Indoor Adventure

January 19, 2004

Magnificent Failure
By Craig Ryan
Smithsonian Institution Press, 320 pages, $29.95

On May Day 1966, in the Stone Age of adventure sports, Nicholas
Piantanida tried to take parachuting to the edge of space. As
recounted in Craig Ryan's engrossing new biography of Piantanida,
Magnificent Failure, the 33-year-old New Jersey exotic-pet dealer
was a benign hustler who as a teenage hoops hotshot had once
outscored Wilt Chamberlain in a YMCA tournament and in 1957 had
made the first ascent of the north face of Devil Mountain in
Venezuela. He had also cajoled investors (including Carmine's
Beauty Salon in Union City, N.J.) into backing Project
Strato-Jump, a low-tech, high-risk attempt at the greatest
parachute jump of all time.

The world record for the highest free fall had been set in 1960
by Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger. He rode a 25-story helium
balloon to 102,800 feet above sea level, nearly 20 miles up,
before flopping over the side and hurtling to earth. In 1962 the
Cold War space race turned deadly when Soviet colonel Peter
Dolgov leaped from his Red Army balloon at 86,156 feet. The glass
in Dolgov's face mask cracked and his suit depressurized, killing
him instantly.

Piantanida made three assaults on Kittinger's mark. His first
went bust over northern Minnesota when strong winds decapitated
his balloon at 22,700 feet, forcing him to activate his parachute
and float back down. On the next go-round he rose to 123,500
feet--more than 23 miles--over the South Dakota prairie, still
the highest flight by a manned balloon. Alas, he couldn't
disconnect from his onboard oxygen and drifted down aboard his
gondola.

For Piantanida, the third try was decidedly not the charm. While
he was soaring over southern Minnesota at 57,000 feet, something
happened. The ground crew monitoring his transmissions over the
radio heard a sudden hiss of air, a gasp and the cry "Emergen--!"
Then ... nothing. Piantanida's gondola chute was triggered by
remote control and he floated back to land, where, suffering from
oxygen deprivation, he remained in a coma. He died four months
later.

"Project Strato-Jump represents the last gasp, the very dead end
of stratospheric manned ballooning in the 20th century," writes
Ryan, who, like a skydiver disentangling the cords of his chute,
untwists the riddle of the daredevil's death. A miracle of
research, Magnificent Failure reveals in layer after layer of
rich detail an era in which men put themselves in peril armed
only with will, tenacity and self-caressing lunacy. --Franz Lidz

COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF SMITHSONIAN

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)