Nick Piantanida did not have much training. He didn’t have much money. The New Jersey native had cobbled together a handful of sponsors and haggled with a U.S. senator for a bright orange space suit.
It didn’t matter.
Piantanida was a thrill-seeker, a determined force to be reckoned who would stop at nothing to achieve his goal. He was going to break the world free-fall record. Or he was going to die trying. Piantanida’s exploits will be profiled in the latest installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Angry Sky, scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. on Thursday night. Here’s what you need to know about Piantanida:
1. Piantnida Started Experimenting With Homemade Parachutes When He Was 10 Years Old
Piantanida grew up in Union City, New Jersey and first started experimenting with parachutes when he was just 10 years old. He started building his own contraptions and tested the parachutes out on a neighborhood cat, actually dropping it off the side of a five-story building.
When a neighbor informed Piantanida’s parents what he had been doing he began testing his self-made parachutes on himself. His first experiment did not end well, however, after he broke his arm while jumping off a building. While some people questioned Piantanida’s early experiments and preoccupation with jumping off of buildings, for those who knew him, it was no surprise. His younger brother Vern told NJ.com:
Nick was Nick. If he wanted to do something, he would do it. If people said things couldn’t be done, he did them.
2. He Worked as an Ironworker on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge
After high school, Piantanida joined the United States Army, serving for several years before he refocused his life and took up high-elevation climbing. He had read a magazine article while in the service that trumpeted the abundance of diamonds in the Venezuela jungles and, without much training or much foresight, Piantanida decided he was going to find those diamonds himself.
So, the New Jersey native worked with his climbing partner, Walt Tomashoff, and the pair became the first people to climb a route on the north side of Auyantepui, the plateau in Venezuala where Angel Falls begins near the summit. Piantanida and Tomashoff didn’t find diamonds, or fame, when they reached the top of the mountain but the challenge had left him anxious and ready for the next thrill.
When he returned stateside, Piantanida took up a handful of odd jobs, including a stint at an embroidery factory, playing basketball and even working as an ironworker on the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
3. Piantanida Took a Job Driving Trucks In Order to Work on Parachuting
As his desire for thrill-seeking continued to grow, Piantanida took up a job driving trucks long distance in order to give him time on the weekends to fine-tune his skydiving technique. He studied meteorology, balloon technology and survival systems. In 1963, he started taking regular skydiving lessons and earned a class D expert license. It was then that he first began his obsession with breaking the free-fall parachute record formerly held by Col. Joe Kittinger of the U.S. Air Force.
Once again, Piantanida’s determination did not surprise anyone who knew him. His friend, Roger Vaughan said:
He was always a little bit over-eager, a little bit on the reckless side. Full head of steam, pedal to the metal. That was Nick. If you went with Nick to have a beer, you’d have six beers. Life to the fullest. That’s the way he did everything, that’s the kind of life he lived
So, he worked. He obtained sponsors, from the U.S. Air Force, who gave him access to training facilities, to the David Clark Company, who loaned him a high-pressure suit. On October 22, 1965, Piantanida made his first attempt at the record in his own balloon, called Stroto Jump I. The leap ended when a wind shear tore the top off his balloon and forced him to parachute directly into the St. Paul, Minnesota city dump.
4. Piantanida Married Janice McDowell in 1963
While he was publicly focusing on world records and desperately searching for a big of high-flying glory, Piantanida was, privately, a family man. He married Janice McDowell in 1963 and the couple had three daughters, Donna, Diane and Debbie.
McDowell was 18 when the two married, Piantanida’s next-door neighbor in Union City, New Jersey. It wasn’t long after the wedding that Piantanida’s interest in sky diving began. McDowell stood by her husband throughout the entire venture, a constant source of support as he risked his life and the family’s livelihood.
5. He Died After a Free-Fall Jump From 120,000 Feet
Piantanida’s second parachute attempt reached 123,5000 feet – more than 23 miles above the Earth – but as he attempted to disconnect the oxygen hose, the fitting jammed and he had no way to descend but with the gondola.
He needed to try once more. It would be his final attempt.
Strato Jump III launched perfectly on May 1, 1966, climbing past 50,000 feet without any problems. Everyone was relaxed, excited even. This was going to work. And then, it didn’t. Ground control heard what was generally described as a “whoosh” of rushing air, a cut-off call over the radio and the deployment of an emergency parachute. When the ground crew found Piantanida 26 minutes later, he was barely conscious. When he arrived at the hospital, he had already lapsed into a coma.
Piantanida suffered brain damage from a lack of oxygen and he died four months later at the Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia. The gondola of the Strato Jump III flight is displayed in the Boeing Aviation Hanger at the Smithsonian.
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