BY MARCY SHORTUSE – Capt. Mark Futch has taken a lot of people out fishing lately … a whole lot … but one client earlier this week was a little more special to him than most. He was lucky enough to accompany the one and only Col. Joseph Kittinger II on a couple of trips through the Pass. And yes, they did jump some tarpon.
It was funny to watch the gleam in Kittinger’s eyes when he talked about tarpon fishing, considering it seems to be one of the tamer things he’s done in his lifetime. In case you weren’t aware, he set a world record in 1960 as being the person with the highest skydive from a height greater than 19 miles. He was also the first man to make a solo crossing over the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. He is also a war hero.
While he is now 88-years-old, he doesn’t seem to tire of talking about his escapades as a younger man. His business card gives his title as “Vice President of Ballooning and Salooning,” which gives a bit away about his personality. One can only guess the president might be his wife, Sherry, who stays by his side and appears to (try to) keep him in line.
“We were invited by Randy Wayne White and Mark to go tarpon fishing, and we delighted to have the opportunity to do it,” Kittinger said. “After all, this is the Tarpon Capital of the World.”
Raised in Orlando, Kittinger went to the University of Florida and was fascinated by airplanes since he was a child. He soloed in his first Piper Cub when he was 17, and entered the Air Force as a cadet in March of 1949. Once he completed his training he received his pilot wings and took a commission as second lieutenant. In 1954 he was transferred to the Air Force Missile Development Center in New Mexico where he flew the chase plane for Col John Stapp’s rocket sled run that maxed out at 632 miles per hour. Stapp recommended Kittinger for space-related aviation work, and later Kittinger would leap from a balloon from an altitude of 102,800 feet, breaking the speed of sound. He also set another balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet and was awarded his first – yes, his first – Distinguished Flying Cross for that mission.
Kittinger made numerous high-altitude jumps for which he earned many other awards and medals.
He also did three tours in Vietnam, where he was shot down while flying an F-4D, leading a flight of Phantoms just northwest of Thai Nguyen in North Vietnam. They were engaged and hit by an air-to-air missile from a MiG, forcing him to eject. He then spent 11 atrocious months as a prisoner of war, a topic which he covers thoroughly in his very popular book called “Come Up and Get me.” The book, by the way, has a forward by Cmdr. Neil Armstrong, if that tells you anything about how famous he is in the aeronautical field.
As if that weren’t enough, Kittinger is also in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, right next to the Wright Brothers, a couple of Armstrong fellows and Charles Yeager.
The colonel is an incredibly warm and personable man, otherwise belying his world-renowned status. He is passionate about catch-and-release, live bait fishing as well and is thrilled with being able to participate in drift fishing in the Pass. He is also aware of the fishing controversy that has been going on in the last few years.
“As far as I can tell jigging and snagging these fish goes against everything that has to do with conservation,” he said. “We’ve been fishing enough to know there’s always going to be a fish to catch some day. If we don’t catch a tarpon it’s not important, it’s going out and having a world of fun with Mark that’s been entertaining.”