And he sells adventure to anybody who will buy: swimmers, sailors, divers, skiers and—you want to go up in a real balloon, old buddy?
December 07, 1970

On the afternoon of March 6 George Heninger, a banker from Bettendorf, Iowa, was seated in the open bay of a plane, 2,500 feet above the snowy mantle of the French Alps. Although Heninger had received only five minutes of parachuting instruction in French that he did not fully understand, when the jumpmaster tapped his shoulder, he rolled out of the open bay and fell face down into the sky. He remembers tumbling for a moment, looking up at the belly of the plane. In the next instant he felt the tug of the shrouds as his parachute opened. Since there was not much to do while floating down except enjoy scenery, Heninger held his jiffy Kodak at arm's length and photographed himself. "It isn't a flattering picture," he admits. "It makes me look like a banker who is agonizing over the prime interest rate." Although it was his first sky dive, Heninger landed a hundred yards from the center of the drop zone, sinking to his waist in deep powder snow. "It was an easy landing," he recollects, "like jumping right onto a big, downy bed."

On the morning of June 14 Dr. and Mrs. Albert Shapiro of Vineland, N.J. took off from Ambler, Pa. in a gas balloon piloted by Tony Fairbanks, a patient aeronaut who has been riding around in such ancient and perverse devices for 40 years. When it lifts off, a gas balloon is supposed to go almost straight up, obeying a simple law of physics. On the day Dr. Al Shapiro and his wife Leanore were aboard, Fairbanks' balloon rose 10 feet, then began sinking back to Earth while traveling sideways at an alarming rate. The balloon basket missed a parked car by inches and plowed into a tangle of honeysuckle vine. From the honeysuckle the balloon took an erratic bound into denser shrubbery. Shaking free, it then rose a few feet and crashed into a wall of 40-foot trees. During this panicky takeoff, pilot Fairbanks was coolly dumping sand over the side to get more lift. Although they were amused, the passengers, Al and Leanore Shapiro, were not in a position to enjoy the moment fully. During the jostling Al Shapiro lost his spectacles. By the time the balloon hit the trees both the Shapiros were hunched in a prenatal ball in the bottom of the basket. As soon as the balloon was safely clear of the treetops the Shapiros got back on their feet and began giggling. For the next hour and a half they enjoyed themselves as the balloon drifted over the countryside at a speed slightly faster than the average turtle.

On the last Saturday in August at Hanover Field in New Jersey, Lynden Gillis, a New York Magnavox executive, put on a helmet, goggles and a silk scarf and climbed into the rear cockpit of a Stearman biplane piloted by a latter-day Red Baron named Al Miner. As soon as he had a few thousand feet between him and the good Earth, Miner began rolling and looping the old Stearman around the sky, putting it through tricks the original Baron von Richthofen might have used against the scarfed knights of the Allies in World War I. For passenger Gillis, the swoopy-loopy flight of the Stearman was a real trip. One instant the ground would be stretched out below, where it should be. The next instant the ground would disappear, then reappear, sometimes overhead, sometimes dead ahead. The Stearman never exceeded 130 miles an hour, but on his first ride in an open cockpit exposed to prop blast, Gillis felt that at any moment the old machine might go through the sound barrier, leaving its wings behind. When the Stearman slipped back onto the runway 20 minutes later, Gillis still had his lunch but had lost some of his cool.

Although they defied gravity in different ways, George Heninger, the skydiving banker from Bettendorf, Dr. and Mrs. Al Shapiro, the balloon nuts, and Lynden Gillis, the wild-flying executive, had two things in common: they had an itch to do something out of the ordinary and while the itch was upon them, they all ran afoul of Leo (Buddy) Bombard, a former insurance broker and deckhand who now spends all his time infecting other people with his own restlessness. In his 37 bouncing years on this Earth Buddy Bombard never got around to joining the Boy Scouts, but he is just about everything a Scout should be. He is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, brave, clean and sufficiently reverent. He is all those things, and he also is one hell of a salesman.

With his winning and convincing ways, Bombard undoubtedly would have prospered in insurance until his last gasp. Nonetheless, he gave up the business two years ago to devote himself less profitably to running the Chalet Club, a loosely knit group which he aptly describes as "a ski club that went berserk." The Chalet Ski Club was founded 17 years ago by Alexander McIlvaine, a New York architect who was only looking for a convenient way for himself and his friends to get to Stowe, Vt. McIlvaine chartered a spiffy old observation car from the New Haven Railroad and converted it into a rolling chalet. He removed the car chairs and put in Navy double-decker bunks for the ski-athletes who wanted to save all their strength for the slopes. He also put aboard a player piano and charming stewardesses who served spirits to the skiers who wanted to enjoy part of the trip north. When the ski lifts at Sugarbush—an hour closer than Stowe to New York—opened in the mid-'50s, McIlvaine decommissioned the chalet car and used buses instead. Once or twice a year he chartered planes to carry Chalet Clubbers to European slopes.

Because McIlvaine had a cavalier flair and a knack for doing things right, the Chalet Club became too popular. In 1964, when the membership reached 400, the enterprise was more than McIlvaine cared to handle, so he turned it over to Bombard, who had often served as manager on Chalet Club trips. Although Bombard had enjoyed skiing since his college days in the early '50s, a few years after taking over from McIlvaine he became too restless to operate a club centered on one activity. Working on the theory that any man or woman who is daft about skiing is probably a sucker for other excitements, two years ago he began expanding the club program to include an assortment of challenging and frisky pastimes. As a consequence the Chalet Club now attracts a variety of sport buffs and nature lovers who are willing to join an errant knight like Bombard in almost any kind of action. In the club's present membership of 3,400 there are skiers who are now scuba diving with Bombard and sky divers who are ballooning and sailplaning. Astonishing though it is, in the Chalet Club today there are blue-water sailors who were born and bred to serve on beautiful ships but who—thanks to Bombard's persuasion—are now riding the rapids of mud-brown rivers in rafts that look like enema bags.

The only way a Chalet member can be sure of staying with a single sport is by avoiding Bombard. No matter where he is, on an Alpine peak or beside a rusty river, no matter what the adventure of the moment, Bombard spends a great deal of time convincing everyone within earshot that there are other adventures they should try. George Heninger, the Bettendorf banker who went to the French Alps last winter to ski, was diverted to sky diving because he sat by chance at the same table with Bombard in a crowded restaurant. Dr. and Mrs. Al Shapiro were bouncing along the rapids of the Colorado River with Bombard when he persuaded them that, for real kicks, they should try ballooning a few hundred feet over the housetops back East.

Today, fully grown, Bombard stands 5'4" and weighs 134 pounds. Possibly it is because he is a human parcel of modest size that he sometimes has trouble containing all the enthusiasm he generates. When discussing the aims of the Chalet Club, he often erupts suddenly, geyser-like, spewing out obvious truths with the same earnest fervor that made Billy Graham famous. According to Bombard's most repeated sentiments, the Chalet Club is "a living National Geographic, a continual Earth Day" designed for people who want to "enjoy nature on nature's own terms." Anyone exposed to his constant zeal for a week gets the feeling that Bombard will not rest until he has planted Chalet Club flags at both poles, as well as on Mount Everest and in the abyssal darkness of the Marianas Trench.

Although it is unquestionably Bombard's ambition to lead Chalet members ever onward, upward, downward and farther astray, many of the club's activities are not at all strenuous or even spine-tingling. For fainthearted members who do not care to stretch their luck the club runs an annual barge trip, at snail's pace, on the canals of southern France. For place-droppers who want to add another exotic land to their lifetime list, the club sponsors a trip to Antarctica, where there are emperor penguins, Weddell seals and a dwindling colony of sex-starved American scientists. For its most indolent members the Chalet Club now offers a unique vacation opportunity. By special arrangement with the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau Ltd., of London, the Chalet Clubber who craves the ultimate in inactivity can go to Scotland and serve as a volunteer spotter in the lookout station that is maintained explicitly to find out if dear old Nessie, the monster of the loch, is imaginary or real. It is said that anyone who stares across the water long enough, without moving a muscle except to take an occasional swat of Scotch, usually does start seeing Nessie.

There is, of course, a price per thrill. Parachute jumps cost $13 each when one is qualified. Four days in the over and underwater Bahamas are $275. Antarctic expeditions are $2,700-plus. It costs $245 to run down the Colorado River and, a few weeks ago, the club balloon was going up over Pennsylvania at $65 a trip.

Stimulated by the offbeat activities they have enjoyed. Chalet members keep proposing other diversions to Bombard. To cite an extreme, one member of the club's lunatic fringe has suggested sawing off a section of the polar ice cap and riding it southward until it melts away underfoot. Although iceberg-drifting is indeed a novel exploit worthy of a Heyerdahl, it is definitely not one that Bombard would accept. As he points out, "The club's mission is not to shorten life, but to improve the quality of living." Another member has suggested reenacting Hannibal's elephant excursion across the Alps. Reliving a page of history "on nature's own terms" is the sort of thing that appeals to Bombard, but because there are no African elephants available for charter either from Hertz or Avis, such an expedition seems unlikely.

Buddy Bombard was only 13 years old when he became a wanderer. Although he is now in love with a dozen outdoor sports, during his early wandering years he was, curiously, virtually a one-sport man. When he was age 12 or thereabouts, his mother gave him a short lecture. After she had touched lightly on the facts of life that a growing boy should know, she ended her talk on a rousing note, urging him to seek "towering experiences." On a fair summer day shortly thereafter, Bombard bicycled eight miles from his Yonkers, N.Y. home to the shore of Long Island Sound, hoping to rent a rowboat or to get involved in some other kind of towering experience. He did not find a row-boat that rented for less than a dollar, but at the Larchmont Yacht Club he came upon an International Class sailor named August Barton who needed a crewman to help him stretch a new set of cotton sails. Sailing around a harbor to break in new canvas may hardly qualify as a towering experience, but at least it was a start. In the next 20 years Bombard crewed for round-the-buoys skippers in half a dozen classes. In the International Class alone, at one time or another, he served with masters such as Bill Cox, Cornelius Shields and Arthur Knapp Jr. He was aboard the 12-meter Vim under Bus Mosbacher in the America's Cup trials of 1958. He was again with Mosbacher on Weatherly in the America's Cup defense of 1962, and crewed for Bob Bavier aboard the cup defender Constellation two years later.

In 1947, only a year after he started serving as a willing and able deck-ape in class boats, Bombard got the urge to "grade up" and try ocean racing as well. Most ocean-racing skippers understandably are reluctant to take a 14-year-old lad to sea, particularly the untried child of a landlubber family. Realizing that his best chance for a berth would be on a large boat, Bombard focused on Burma, a 53-foot yawl owned by a vice-commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club named Frank Bissell. Bombard plagued Bissell at the yacht club, accosted him a number of times in his New York office and tracked him to his home in Larchmont. "I leaned so heavily on Frank Bissell," Bombard says, "that he finally took me."

By intuition or luck, Bombard had singled out a skipper who understood such youthful verve. Bissell had been a collegiate and AAU wrestler of national ranking for 10 years. Despite his modest weight of 164 pounds, back in the crunching days of 60-minute, one-platoon football Bissell played first-string guard in a University of Michigan line that averaged 212 pounds By the time Bombard signed onto his crew, Bissell had given up brutish sports like wrestling and football, but he was no slouch. Physically he still resembled Sandow the Magnificent, and he was as agile as a cat burglar. When Bissell's Burma was in port, breakfast was never served until the deck was scrubbed and all the brass was shining bright. "I came on deck once," Bombard remembers, "and saw Bissell chipping the brown paint off the hawsepipe, and I thought, 'Oh, boy, now he's found more brass to polish.' "

From the age of 14 to 34 Bombard served on a dozen oceangoing beauties such as Burma, Carina, Ondine, Figaro II and Barlovento. Even after taking over the directorship of the ski-oriented Chalet Club, he went to sea now and again. Bombard claims that he might have lived out his years selling insurance, running the Chalet Club exclusively for skiers and sailing occasionally, except that aboard an airliner one day, under the influence of wine and mood music, he was seized by a sudden, depressing thought. He was 35 years old, virtually on the edge of the grave, and he had never even sampled much of what the world offers. On class boats and ocean racers he had certainly taken enough salt water in the face to last a lifetime, but he had never explored the arcane world below the waves with a scuba tank on his back. As a Chalet Club member he had skied down many a slope, but he had never snowshoed or mushed behind a dog team or sky dived from 2,000 feet into powder snow, as hundreds of fat and happy Frenchmen were doing.

Within a week after realizing that the world had almost passed him by. Bombard settled out his insurance business and began figuring ways to expand the Chalet Club into more than a haven for skiers. From the outset he knew that he did not want ordinary fluff like golf and tennis in the club's mixed bag of attractions, but he was surprised to find that when he published a brochure of future possibilities, more Chalet Club members expressed an interest in soaring than in a common outdoor sport like fishing. This does not mean there may someday be more sailplaners than anglers. It merely indicated that in a very active sports group there are many members who have already established contact with the familiar world of fishing but crave an introduction to a lesser-known one like soaring.

At Chalet Club get-togethers Bombard often shows slides and movies related to upcoming activities. At a gathering this spring he threw a movie onto the screen that he thought dealt with ballooning, a new club activity. It was not specifically about ballooning, alas, but was a history of lighter-than-aircraft that spared the viewers nothing. Bombard managed, with grace, to choke off the film before its fiery climax, the Hindenburg disaster, but not before the audience had a good look at the remains of the Shenandoah scattered across Ohio. It was definitely the wrong pitch to sell rides in any kind of gas bag. But so what? Eightynine Chalet Clubbers signed up to go ballooning. As Bombard keeps pointing out, "When you have something different to offer, it is surprising how many people will come out of the woodwork and give it a try."