It also cost him his life.
Piantanida's pursuit of a world record for a high altitude dive from the sky brought him to the Midwest in the mid-1960s. His reputation as a risk-taking daredevil preceded him.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, Piantanida and buddy Walt Tomashoff planned an expedition to Venezuela where they hoped to become the first to climb Devil’s Mountain. Since neither had any climbing experience, they bought a book on the subject and practiced by day by climbing on the Hudson River Palisades above Hoboken, New Jersey, while working in a can factory at night.
Although someone else had climbed the mountain by the time they reached Venezuela, Piantanida and Tomashoff managed to become the first to climb the mountain by a more difficult route along Angel Falls that was thought to be unclimbable.
Piantanida returned to the United States with some exotic animals and tried to parlay that into an exotic animal business. That business never took off so Piantanida worked a variety of jobs in his native New Jersey to support his wife and growing family. Along the way, he acquired a taste for skydiving at Lakewood Sport Parachute Center on the Jersey Shore.
It was a tough crowd that took up the sport in its early days, before steerable parachutes and rip-stop jumpsuits. Equipment malfunctions were frequent, as were fatalities. Rough landings and broken bones were common. While many jumpers had military experience, Piantanida had to start from scratch.
Early on, Piantanida decided he wanted to take aim at the highest, longest skydiving jump in history. The longest free-fall parachute up to that time was the 80,380-foot descent by Russian Yevgeni Andreyev on November 1, 1962. On the same day, another Russian, Pyotr Dolgov, who ascended in the same capsule as Andreyev, attempted a jump from 10,000 feet higher but struck his helmet as he exited, cracking his visor, which led to rapid depressurization and his death,
The highest jump on record was from 102,800 feet by Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger Jr. on August 16, 1960, although it wasn't recognized since it wasn't officially monitored by an international organization. Kittinger's jump also set records for longest free-fall (4 minutes 36 seconds) and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere (614 miles per hour).
For two years, Piantanida pushed his project, criss-crossing the country doing 435 exhibition jumps, working wherever he could, seeking colunteers and sponsors and promoting his project through interviews with reporters. Once the Air Force offered training facilities, the David Clark Company offered to create a pressurized suit and Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, offered a balloon, Piantanida's Project Strato-Jump was born.
On his first jump attempt on October 22, 1965, a wind shear tore off the top of his balloon, forcing him to bail out at 16,000 feet and land in a St. Paul, Minnesota, city dump.
Piantanida prepared for his second attempt with a free fall from a plane at 16,000 feet in temps of minus-30 degrees from over Rock Rapids, Iowa, on January 28, 1966. All was good for his formal attempt by balloon, which would take him from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to somewhere around Estherville, Iowa.
All was going well on the morning of February 2, 1966, as Piantanida's balloon carried him to the world-record altitude of 123,500 feet (21.21 miles) above Estherville. But, as Piantanida stood in the doorway of the gondola ready to leap, he couldn't disconnect his oxygen hose. The decision was made from the ground to separate the gondola from the balloon and let it free fall some 25,000 feet before the cargo chute would deploy and safely return the gondola to earth.
Piantanida's bulky suit kept him from re-attaching his seat belt so he was forced to stand in the doorway for the entire descent. It was feared that the force of the deploying cargo chute might forcefully eject him into space or disconnect his oxygen hose but neither event occurred and Piantanida was successfully rescued.
At a subsequent news conference, Piantanida expressed frustration at the malfunction that he could have fixed "with a $1.25 wrench." He also promised to try again.
That third attempt came on Sunday, May 1, 1966, when he again lifted off from Sioux Falls after promising his wife that he'd be back in time for 11 a.m. Mass. He also promised that it would be his last jump.
The ascent was going well when at 57,000 feet, the ground crew heard a "whooshing" sound and a brief "Emergency, emer..." from Piantanida, whose face mask had depressurized. The ground crew immediately cut the gondola loose from the balloon and it began what would be an agonizing 26-minute descent.
After the still-unconscious Piantanida was removed from the gondola 17 miles northwest of Spirit Lake, Iowa, he was rushed to a hospital in Worthington, Minnesota. He was later flown to Hennepin County General Hospital for treatment in one of the country's few hypobaric chambers at the time. Doctors felt he had a chance for survival but brain damage was inevitable. A month later, though, they described him as being in a "waking coma" and transfered him to the National Institute of Health at Bethesda, Maryland.
Piantanida was later transfered to the Veterans Adminstration Hospital at Philadelphia where he died on August 29, 1966. He never regained consciousness.
The high altitude mark that Piantanida was seeking to break was finally broken 46 years later by Austrian Felix Baumgartner on October 14, 2012, when he jumped from a height of 128,100 feet and became the first human to break the sound barrier outside of a vehicle by reaching 834 miles per hour. Baumgartner's free fall time of 4 minutes and 19 seconds was just 17 seconds shy of Kittinger's 1960 jump.
Born: August 15, 1932
Died: August 29, 1966, age 34