Red Bull Stratos Felix Baumgartner jump: Tampa man Col. Joe Kittinger was free-fall coach for edge-of-space skydiver "Fearless Felix"

11:03 AM, Feb 5, 2013   |    comments
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Photo Gallery: Felix Baumgartner plans record-breaking skydive
Felix Baumgartner made history when he successfully leaped from a helium balloon 24 miles in the sky, hitting 729 miles an hour in descent.
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Orlando, Florida -- When "Fearless Felix" Baumgartner skydived from the edge of space, it turns out he was going even faster than we originally thought. 

Baumgartner's final record speed was officially released Monday: a stunning, supersonic 843.6 miles an hour.

Felix never could have set that amazing record without the help of his free-fall coach. That coach has an incredible story of his own, and he shared it, one-on-one, with 10 News.

You're about to plunge nearly 25 miles through the stratosphere. Only one thing connects you to that big blue ball so far down below.

It's the comforting voice in your ear.

The last words radioed up from mission control into skydiver Felix Baumgartner's ear before he leapt from the edge of space in October had the sound of an older, crackling voice of wisdom.

"Start the cameras. And our guardian angel will take care of you."

That voice in Baumgartner's ear belonged to the only man in the world who knew what Felix was about to experience.

Because that man -- Felix's radio link to Mission Control -- was the man who held the records Fearless Felix was about to break.

Baumgartner stepped off the ledge of his balloon-launched Red Bull Stratos capsule and plunged toward the earth, almost 128,000 feet below.

"He made a fabulous jump. I had a guardian angel when I made my jump. And he had the same guardian angel," retired Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger said.

More than 50 years before he would eventually serve as Felix's radio link to the ground, Kittinger took that same step.

Kittinger jumped from beneath a balloon 103,000 feet above the earth.

And fell... and fell... and fell.

"It was a weird sensation because you're going incredibly fast, and you know it, but there's no real indication of how fast you're going," Kittinger said.

"I rolled over and looked up at the balloon and the balloon was firing into space. And I realized it was me going down very fast -- the balloon was standing still."

Kittinger's original film from 1960 is just as stunning as the high-definition video beamed down from Baumgartner's plunge in 2012.

Why take that incredible leap? Kittinger was a leader in an Air Force effort to prove pilots could survive emergencies up where there's nearly no air.

And he also tested gear that a new kind of American aviator would be needing soon. These brand new pioneers -- they were going to be called "astronauts" -- would need spacesuits that worked.

"There wasn't any hesitation. There wasn't any doubt in my mind when it came time to jump. I was there for a purpose. I believed in it. I believed that I was gonna get down safely or I wouldn't have been there," Kittinger said.

He plummeted from 102,800 feet and reached a top speed of 614 m.p.h.

The records Kittinger set that day -- for highest and fastest freefall ever -- would survive for more than five decades.

After setting his skydiving records, Kittinger served as a combat pilot over Vietnam. He was shot down and spent eleven months as a prisoner of war.

He talked through the wall of his cell with the American prisoner next door. That fellow prisoner was Navy pilot John McCain, who would later serve as a United States Senator.

Kittinger, who his buddies call Col. Joe, shared his story with me at a park named in his honor. It sits by an airport in Orlando where he'd watch planes take off as a teenager. "This was my field of dreams -- was right here at this airport," he said.

Before that, Kittinger lived in the city where he was born: Tampa. Photos capture the future pioneer of flight as a squirmy baby in the 1920's at his home along the Hillsborough River in Seminole Heights.

In one photo, as his mother holds him up with the river in the background, you can make out a landmark in the distance. It's the iconic Sulphur Springs Water Tower. You can still spot that tall, white tower today from Interstate 275.

Just like Joe Kittinger, in 1928, the water tower was brand new.

"Florida's a wonderful place to grow up. Huntin' and fishin', outside, outdoors. I was just very fortunate to have that opportunity," Kittinger said.

When Felix Baumgartner assembled his Red Bull Stratos team to try to finally outdo Kittinger's record skydive, Felix invited the now-84-year old expert to join the squad.

"I respected him for his ability, he respected me for my ability. I'm old enough to be his grandfather, but that didn't influence our relationship," Kittinger said.

Col. Joe helped design Felix's breathing system. He helped plan out the pre-jump checklists. He agreed to be the radio link to Mission Control on earth.

But then the moment finally came.

Col. Joe was as helpless and breathless as the rest of the world watching.

"Well, his heart rate was about 160. Mine was probably 200. Because I was more excited than he was looking over there because I knew what he was looking at and I knew what was gonna happen," Kittinger remembered.

"There were a couple of periods during the jump that I was really concerned by him spinning. But he got out of both of them quickly.

"Once he got through the spins and got stable, I no longer worried, 'cause I figured it's just a parachute jump now. And he made a perfect landing."

Staring down from the stratosphere.

It may seem like the loneliest place on earth -- or above it.

But Col. Joe will tell you, there is no better way to see how we all depend on each other.

"The world got to share in this experience and got to watch a fantastic feat of bravery and a fantastic scientific event that we all contributed to," Kittinger said.

"We're all proud of that. We're all proud of being a part of that enterprise."

Follow 10 News Reporter Grayson Kamm on twitter @graysonkamm

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