Joe Kittinger is known by many as being the first person to jump from the earth’s stratosphere. What is however little known is his noise-induced hearing loss.
A life of fighter jet flying, ballooning, and parachuting hasn’t been without pain for Joe Kittinger. Early in his career he had a minor head injury from an emergency landing of a helium balloon in a snowstorm. A decade later he almost lost his leg to infection from an untreated wound as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. After his military days, his arm was broken when he had to make an emergency landing on a deserted island during a balloon race. These visible wounds would eventually heal over, but not all of Kittinger’s ailments had a quick fix. For decades Kittinger has suffered from one of the most common invisible injuries affecting soldiers: noise-induced hearing loss. Luckily, his hearing aids have helped him to make use of his residual hearing.

One giant leap
Kittinger is most known for Excelsior III, a 1960 U.S. military-sponsored project where he jumped from a balloon 31 km off the ground to test the effectiveness of high altitude bailout. This dangerous project could terrify even the most veteran jumpers. Luckily, Kittinger doesn’t scare easily.

“It was business as usual for me,” he says. “I was used to working in stressful environments. I had to work on the problem I was facing and be prepared.”

What was nothing more than a day at the office for Kittinger went down in history books as the highest parachute jump, a record that was not broken until last October. For Kittinger, it was just the beginning. He spent nearly 30 years in the United States Air Force, which included three tours of Vietnam and 11 months as a prisoner of war. In 1984 he set another world record for being the first person to make a solo balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Living loudly - without hearing protection
Life has always been an adventure for Kittinger – and it’s been a noisy one. At the peak of his career he flew fighter jets for more than 20 hours a week, all without ear protection.

“I spent 29 years on the flight line with jets and that really is what did my hearing in,” he says. “It was a very high-noise area and we didn’t have earphones or ear protection.”

At age 45, Kittinger noticed that he couldn’t hear the higher sounds that he used to. For many years it was easy to ignore. The loss became worse over the next two decades, but he continued to suffer in silence. It wasn’t until he was 70 that he received his first pair of hearing aids.
It was my ego probably. I kept putting it off until finally I couldn’t function anymore. When I finally got the hearing aids I was sorry that I hadn’t had them earlier
Joe Kittinger
Keeping his momentum
Kittinger’s hearing aids have allowed him to continue working well into his 80s. In 2008 Kittinger signed on to Red Bull Stratos, a project to test the performance of high-altitude parachutes and pressure suits that could be used for emergency evacuation from the stratosphere. There he worked as a mentor for Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian skydiver who had been chosen to make the jump.

“I was the only one Felix could talk to who had experience because I was the only one who had ever done it,” he says.

On October 14, 2012, Felix sat in a capsule tied to a giant helium balloon and began his ascent toward the stratosphere. In the center of mission control sat Kittinger, who sent up a steady stream of instructions and encouragement. It was a role that required Kittinger to be alert and fast-thinking. Most of all, it was important that he heard everything.

“Without my hearing aids I wouldn’t have been able to function,” he said. “With them I had no problem communicating.”

Now that the Red Bull Stratos project is over, one would think that at 84, Kittinger is ready to slack off. But he isn’t done yet.

“I’m looking for another adventure. I enjoy challenges and working on research programs,” he says. “I haven’t found my next adventure yet, but I’m still looking.”


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