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They Flew Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease

Published: 3/22/2013

In this April 15, 1944 photo, members of the Flying Wallendas, famous high wire act with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, perform their death-defying double pinwheel in Madison Square Garden in New York. From left are Herman, Henrietta, Helen and Karl Wallenda. (AP Photo)

April 1944: The Flying Wallendas, famous high wire act with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus, perform their death-defying double pinwheel in Madison Square Garden in New York. From left: Herman, Henrietta, Helen and Karl Wallenda. (AP Photo)

Of all the daredevils throughout history, few have been as legendary as the world-renowned circus family, the Flying Wallendas.

For generations, the Wallendas have performed high-wire acts without a net, guided and inspired by patriarch Karl Wallenda. A circus performer from early childhood, he founded the troupe that would achieve world fame and break record after record. Some of those death-defying achievements belonged to Karl himself – as when he broke the world skywalk distance record by walking 1,800 feet on a high-wire at King's Island. Even when he didn't set a new standard on the high-wire for highest or longest, he dazzled and amazed, performing stunts like a midair headstand.

The Flying Wallendas' stunts were spectacular but not always successful – and sometimes they ended in tragedy. One such incident was 1962's Seven Chair Pyramid, a stunt the family had often performed that featured seven performers on the wire together in a three-layer pyramid. While high in the sky over the Shrine Circus in Detroit, one walker lost his footing and the pyramid collapsed. Several of the performers fell to the ground, and two were killed.

The Great Wallendas walk the high wire during their three-tier seven-person pyramid performance at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit, Mich. During the performance the pyramid formation collapsed and the performers fell to the ground injuring performers Jana Schepp and Mario Wallenda, as well as killing performers Richard Faughnan and Dieter Schepp. Bottom row from left: Dieter Schepp, Mario Wallenda, Richard Faughnan and Gunther Wallenda. Second row from left: Karl Wallenda and Herman Wallenda. Sitting on chair is Jana Schepp. (AP Photo)

Jan. 30, 1962: The Great Wallendas walk the high wire during their three-tier seven-person pyramid performance at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit, Mich. During the performance the pyramid formation collapsed and the performers fell to the ground injuring performers Jana Schepp and Mario Wallenda, as well as killing performers Richard Faughnan and Dieter Schepp. Bottom row from left: Dieter Schepp, Mario Wallenda, Richard Faughnan and Gunther Wallenda. Second row from left: Karl Wallenda and Herman Wallenda. Sitting on chair is Jana Schepp. (AP Photo)

Even while the Wallenda family mourned, the show went on. The pyramid was brought back to the act, along with other stunning feats. But death is always a risk for the tightrope walker. Karl Wallenda’s sister-in-law Rietta died in 1963, and son-in-law Chico Guzman in 1972. And then on March 22, 1978, Karl Wallenda flew for the last time. While walking a high-wire between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 73-year-old daredevil fell ten stories to his death.

Thirty-five years later, the Wallenda family act continues. Great-grandson Nik Wallenda, inspired by his famous forebear, recently completed the first ever high-wire walk across Niagara Falls. And as a group, the Flying Wallendas continue to perform around the world… seemingly with the greatest of ease.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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