the Rosie O’Grady logo.
Now 81 years of age, Kittinger, as a fighter pilot, was shot down over North Vietnam in 1972, and was a prisoner for 11 months during that time he was put through “rope torture.”
He holds a number of records for skydiving: in 1957, he leaped from a balloon from over 102,000 feet. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997, was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross six times, the Air Medal 24 times, Bronze Star three times, the Legion of Merit and the Silver Star and the Purple Heart all twice. Kittinger has also been awarded the Prisoner of War and the Vietnam medals.
Kittinger returned to Caribou March 1985 as a special guest of the Caribou Rotary Club.