There’s a reason YouTube has categorized the four-minute, twenty-five-second clip of American stuntman Kenny Powers’ 1979 attempt to jump the St. Lawrence River as “Comedy.” Several reasons, probably, because everything showcased in this short video is absurd.
For starters, the jump calls for a mile of air time—that’s 4948 more feet than Tanner Foust’s 2011 jump of 332 feet, the current world record. There’s also the ramp, ginormous and shoddy, constructed from 110,000 yards of shoveled earth in Morrisburg, Ontario. Though it’s not shown—for reasons that quickly become clear—the utterly flat target point on Ogden Island in New York is just as laughable simply because it’s little more than an idyllic patch of America cultivated with 200 square-feet of roses that will, you know, cushion the landing. Talk about running into some trouble at the border.
Then there’s the car: a bright yellow Lincoln Continental, with a rocket engine mounted behind the driver, little winglets jutting out from each door to keep things stable, and a parachute packed into the Continental kit. I get that a stuntman needs a cool mount and everything, but it seems like, I don’t know, aerodynamics should play some role in any attempt to launch a car 1/25,000 around the planet.
Though the execution of the stunt proved to be somewhat laughable, the story of the stunt is fascinating and worth a watch. The 102-minute The Devil at Your Heels is director Robert Fortier’s 1981 documentary about the attempt and the man who dedicated five years of his life to making it happen—“The Mad Canadian,” stuntman Ken Carter (not to be confused with Kenny Powers).
At the moment of truth Powers doesn’t make it across the river, of course. The narration stops. The music stops. The rocket fires with great fury, and the thing blasts off like they’ve suddenly sped up the camera. He’s going 280 mph by the time he hits the ramp, which is no joke.
But that ramp, man.
It’s as washboardy as any ungraded gravel road in the west, and you can practically see the Lincoln start to disintegrate by the time it leaves the earth. Almost immediately the nose shoots toward the heavens, chunks of car fall away, the parachute deploys, and the whole shambolic display is set to something like Lost in Space tension music, though it could just as easily have been a slide whistle. ThweeeeoooooO!
Just 5000 feet short of its destination, the Lincoln tumbles back to earth, seemingly more than its chute can handle, because it splashes hard into the St. Lawrence. “Powers’ jump was unsuccessful,” we are told, just in case the cockamamie sight we’ve just witnessed did not make that clear. Here we arrive at Hitchcockian levels of dramatic soundtrack, as rescue crews race to free Powers from the wreckage, as his young wife clings to her dear friend for support in this trying time, as onlookers surely whisper to one another, “Oh man, he’s gotta be dead.”
And then… there he is! Kenny Powers, sitting heroically atop the shoulders of two rescuers as they carry him out of the river. He’s fine! “Powers was lucky,” we are then told. “He had broken his back.”
Lucky, you say? “This was nothing new, for he had suffered the same injury seven times before.” So lucky.
As Powers is carried to the ambulance, he has only one thing on his mind: “Did I make it?” Not even close, Kenny. Not. Even. Close.