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The man who fell to earth: Minnesotan featured on ESPN series

Preparing for his initial ascent in October 1965, Nick Piantadina sits in his gondola in a New Brighton airfield while technicians make last-minute adjustments. The gondola is now displayed at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. (Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

LAKEFIELD, Minn.—Forty-nine years ago, a man fell from the sky and landed in a cornfield in Lakefield. He was rushed to the hospital in Worthington, where he was treated for oxygen deprivation, but never recovered, dying four months later.

It's the story of Nick Piantanida, an American amateur parachute jumper who set out to break a high-altitude jumping record and is the subject of the documentary "Angry Sky" that aired earlier this week on ESPN as part of its "30 for 30" series. The series is often repeated at various times.

Few people probably realize, however, that the last chapter of Piantanida's quest played out in southwest Minnesota.

Piantanida was a New Jersey guy who began experimenting with homemade parachutes as a child. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he did some mountain climbing in South America, but had settled into a job selling pets in New Jersey when he discovered skydiving.

"Very soon, Piantanida was making free-fall jumps," related a May 13, 1966, article in LIFE magazine that chronicled his last jump. "When someone told him about the 83,523-foot altitude record that a Russian had set, Nick knew, for reasons he would never be able to articulate adequately, that he had to beat it."

The Space Race ­— the competition between the United States and Russia to get a man on the moon — was at its height, and Piantanida's quest was undoubtedly tied to that rivalry. So he began to train, taking a job as a truck driver in order to free up his time on the weekends. He sought money from sponsors, convinced a company to loan him a pressure suit and assembled a team of supporters to make his own attempt at a free-fall record.

"The first time Nick tried, last October," related the 1966 LIFE article, "a gust of wind tore his fragile polyethylene balloon to shreds. His second attempt came heartbreakingly close to success. He attained an altitude of 123,800 feet — the highest manned balloon flight ever, and 40,000 feet higher than the Russian-held world free-fall parachute record — only to have an oxygen line jam moments before he was to have jumped."

Piantanida's third attempt came on May 1, 1966. According to a Worthington newspaper edition of May 2, 1966, Piantanida and his balloon-borne gondola — the balloon having been fabricated by Raven Industries — were launched from Sioux Falls.

"At an altitude of 57,000 feet, the May Day adventure turned to tragedy," the newspaper reported. "By way of an open mike in the parachutist's pressure suit, ground crewman heard a whoosh of air leave Piantanida's suit. The balloonist then said what sounded like the word 'visor,' apparently referring to the helmet of his pressure suit. According to Ed Yost, program director for Raven Industries, Sioux Falls, which constructed the balloon, the ground crew then asked Piantanida, 'What's the problem?'

"Piantanida reportedly responded, 'Emergency — Emergency.' That was the last word spoken by the parachutist. By way of remote control, the balloon was immediately released from the gondola, and Piantanida, believed to be unconscious, began his descent in the gondola. For an estimated three to five minutes, the parachutist was without oxygen."

The gondola bearing Piantanida landed near Lakefield, while the balloon settled near Brewster. Piantanida was rushed to the Worthington hospital, where various doctors and other emergency personnel administered life-saving measures while at least 20 reporters and photographers descended on the waiting room along with Piantanida's crew and his wife, Janice.

"Her husband, meanwhile, was in the emergency room where doctors were preparing for a tracheotomy to facilitate Piantanida's breathing," the report continues. "A blood sample was drawn and flown to Sioux Falls for analysis. This was necessary because the Worthington lab has no PH meter, which is used to determine the acid or alkaline nature of blood. Flying a sample to Sioux Falls, however, did not result in any delay of treatment. The report from Sioux Falls was said to have been ready even before it was necessary for the attending doctors to have it. This was thought to be the first case of its kind ever treated at Worthington Municipal Hospital. A hospital spokesman noted that local doctors knew the procedure, however, because they 'try to keep up on all developments' in their profession."

Despite all such efforts, Piantanida never roused from his coma, and he was moved first to a Minneapolis facility and later to a veterans hospital in Philadelphia, where he died Aug. 29, 1966.

By the time of the printing of the LIFE article a couple of weeks after Piantanida's fall from the sky, it was obvious he would never recover from the trauma. While he never set the parachuting record that was his quest, his record for flying a manned balloon higher than anyone before stood until Austrian Felix Baumgartner's well-publicized Red Bull Stratos in Oct. 2012, in which he jumped to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere — achieving exactly what Piantanida set out to do 46 years earlier.

"He will almost certainly never make another attempt," stated the LIFE magazine article about the end of Piantanida's quest. "It was a lonely-thankless effort, but as long as there are frontiers, brave men will try to cross them."

"Angry Sky," a film by Jeff Tremaine, is the final film in the second volume of ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and debuted on ESPN Thursday night. It is available for viewing through WatchESPN.

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