Nick Piantanida

Nicholas John "Nick" Piantanida (August 15, 1932 – August 29, 1966) was an American amateur parachute jumper who reached 123,500 feet (37,642 meters, 23.39 miles)[1][2][3][4] with his Strato Jump II balloon on February 2, 1966, flying a manned balloon higher than anyone before, a record that stood until Felix Baumgartner's flight on October 14, 2012.

Nicholas J. Piantanida
Nick Piantanida.png
Piantanida in 1966
Nicholas John Piantanida

(1932-08-15)August 15, 1932
DiedAugust 29, 1966(1966-08-29) (aged 34)
Known forSetting balloon altitude record
Spouse(s)Janice McDowell (1963–1966; his death)

Early lifeEdit

Piantanida was born August 15, 1932, and grew up in Union City, New Jersey. He had a younger brother, Vern. When Piantanida was 10 years old, he experimented with homemade parachutes, harnessing a stray neighborhood cat to one in a test drop off the five-story apartment building where they lived. When a neighbor informed Piantanida's parents of this, Piantanida tested the next parachute himself, jumping off a lower roof and breaking his arm. As he grew older, he took up skydiving with a "dogged determination", according to his brother.[5]

As a young man, Piantanida played basketball in East Coast leagues.[2][6] After high school, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve and shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army for two years, where he earned the rank of corporal.[2]

After his military service, Piantanida and his climbing partner, Walt Tomashoff, became the first people to climb a route on the north side of Auyantepui, the plateau in Venezuela from which Angel Falls drops from a cleft near the summit.[2][7] For this accomplishment he was interviewed on the Today Show.[2]

After his return to the United States, Piantanida worked in an embroidery factory, played basketball at various colleges, and worked as an ironworker on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.[6]

Skydiving careerEdit

Strato Jump III gondola at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum

In 1963, Piantanida was living in Brick Township, New Jersey, and had a business selling pets when he discovered skydiving. One day after watching jumps at the then new Lakewood Sport Parachuting Center near Lakewood, he began taking lessons and jumping regularly. After making hundreds of jumps and earning a class D expert license, he learned of the 83,000-foot (25,000 m) jump from a balloon by Yevgeni Andreyev that gave the official world record for the highest parachute jump to the Soviet Union, and determined to bring the world record back to the United States.[1] (The unofficial record, which Piantanida was also trying to break, was held by Joseph Kittinger of the U.S.)

Piantanida took a job driving trucks in order to give him time to train on weekends. He earnestly studied meteorology, balloon technology and survival systems.[1] As author Craig Ryan put it, he "transformed himself into the director of a one-man aeronautical research program."[6] He obtained money from sponsors, and, after lobbying by a United States Senator, the United States Air Force gave him access to training facilities and David Clark Company loaned him a pressure suit.[6] He assembled a team of volunteers for an attempt at the world free-fall record.[5]

On October 22, 1965, Piantanida made his first attempt at the record in his balloon named Strato Jump I. The attempt ended when a wind shear tore off the top of his balloon, ending the flight at just 16,000 feet (4,900 m) and forcing Piantanida to parachute into the Saint Paul, Minnesota city dump.

On February 2, 1966, in his second attempt, Piantanida launched in Strato Jump II from Joe Foss Field near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and reached an unprecedented altitude of 123,500 feet (37,600 m). From that height he had planned to parachute from the balloon to set a world record for the highest parachute jump, but was unable to disconnect himself from his oxygen line. He aborted the jump and detached the gondola from the balloon, returning to earth in the gondola without the balloon. Because he did not return to earth with his balloon, his unprecedented altitude is not recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as a balloon altitude world record, and because he did not jump from the balloon's gondola at 123,500 feet, he earned no parachute altitude record.

His third attempt occurred on the morning of May 1, 1966. Piantanida donned a bright orange suit and parachute harness. Secured inside a styrofoam-insulated gondola about the size of a portable toilet,[5] he began his ascent for a planned super-sonic free fall from over 120,000 feet. However, ground controllers listening to the communications link with the Strato Jump III were startled by the sound of a whoosh of rushing air and a sudden, cut-off call over the radio to abort. Piantanida's suit had depressurized at about the 57,000-foot mark.[2] Ground controllers immediately jettisoned the balloon at close to 56,000 feet (17,000 m) – higher than the cruising altitude for commercial jets – and for 25 minutes Piantanida's gondola parachuted to the ground. He barely survived the descent, having suffered massive tissue damage due to ebullism.[3] The lack of oxygen left him brain damaged and in a coma from which he never recovered. Piantanida died four months later at the Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia, on August 29.[1][8] He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, New Jersey.[9]

The gondola of the Strato Jump III is preserved and displayed in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.[10]

Personal lifeEdit

Piantanida was Roman Catholic. He married Janice McDowell in 1963,[1][7] and they had three daughters: Donna, Diane, and Debbie.[5][6]

A film based on his life, entitled Angry Sky, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22, 2015, and on ESPN as part of the 30 for 30 series on July 30, 2015.[11][12]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Ryan, Craig (2003). The Pre-Astronauts: Manned Ballooning on the Threshold of Space. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. pp. 258–269. ISBN 1-55750-732-5. Nick Piantanida 123,500.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Ryan, Craig (2003). Magnificent Failure: Free Fall from the Edge of Space. Smithsonian Books. ISBN 978-1588341419.
  3. ^ a b Betancourt, Mark (July 2012). "The 120,000-Foot Leap". Air & Space/Smithsonian. Retrieved August 8, 2012.
  4. ^ "Chutist Changes Mind 123,500 Feet in Sky". The New York Times. February 2, 1966. Retrieved October 13, 2012.
  5. ^ a b c d Sherman, Ted (October 12, 2012). "A deadly fall: 46 years ago, a Jersey daredevil died while trying to set record". The Star-Ledger. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d e McKay, Brett & Kate (October 7, 2010). "Skydiving from Space Part II: Nick Piantanida's "Magnificent Failure"". The Art of Manliness. Retrieved August 8, 2015. This article mistakenly gives Piantanida's date of death as August 25, 1966.
  7. ^ a b Vaughan, Roger (13 May 1966). "Heroic Sky-Dive Venture". Life. 60 (19): 32–39. Retrieved October 24, 2012.
  8. ^ "Nicholas Piantanida, Parachutist In Coma for 4 Months, Dies at 33". The New York Times. August 29, 1966. Retrieved October 21, 2012. This headline mistakenly says Piantanida was 33 years old.
  9. ^ "Nicholas John Piantanida". Find A Grave.
  10. ^ "Gondola, Strato-Jump III". Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  11. ^ "Angry Sky - Tribeca Film Festival".
  12. ^ "Angry Sky - ESPN Films: 30 for 30".

External linksEdit