Skydiving From Space: Nick Piantanida

This is the story of Nick Piantanida, a man who jumped out of an airplane in 1978 and landed on Earth with nothing more than the clothes on his back.
Piantanida’s friends and family watched from below as he hurtled down through 30,000 feet before opening his parachute to slow him down for a safe landing. When it was all over he had broken six bones but done something amazing-he had become one of only 20 people ever to survive skydiving without any equipment or training. To this day no one knows how he managed such skills at so early an age. That mystery has made Skydiving From Space intriguing to millions since it first came into print three decades ago.,

Nick Piantanida was a skydiving instructor and stuntman who died while performing a stunt. He fell from the plane at an altitude of 8,000 feet, which is about 2 miles high.

“Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something unusual and expensive, and thereby disrupted the monotony of an opulent era.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Ralph Waldo Emerson, ” “Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Nick Piantanida’s narrative isn’t like Joseph Kittinger’s, which is clear and indisputably heroic. It comes to a tragic conclusion rather than a triumphant one. Piantanida failed to achieve his goal, and he paid the ultimate price in the process. Nonetheless, it was a “magnificent disaster,” according to Craig Ryan, author of a book on Nick’s life.

After all, it’s one thing to jump from space as part of an official program, backed by the Air Force’s resources and authority. Kittinger says in his memoirs that he was the “luckiest guy in the sky,” being “in the right location at the right moment.” Chuck Yeager stated the same thing about the opportunities he had to accomplish his incredible exploits. Both had a lot of courage and talent, but they were also in the right position at the right time to take advantage of the chances that came their way.

What does this mean for the average Joe? “I’ll never be able to accomplish anything like that,” most males think when they see individuals like Yeager and Kittinger. And it’s here that Nick Piantanida’s narrative offers a new kind of motivation. Nick didn’t have any particular resources or connections to his experiences; he just made them happen by hustling like a madman. Here was a regular guy, a truck driver from Jersey who was a devout Catholic and committed family man who had entirely bootstrapped his way to incredible success.

Marching to His Own Drummer’s Drummer’s Drummer’s Drummer

“I’ve heard him referred to as a rebel. Nick, on the other hand, was never a renegade. Nick was too preoccupied. He was preoccupied with his own business. And that’s where he spent the most of his time.” -A childhood acquaintance

Nick Piantanida’s urge to test his limitations outside of established channels began when he was a child. He set out to educate himself anything he wanted to know. He trained himself karate and scuba diving in high school. When his high school basketball coach forced him to put out his cigarette after a game, he abandoned the team and began practicing alone on a local court every day, rain or shine. He played in several East Coast leagues and rose to become one of the finest players in the New York/New Jersey region.

Piantanida joined the Army after high school and began boxing. He got the notion for his first adventurous expedition while reading a men’s adventure magazine in the barracks one night. Nick decided to investigate the claim after reading an article touting the profusion of diamonds to be discovered in Venezuela’s impassable forests. But the allure of riches wasn’t enough for him; he also wanted to achieve something no one had ever done before. He’d aim to be the first man to ascend Devil’s Mountain, a massive mesa from which gushed the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, while seeking for diamonds.

 

Venezuela’s Rise to the Top

Venezuela water fall.

“Nick lived his life on the fly. He was not a fan of scripts. He had faith in himself. He was the epitome of perseverance. If Nick was bitten by a piranha, the piranha would die.” -A boyhood buddy, Fred Cranwell

Nick started putting his plan into action as soon as he was released from the army. He had very little money, so he began approaching businesses to see if they would sponsor his trip. He was able to secure an outboard engine from Euinrude, pistols from Colt, cameras and film from Kodak, and two tickets to Caracas from Grace Line Shipping with just a sketchy description of how he planned to achieve his aim and a heavy dose of charm.

Nick had kept a few details from his sponsors, such as the fact that he and his expedition companion, Walt Tomashoff, had no prior mountaineering expertise and no experience climbing with ropes and carabiners. Nick, on the other hand, did what he always did: he taught himself. He went to the Hudson River Palisades above Hoboken, New Jersey, and got some rope and a climbing book. He and Tomashoff refined their climbing talents throughout the day and supported themselves by working in a can factory at night.

When the brave duo landed in Venezuela, they discovered that another guy, Aleksandrs Laime, had climbed Devils’ Mountain a few months before them. Nick, however, was still looking for a “first,” so he opted to climb a route on the north side of the mountain that had never been successfully climbed previously and was widely regarded unclimbable. The wet side, where Angel Falls fell downhill, was on the north side. The warriors would have to climb parallel to a raging, gushing beast that surged to a height of fifteen times that of Niagara Falls. It was a difficult endeavor just to get to the bottom of the falls. This was done by rowing a dugout canoe down the Rio Carrao and Rio Churun for three weeks, laboring over 48 sets of rapids while battling insects, poor weather, and several injuries.

The guys started their journey once they arrived at the foot of the falls, a nearly vertical climb that involved chopping through forest so deep and gnarly that it took 10-12 hours of toil to penetrate. The soldiers ascended the wet, muddy mountain face, clinging onto roots and vines, despite being constantly wet and hot (the daily temperature soared to 100 degrees and it would rain for hours on end). Nick’s inexpensive footwear disintegrated fast due to the high humidity, forcing him to continue the climb in worsening conditions. Chuck Taylors with cables attached to his feet. Laime, who had agreed to follow them, became disillusioned with their chances and returned home. Nick and Walt, on the other hand, persisted.

Piantanida and Tomashoff reached the summit just as their food was running out after many weeks and 3,212 feet of rigorous hiking. The duo didn’t find any jewels or much fame, but the exhilaration of pursuing a record had left Nick itching for more.

 

Getting to Know the Ropes…and the Chutes

“It’s impossible to say what motivates you to do such things. That’s how I’m wired. The majority of people speak about these issues but do nothing about them. All I have to do now is go see.” Nick Piantanida (Nick Piantanida)

When Nick returned to the United States, he worked in an embroidery factory and played basketball at several institutions. He’d returned from Venezuela with a collection of exotic critters, including parrots, lizards, snakes, and a baby alligator that he kept in his bathtub. He sought to create a firm that purchased exotic animals from all over the world for customers after obtaining a cobra from India and learning how to manage it. He also worked as an iron worker on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, did odd jobs, married, and established a family.

He discovered his life’s passion: parachuting, while visiting the Lakewood Sport Parachute Center on the Jersey Shore.

This was back when skydiving was in its infancy, when soccer mothers and 80-year-old ex-presidents gleefully jumped out of aircraft. These early parachutists employed circular army surplus chutes, which provided minimal control or steering capabilities to the jumper. Landing on one’s feet was a difficult endeavor, and jumpers often shattered bones and had other injuries as they plummeted to the ground. Rip-stop jumpsuits and Velcro were not available. The harness pulled so hard as the parachute inflated that it caused large bruises on the groin and armpits. Equipment failures, as well as deaths, were all too regular. The parachutists of this period were a tight-knit, wisecracking brotherhood of rough, courageous SOBs who lived for the thrill of falling from the sky.

All of this explains Nick’s attraction to parachuting. After his first flight, he was hooked and devised a strategy to break the world record for the highest and longest skydiving leap. Joseph Kittinger held the record at the time.

It would be a difficult undertaking to accomplish this achievement. Nick didn’t have a college diploma and had no ties to the Air Force or Navy, research laboratories, or the manufacturers of the balloon and pressure suit he’d require for the leap. He’d have to put together every component of the project on his own.

Nick went out to learn and study all he could about the difficult and very perilous undertaking. He ate up all he could get his hands on. He needed to know about the dangerous conditions in the stratosphere, the physics and physiological implications of falling from 20 miles above the planet, and the subtleties of the equipment he’d need to go to space and back safely. Nick “converted himself into the director of a one-man aeronautical research program,” as Craig Ryan described it.

Piantanida sought counsel and information via official routes, writing to the Air Force and Navy for assistance, but the military branches refused to aid this crazed citizen. He sought help from Kittinger, but the record-holder declined, believing Nick’s approach to the project was too risky.

 

Collecting his hands on the necessary equipment was just as difficult as getting knowledge. He need a pressure suit and a large balloon, but commercial firms only worked with the military and would not deal with an individual.

Nick, of course, need funds. The equipment and support personnel would cost $120,000 every leap, and Nick didn’t have a deep-pocketed corporate sponsor like Red Bull to foot the expense. As a result, he sent out tens of thousands of letters to everyday people requesting funds. He enlisted the help of volunteers to form his ground crew, and he urged hotels and restaurants to house and feed the team in return for possible exposure. He contacted each reporter he could locate to assist him in spreading the information. His parish pastor solicited money from his parishioners. His Senator made a tenacious plea to the military on his behalf. Nick worked every angle and connection he could think of, armed only with unwavering resolve and a fascinating, larger-than-life personality.

Piantanida trained like a madman while waiting for the funds and equipment to arrive. He completed 435 skydiving flights in two years, crisscrossing the nation to take advantage of rare higher-altitude jump possibilities. He put forth a lot of effort to get his free-balloon pilot’s license. He drove trucks at night and jumped during the day to make ends meet. He worked on the project seven days a week, getting just four hours of sleep every night and eating coffee and smokes for breakfast.

Nick didn’t have a plan B for his life. He was dead intent on breaking the world record with a leap and turning his fortune into a comfortable life for his family. Despite rejection after rejection and several failures, he maintained his passion and conviction in his ultimate achievement. He had never considered the possibility of failure. He’d figure out a way to make it work.

Strato-Jump is a project that aims to jump from one planet to another.

“He was always a little bit overconfident, a little bit careless.” Pedal to the metal with a full head of steam. Nick was his name. You’d have six drinks if you went out with Nick for a beer. To the maximum extent possible, live life. That’s how he did everything, and that’s how he lived his life. If you’re going to climb Angel Falls, for example, you may go down there and look at it and come up with fifty reasons why you’re not really ready to do it. But if that were the case, you wouldn’t be Nick. And I believe it’s something that people nowadays have a hard time grasping because we live in such a safety-obsessed world.” -Roger Vaughan &amp

Nick’s perseverance eventually paid off. He was able to get some sponsorships. The Air Force loaned him a pressure suit and provided him access to some of their training facilities to practice in. On the ground, he discovered a strong crew to support him. Nick’s ambition was finally coming together after two years of hard work.

 

By leaping from a balloon hovering 115,000 feet above the ground, the intention was to achieve a new skydiving record (while also making some scientific advances). Project Strato-Jump was the name of the game.

Illustration of strato-jump in life magazine.

Nick’s first try at the Strato-Jump, on October 22, 1965, was a failure. Only 18 minutes into his trip, his balloon malfunctioned, causing him to parachute down at 16,000 feet. Nick made an ignominious landing in a rubbish dump in front of the press. Nick had envisioned Strato-Jump as a one-time thing in which he would break the record the first time he attempted it. He was devastated, but he resolved to reorganize, gather more funds, locate a new balloon firm, and try again.

Nick Piantanida sitting to be launched for strato jump.

February 2, 1966, Project Strato-Jump II: Nick’s balloon soared into the sky without a hitch on a chilly morning in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Everything went according to plan as it rose higher and higher, eventually reaching a height of 123,500 feet (21.21 miles). Nick had set a new world record for altitude. Success was on the horizon. It was now time to take the plunge. Nick unbuckled his seatbelt and prepared to shatter the world record.

Nick Piantanida looking down to earth from spaceship.

There was just one thing left to do: unhook the hose from the gondola that supplied oxygen to his pressure suit. Simple. It wouldn’t come out, however. He was strapped to his gondola, just on the verge of triumph. He kept exclaiming, “I simply can’t believe it!”

The ground team would have to release the gondola’s main balloon and let the capsule to descend to Earth under the cargo chute that rested beneath the main balloon in order to bring Nick down. Nobody has ever tried to land a person in that manner before. In preparation for his return to Earth, the ground staff instructed Nick to rejoin the belt that extended across the capsule entrance as well as his seat belt. However, his pressure suit’s gloves were so enormous that this was impossible. He’d have to wedge and brace himself within the open gondola, praying the cargo chute’s inevitable shock wouldn’t hurl him into space or tear the oxygen tube from his pressure suit.

The gondola, with its door open, leaned forward at a 45-degree angle as the balloon was released, but Nick held on. He plummeted 25,000 feet and sped towards the ground at 600 mph. The cargo chute eventually filled after 15 seconds of freefall and 5 g’s of force.

He landed safely, but he was heartbroken that his ambition had been sidetracked by a “fast disconnect” tube, an issue he believed could have been rectified with a “$1.25 wrench.” It didn’t matter that he had achieved a new height record for human balloon flying. His fantasy had not come true.

Photographer taking pictures of Nick Piantanida and his wife after his arrival.

May 1, 1966, Project Strato-Jump III: Nick began daydreaming about other hobbies and interests, and he no longer felt “personally pushed to make a third trip,” according to Ryan. His sponsors and ground crew, on the other hand, remained upbeat and optimistic, and he reminded his wife that “he had promised the public a third Strato-Jump trip and he felt honor-bound to keep his word.” He promised that regardless of the outcome of this last effort, it would be his last.

 

As a result, Nick found himself ascending above the planet for the last time on a Sunday morning in 1966. Nick vowed to be up and back in time for 11:00 Mass, which he and the ground crew felt quite sure about.

Things seemed to be moving quite nicely, just as they had been on the last trip. Everything had gone according to plan.

The ground team, however, heard a dramatic “whoosh” sound over their radio when the balloon approached 57,000 feet. They radioed back cautiously, “What was that Nick?” The sole response was, “Emergen….!” The radio signal had gone dead.

The primary balloon was promptly jettisoned by the ground crew. Nick would return to Earth wobbling under the cargo parachute, just like he had done on the last journey. The gondola arrived in Minnesota after 26 agonizing minutes of silence. Nick was discovered moaning but unresponsive. He was brought to the closest hospital, but physicians there lacked knowledge in high-altitude decompression.

People taking Nick Piantanida to hospital.

Nick survived for four more months after his brain was injured beyond repair, but he never awoke from his coma. At the age of 34, he died on August 25, 1966.

At 57,000 feet, what had happened to Nick? Throughout the years, several ideas have been proposed and discussed. Nick abruptly removed the visor of his helmet, and the rapid decompression and lack of air swiftly killed him, according to the most plausible scenario.

Nick Piantanida has held the altitude record for lighter-than-air flying for almost 35 years. He was the last person to launch a balloon into the stratosphere.

Legacy

“Where do you draw the line between bravery and folly?” Craig Ryan enquires. Was Nick a daredevil on the loose? His leaps were never for the fun of it; he sincerely wanted to help scientific advancement, to push the boundaries of what was possible, and to do something no other man had done before. Was he well-prepared? He did the best he could as a regular citizen, but he lacked the resources for thorough testing and access to the field’s brightest and most experienced brains.

What are we supposed to think of a guy like Nick? Was it arrogance on his part to refuse to acknowledge the danger of failure and the possibility of leaving his children fatherless? Should we applaud his daring attitude, do-it-yourself effort, and manly display that great courage isn’t only for the loners and the lucky?

Ryan succinctly expresses the natural tension we feel while pondering such issues:

“Nick Piantanida embodies a characteristic we all admire: an insatiable will to achieve, to surpass, to persevere until the finish.” However, the people who would undertake such a search often make us uneasy. Why aren’t they happy to accept the constraints that the rest of us face? What exactly are they attempting to prove?

When pioneers return from the frontier, we admire their bravery, endurance, and risk-taking. We shake our heads and criticize them for their rashness and recklessness when they get lost in the woods or are overcome by the elements—yet the difference between success and failure in such undertakings is frequently a hairline… ’ Splendor and foolishness are inextricably linked. Indeed, we can’t distinguish one from the other because they’re so similar, and the boundary between wonderful pleasure and crushing frustration is so thin.’

 

Finally, Nick Piantanida’s last effort at the stratosphere will be regarded as a brilliant but ultimately unsuccessful endeavor to extend the front lines of humanity’s push into that ultimate frontier… ‘An endeavor of the human spirit to achieve something spectacular,’ to borrow Jim Winker’s cautiously enlightened expression.”

Read Part 1: Joseph Kittinger’s Long, Lonely Leap if you haven’t already.

Craig Ryan’s Magnificent Failure is the source. Ryan is the author of works on the “pre-astronauts,” as well as Kittinger and Piantanida. All of them are fantastic and come highly recommended.

 

 

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