Strato-Jump III Gondola
Nick Piantanida, a 34-year old New Jersey truck driver, athlete and sky diver, ascended from Joe Foss Airport in Sioux Falls, South Dakota aboard the Strato-Jump III gondola on May 1, 1966. His goal was to set a new world altitude record for balloons, and to establish a new mark for the highest parachute jump, beating the previous unofficial record of 102,800 set by Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger in 1960. Since the Air Force had not submitted Kittinger's jump as an official record, however, the world mark for the highest sky dive was held by a Soviet airman, Major Yevgeny Andreyev for a jump from 83,500 feet in November 1962.
This would be Piantanida's third attempt. The first try, in October 1965, ended when a six knot wind sheared the top off his giant, helium-filled polyethylene balloon at just 22,700 feet. The balloonist parachuted back to a safe landing in the St. Paul, Minnesota, city dump. Raven Industries built the gondola and the balloons for the next two attempts. Paul Edward Yost, one of the founders of the company and the acknowledged father of the modern hot air balloon, would manage flight operations.
Piantanida reached a world record altitude of 123,500 during Strato-Jump II, in February 1966. When he was unable to disconnect his onboard oxygen supply in order to make the jump, however, ground controllers had no choice but to cut the gondola loose from the balloon, allowing Piantanida to return safely to earth still seated in the gondola, dangling beneath a large parachute. Because of the mishap, the flight did not qualify for the world altitude record.
Strato-Jump III was at 57,600 feet when ground controllers heard a sudden hissing sound and Piantanida started to say, "Emergency." Yost immediately ordered the gondola cut loose once again. It took twenty-six minutes to parachute back to earth, landing in a field near Worthington, MN, a little more than sixty miles from the take-off point. When the chase crew, who had been following the flight in a light plane, landed near the gondola, they found the pilot alive but unconscious. While the cause of the accident has never been completely resolved, Piantanida apparently depressurized his helmet accidentally and fell unconscious from hypoxia. He died on August 29, 1966, without regaining consciousness.
The letters "JADODIDE" appearing on the placard above the doors of the gondola are an amalgam of the names of Piantanida's wife and daughters - Janice, Donna, Diane, Debbie. S.P.A.C.E. (Survival Programs Above a Common Environment), Inc., was the name of the organization that Piantanida and a backer formed to handle the finances of the Strato-Jump program.