Just Give the One Finger Salute and Keep Going

One of the privileges of what we do at O’Reilly is the chance to meet incredible people and share their stories with others. Last night, at a “maker day” that we held as part of the setup for this weekend’s Maker Faire, I got a chance to hear an inspiring talk by Col. Joe Kittinger, the man who holds the record for the highest skydives in history, the only man to have gone supersonic without a vehicle. Now nearly 80 years old, Col. Kittinger regaled us with tales of “the right stuff” from his days as a test pilot.

Back in 1959 and 1960, as part of Project Excelsior, Kittinger was the guinea pig for a series of tests for how to do high-altitude test pilot ejections. You see, they discovered that if you ejected from a plane that was flying at very high altitudes, the G forces from deployment of a parachute would kill you. Unfortunately, they also discovered that if you didn’t use a parachute, and did a free-fall to lower altitudes, you’d go into a high-speed spin — which would also kill you.

They eventually figured out that they could stabilize the free fall with a small drogue chute — a technique that is still used today. Kittinger rode up in a balloon, on the first flight to 74,700 feet. Due to a malfunction, the drogue cords wrapped around his neck, and he fell unconscious for 60,000 feet until his main chute deployed automatically. He survived, and three weeks later went back for another try, which succeeded.

He then went up again, this time to 102,800 feet, or almost twenty miles, and again, took what has been called “the highest step” from his balloon. There’s a great video about his adventure, called The Highest Step, shown below:

And that gets me to the title of this post. At the end of the video, when Kittinger has just landed, another man runs up, pats him affectionately on the head, and gives him the finger. What was that about, I ask? “Oh, that was Francis Beaupre, the designer of the parachute. The one-finger salute was for all the people who said we couldn’t do it. There are always going to be people around telling you you can’t do stuff. Just give them that one-finger salute and keep going.”

We all stood up and applauded. “There were giants on the earth in those days.”

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  • ///There are always going to be people around telling you you can’t do stuff. Just give them that one-finger salute and keep going.”

    Apparently, he was unfazed by the fact that the drogue cords almost strangled him, had he not survived – unfortunately those nay sayers would have been right.

  • I love the attitude of that guy. And for the person who commented above, they weren’t right. And it wouldn’t have been the fall that killed him, it would have been the cords. What they were attempting would still have been a success…

  • It wouldn’t have been the cords or the fall that killed him. It would have been the sudden stop. This is good “Right stuff” stuff that reflects GB Shaw’s assertion that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

  • Nice find Tim.

    This guy belongs up there with Neil’s ‘the Eagle has landed’ crew and Chuck Yeager.

    Thanks for posting the video, I just saw some history I had previously missed out on.

  • Patriots and Warriors:

    Colonel Joe Kittinger US Air Force [Retired] is a good friend of ours. High Jumping Joe has been a hero virtually all of his life. Joe Kittinger served three combat tours during the Vietnam War where he flew 483 missions. He shot down a Mig 21 and in 1972 was himself shot down. He spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

    Joe and his lovely wife Sherry attended the Orlando Marine Corps Ball with us in 2005. They attend Central Florida Warrior Group luncheons frequently and are always a pleasure to socialize with. Joe is a Quiet Birdman, a Red River Valley Assn “River Rat” and is an active member of countless other aviation organizations. Every honor bestowed on Joe Kittinger was richly deserved. He is an outstanding Pilot, an unabashed Hero and a Great American!

    Mofak
    Back to Back We Face the Past

  • I wish YouTube had the whole documentary that Joe showed on Thursday. All the ones on YouTube have some of the imagery, but with annoying music rather than the actual story and commentary. If anyone has links to the full documentary (maybe 10-15 minutes long) from which this footage is taken, no doubt, please post here. It was really lovely.

    But even more lovely was to see Joe. Among other things, it helped me to look with fresh eyes at other older people, and remember that they were once young and some of them changed the world.

    It’s so good to see the whole cycle, and to honor our heroes.

  • Gary W. Dolgin

    1960 was an interesting year for extremes, neither of which have ever been duplicated. Jumpin’ Joe’s “Highest Step” thankfully took into account free-falling through -50 deg. as did the bathyscaph that withstood the pressure of the deepest oceanic dive by two scientists to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, 36,000+ft.