draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald when he came to describe his lifelong journey toward self-destruction. And a friend who spends most of his time in front of the tube recalled that Nietzsche had once observed: "A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Ghost." Nietzsche, I think, was about to check into the asylum when he penned that thought. But I ramble—putting off the recounting of that inevitable moment when I decided to learn to fly a hot-air balloon. Indulge me.
What is there in this age of flight
To make me hug the earth so tight?
wrote a poet acquaintance some years ago, in a neat little verse called Daedalus, Stay Away from My Transom! If God had meant us to fly, he would have provided us with wings, intoned yet another ancient philosopher about the time man first took to the skies. Aphorisms pile up like lumber in my mind, so anxious am I to find some wisdom that will explain the inexplicable. I have told this story many times now, scarcely waiting to be asked, and like any good story it improves with each telling. The drama becomes more intense, the suspense heightens, ignorance diminishes as hindsight improves. The facts had better be put down once and for all before fact evolves altogether into fiction.
In the first place, I had been reading a lot of propamarkey (a word just invented to describe a combination of propaganda and malarkey) about the serenity of flying a balloon. Books about ballooning have been proliferating like bubbles in a Sardo bath, and all accounts had me believing that I, too, would drift gently over the countryside with nothing to do but count cows and pop corks from champagne bottles. Now it is time to put the hot air back where it belongs, in the balloon.
January 15, 1973
The balloon is a thing of beauty to behold. We may as well get that out of the way. It looks serene, which is how that rumor undoubtedly got started. Most impressive was the apparent simplicity of the contraption; no dirty old gears or oily transmission to offend the female temperament. The thing didn't even have tires. Beautiful. Of course, all trips are strictly one-way. Once aloft, the balloon does not return to its point of departure. Like an errant lady it must be chased and carried home.
"Quite right," said Ellen Hall, a psychiatric nurse who has been playing second bubble to her husband's balloon for a number of years. "To the male, a balloon has certain sensual qualities," she said. "It has a hoop and a skirt, doesn't it? What more does be need?" But all this is best left to graduate students looking for a thesis.
Having decided to learn to fly, I called a 27-year-old balloon tycoon named Robert Waligunda, who heads up Sky Promotions in Princeton, N.J. Waligunda (SI, Feb. 7, 1972) turned out to have more irons in the fire than a blacksmith at Belmont. He was, he said, entering a hare-and-hounds race in Canada, was committed to a series of balloon ads for Lark, might pop over to Yugoslavia for a week or two, had been appointed chairman of the race committee for the World Balloon Championships in Albuquerque, had to go to Hollywood to make a film called Flight into Silence and had agreed to take his balloon up during halftime at a football game, hoping to erase a bad image created when a lesser balloonist, previously invited, had landed in the stands. He was all for my plans to learn to fly, his enthusiasm for ballooning crackling against my eardrums. Why not, he suggested, learn to fly at Wallkill, N.Y., a lovely spot at the foot of the Catskills, where a licensed pilot named William Hughes would be glad to teach me the fine art of aerostatics. I might, he said, even get a pilot's license in time to enter a race being held at nearby Highland. Wouldn't that be fun? In my innocence, I said I thought it would, but what was this about a pilot's license? The Federal Aviation Agency, Waligunda explained, administered written examinations to all would-be balloonists. I would be expected to answer questions about the general operation of free balloons, about different sorts of weather conditions in the U.S., demonstrate an ability to analyze weather maps and solve practical navigation problems. I had not expected to have to muck about with a faceless bureaucracy like the FAA, but everything has its price.
I headed for Wallkill one bright fall morning in a gleaming rented Plymouth, my progress upstate marked by leaves beginning to change; a splash of red here, orange and yellow intermixed with green there, purplish hills looming in the distance. The Rocking Horse Ranch at Highland had booked me a room which would offer an opportunity to study the scene of my future race. When birds sing, there is no impending doom. There would be three weeks to master ground school and achieve eight hours' flying time, the minimum required to solo. I would be taking—though I did not care to be too literal about it—a crash course in ballooning.
William Dennis Hughes, former Navy heliocopter pilot, onetime fire-fighting forest ranger, crop duster and corporation pilot, now enamored of the hot-air balloon, was waiting for me off the highway at New Paltz in a white converted bread truck decorated with a painting of a red, white and blue Raven. The rear let-down door was inscribed With FOLLOW ME. I CHASE BALLOONS. I followed him to Kobelt Airport, a small private training field for pilots, and took my first look at the "lighter-than-air" craft in which I would shortly fly away. Rolled up in a lump of gray bag, uninflated, it weighed 150 pounds. I weigh 30 pounds less, uninflated. This was the only resemblance, unless you want to include my red, white and blue heart.
"When it's aloft, the wind pushes it, so it is considered lighter than air," Hughes explained. Rolled out, the nylon fabric measured 70 feet in length; it would swell to 50 feet in diameter. A spaghetti-like array of cables was attached to a fiber glass-aluminum gondola designed to hold two.
"We have a wicker basket for sightseeing flights, which is what tourists expect in ballooning," said my instructor, "but in training, we use the gondola. Otherwise, you are liable to wind up with a pile of kindling after a hard landing." I cleared my throat. The balloon tycoon had not said anything about hard landings. Still, at this point, I was not put off.
The balloon, like Gaul, was divided into three parts—the envelope, the burners and the gondola—and I expected to have no more trouble than Caesar when he marched in and took over. Hughes handed me the materials needed for ground school: a protractor for plotting courses, an aeronautical sectional chart of New York, a hand computer and a much too thick paperback entitled the Private Pilots Handbook. It was filled with graphs, airplanes drawn to scale flying on dotted lines, weather maps and incomprehensible sentences. A random example:"ICG. OCNL MDT ICGIC. FRZG LVL 8√∏-1√∏√∏ LWRG TO NEAR SFC BHND LO CNTR." Serenity would obviously have to wait.
Late that afternoon, when the wind was still, we took the Raven out of its bag and prepared to inflate. Hughes taught me how to seal the crown and explained the crown rip strap that opens the top of the balloon to deflate the envelope. The crown, usually opened after landing, allows enough hot air to escape to deflate the balloon quickly. It may also be used in emergency landings.
"In landing," he said, "you will probably need only to use the maneuvering vent—this rope—which opens a flap in the side of the balloon. Opening it will control drifting and bring you straight down, but your descent will be rapid, so you will cushion your landing with short, steady blasts of heat." I said I would cushion like crazy. He dragged a gasoline-run fan out of the truck. "We start by blowing air into the balloon with this fan." It looked oily. I inspected it from a distance. He flicked a switch, and cold air rushed into the balloon, which rippled, then billowed and swayed first to one side then the other, suddenly puffing up and out, rather like a society matron bustling about: all bosom, no legs. I had been set to holding on to the front outer edge of the fabric through which a short handling line was laced, raising my arms over my head to create an opening so that the air could be directed toward the center of the balloon. Hughes, who was holding up the other side, manipulating the fan at the same time, let go long enough to light the two enormous burners affixed inside the gondola that lay overturned on the ground. The first noisy blast sent me reeling. I would, said Hughes, get used to the noise of the burners. As the air inside the envelope heated, the balloon rose and the gondola righted itself. Unfortunately, I was rising, too. When my feet threatened to leave the ground, I let go.
"You're not tall enough," said my instructor bluntly, as if I had just displayed some genetic deficiency previously hidden. He was not exactly a towering specimen himself. Slight of build, he seemed to be in his mid-30s, brown hair already receding. A flyer most of his adult life, he walked with short, springy steps, each footfall a separate little takeoff.
"Hop in." More blasting, flames shooting upward. The gondola rocked and left the ground.
"Buoyancy is the amount of lift you need to overcome gross weight," explained Hughes. As he seemed to expect some sort of informed response to this, I said, "No kidding."
"That may be one of the questions on the FAA exam, so try to remember." I said I would. Below, as we skimmed over an apple orchard, a group of teenagers on motor scooters were chasing a rabbit. It was clear from my vantage point that the rabbit was going to win. The boys left their bikes as we hovered overhead and began to play a game called lob apples at balloonists. A few steady blasts of hot air took us out of range, but not before we had plucked some of the fruit from the top of a tree. Hughes indicated three instruments attached to a panel: a pyrometer to show the temperature of the air inside the balloon, except that it was not working; an altimeter that would have given us our altitude, except that it had broken down; and a rate-of-climb indicator to show ascent or descent in feet per minute. That seemed to be functioning, but it was best not to give it too much attention, said my instructor. A balloonist should learn to fly by "feel," by keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon. "You will begin to feel the rhythm, with practice. Always face in the direction you are going. You must see what is out there in front of you. When you blast to achieve altitude, the balloon will not respond to the added heat for about 15 seconds, so you must be able to calculate how far you will travel during the delay. Keep an eye out especially for power lines, and give them a lot of berth. The gondola has enough momentum to cleave through the top of a live tree, but avoid dead trees because they don't give. When we land, hold on tight and flex your knees." There was more to it than I had imagined, but there always is.
Sneaking a look down, I could see the balloon truck parked ahead of us on a nearby road. Bruce Wilson, a friend of Hughes, was chasing. He had lived in the area all his life, knew every back road. He would find us, said Hughes, wherever we landed, and he pulled the rope that opened the vent. We went down with a thump in a vacant field, bounced up again like a rubber ball, dragged a few feet and settled. I pulled the crown rope that opened the top, like a layer of skin being peeled back. Soon the balloon was once again a 70-foot length of fabric lying inert on the ground. Our chaser was already backing the truck onto the field.
Except for a few new refinements such as instruments and Raven's exclusive maneuvering vent, the balloon has not changed much since the first one went up in 1783 near Paris. "What is it good for?" inquired a spectator on that occasion, and crusty old Benjamin Franklin, Ambassador to France at the time, replied, "What good is a newborn baby?" A baby, Franklin might have been told, does not have to have hot air squeezed out of it before it is put to bed. Gathering the fabric up in both arms, I walked backwards, squeezing, while Hughes and Wilson resealed the crown. By the time I reached the center of the balloon, the air had all collected behind me, making it a dead weight.
"The whole operation seems to have come to a standstill," I heard my instructor say as I struggled silently, enveloped in nylon. They came around.
"Where is she?" asked Wilson, not spotting me at first buried in the puffy fabric. I crawled out. Wilson took over the squeeze operation. I was set to rolling the thing up. By the time I had crawled 70 feet on my hands and knees, patting and panting, I was looking forward to ground school. Hughes filled in my pilot's log with the statistics of what he called my first "ascension," which sounded spooky, and sent me home.
At the Rocking Horse Ranch an army of weekend tourists from Brooklyn and the Bronx were embarking on a wienie roast in the lobby, music was being piped into my room, and a horse was looking through my window. The Private Pilot's Handbook, opened to a chapter with the catchy title "Weather," lay open on my bed. "One inch of mercury is equivalent to approximately 34 millibars," I read. The rest of the prose was equally exciting. I said good night to the horse and went to sleep.
"Clouds. You must be able to identify clouds," said Hughes as we drifted over the Wallkill River. He frequently conducted ground school at 2,000 feet. "You have to be able to distinguish between an altostratus cloud and a cumulonimbus cloud," etc. Below us, a six-point buck waded along the shore, picking his way over stones and around uprooted shrubs and debris. "You don't see a six-point buck very often anymore," said Hughes. I was glad to get his mind off clouds. I wished the buck a long and happy life.
That afternoon I flew the balloon myself for the first time, going up and down like a yo-yo, and calculated our descent perfectly, provided I intended landing on the roof of the Wallkill high school. We went up again in a hurry. Landings are the trickiest part of ballooning. Waligunda himself had once plunked down in the Connecticut River, and Hughes, going down in Cornwall, N.Y., had landed in what turned out to be the police commissioner's backyard. Farmers, particularly in the Midwest, occasionally take umbrage when balloonists fly over cattle and livestock. After the U.S. Balloon Championships in Iowa in 1970, reported Ballooning magazine, one farmer had filed a lawsuit, claiming that the noise of burners over his hog lot had caused 10 sows "due to farrow" to stampede through and over a fence and out into a chest-high bean field. One sow, alleged the farmer, had suffered a miscarriage, two sows had returned home to be delivered of 11 and nine pigs respectively, others had been caught with the help of neighbors, but two pregnant sows were still at large in the bean field. Balloonists, on the other hand, claim that certain unidentified, hostile types have taken potshots at them with guns as they drift overhead enjoying all that serenity. Too much serenity, one suspects, and balloonists, an active, zesty lot, would probably take up jousting.
On a cold, frosty morning in mid-October, Hughes drove me to Batavia to meet old smoke balloonist Eddy Allen, who used to shoot his daughter out of a cannon, suspended from a balloon, back in the '30s. And the tycoon himself showed up in Batavia to meet his newest aeronaut.
"She doesn't have much control yet in landing," Hughes told Waligunda. Hughes generally referred to me as she, as if my parents had somehow overlooked giving me a name. He was what Icarus Q. Downdraught, the Robert Benchley of ballooning, called "the mile-high male chauvinist." A mile high and still on the ground, that was Hughes. Waligunda took me up for a flight. Aside from one "involuntary landing," as he described it, which I made at the edge of a cow pasture, he was reassuring.
"Time on the tether will improve her control," he told Hughes.
Back at Kobelt the following morning, my instructor tied one end of a 200-foot rope to the balloon truck, fastened the other end to the gondola and sent me aloft. I practiced "touch and go," blasting my way up and landing ever so gently, until even Hughes dubbed me "a feather on the tether." Then it was back to ground school, in preparation for my written exam. The pilot's handbook had turned out to be the best cure for my insomnia since Nytol. If my eyes grew heavy on page three of "Weather," the chapter on "Navigation" sent me off so fast I scarcely had time to get into bed. Hughes aged visibly as he struggled to teach me the mysteries of plotting a course. I wanted to know what good it does to plot a course when a balloon, unsteerable, travels wherever the wind carries it.
"If you can plot a course you can figure out where you are when you land."
"I've got a mouth," I said. "What's wrong with, 'Hi, there. Where am I?' "
Hughes did not reply. Instead, he handed me the plotter. "Let's say you have just left Kobelt Airbase. Wind direction is 220°, your air speed is eight miles per hour, and you have been flying for 90 minutes. Now, determine your direction, your distance and your true air speed."
"Come now. Which direction is the wind coming from?"
I consulted the compass on the back of my hand computer.
"Right," said Hughes, "but I don't know how you got it. You're holding the compass upside down. Keep it up and you'll never pass that test." He had the gift of prophecy.
The examination room, up a flight of depressing stairs in the ramshackle FAA building at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport, was designed for patients suffering from acute agoraphobia. There were no windows, only long tables, undentable steel-top tables and straight-back chairs. Two ladies of indeterminate age presided over an outer office. When I announced myself, the plumper of the two ladies called to her colleague, "Virginia, a hot-air balloon just walked in." Virginia left her filing and came to peer. "It used to be that we had to dust off the balloon tests," she observed.
The rest of the afternoon is hazy. The test was composed of 40 questions, including three pages of clouds. For the next three hours, examinees filed in and out, all waving plotters, and my concentration was distracted by a potential pilot next to me who produced an enormous salami and onion sandwich in the middle of the proceedings. Fumes filled the air.
"There goes the hot-air balloon," said Virginia when I left.
Backing out of the parking lot, I inserted my rented back bumper into the fender of a just-parked car, which turned out to be the property of the president of Safair Flying Service, Inc.
"Would you believe that I just took my pilot's exam?" I said, as we exchanged greeting cards. The president of Safair laughed, even as he viewed his pleated fender. "It all goes to prove that flying is safer than driving," he said, "but what are you going to tell Avis?"
"I'll tell them I try harder," I said.
By the end of the third week I had achieved 12 hours of flying time. My landings were still too bouncy and Hughes put me back on the tether. On what was to be my last supervised flight, though I was not aware of this, we went up to 5,000 feet for a demonstration of what Hughes called a "terminal descent." I did not care much for the terminology.
"You will see that the balloon at this altitude acts, in effect, like a parachute." It did. We drifted down lazily. My control in level flight had improved tremendously. I was getting the hang of the rhythm. Except to light the burners, we never used the cruise valve that pumps heat into the balloon at a steady rate but is noisy. Hughes preferred the blast valve, which allowed for silence between blasts. People below never seemed to tire of the balloon. Wherever we flew there were upturned faces, friendly waves, cars slowing down on the highway and children dancing and chanting c'mon down, c'mon down. Sometimes we passed out balloon postcards, provided by the tycoon.
"One of these days I'm going to let you go, when I think you are in control and feeling well," Hughes told me.
I was feeling fine the following Saturday morning. The day was chilly and sunless, but the wind was surprisingly still. Good ballooning weather. Three other students turned up: Alice and Anne Megaro from New Rochelle, and Roger Kell, a student from Plainfield, N.J. who had just flunked his written FAA exam, which made him a member in good standing of our club.
"You inflate," Hughes told me. "The others will act as your ground crew." I might have known that this would be the day, but I am generally unsuspicious, with little talent for foreboding. Besides, inflation went like a charm. When the wind fan had set the fabric billowing, I cracked the cruise valve and touched the striker to the burners. Flame shot forth, heating the air. My ground crew clung to trailing ropes, one on each side, the other at the crown. The balloon struggled to be free. At a signal, they let go. As the gondola righted itself, I got in. Hughes and Alice climbed in next. Though the Raven S-50A is designed for two, Alice and I were both lightweights. However, it took more blasting than usual, with three of us aboard, to set the gondola rocking. Our takeoff was splendid, I thought, our climb easy and gradual. I checked the speed indicator. The needle pointed to zero.
"It conked out last week," said Alice. So now none of the instruments was working, but I had learned to fly by "feel," had I not?
"Stay low," said Hughes. I took the gondola through the top of an evergreen, which bowed as we passed. I quoted:
"Like a kite
Cut from the string,
Lightly the soul of my youth
Has taken flight."
Hughes shook his head and sighed. We landed in a field on the other side of some trees. Would Alice like to take over, I inquired? But Alice, to my surprise, got out of the gondola and so did Hughes, both holding on to the sides to keep it down.
"You're on your own," said my instructor. "Take it up, fly around for about 10 minutes and then bring it down. We will follow in the truck." The truck, driven by Roger, was parked on a nearby dirt road. This then was to be my flight test, my solo. Hughes shook hands with me formally, and he and Alice stepped back.
Blasting with the same rhythm as before, I shot up and away like a rocket, headed for the clouds, unmindful of the fact that the balloon, now almost 300 pounds lighter, needed less heat. On and up, taking my "flying chariot through fields of air." A south wind was blowing me due north. Fall foliage was giving way to oncoming winter's browns. A dog ran around in frenzied circles. Below me now lay Wallkill Prison, a depressing fortress. "If I had the wings of an angel/Over these prison walls I would fly," I sang loudly, delighted with my own freedom.
After the prison, neatly laid-out plots of green earth, furrowed fields, a few cows and horses. Then—zap—everything disappeared into a gray void, as if I had been looking at a vast television set that had been turned off, the light slowly diminishing into a tiny pinpoint. Baffled, I looked around on all sides. The door to the world had been slammed shut. Ground fog, I decided, had closed in, a blanket settling over my visibility.
"If fog or poor visibility seems imminent, land immediately," the FAA booklet had advised. What about no visibility, in the twinkling of an eye? I drifted around in the nothingness, still blasting rhythmically, and pondered my predicament. Without the horizon as a guide, I knew not whether I was rising or falling, or maintaining level flight. I hoped, at the moment anyway, that I was not descending, for to land safely without visibility would call for the kind of luck only the Irish are said to have. I might come down on a highway, into water or, worst of all, into power lines, the greatest single cause of balloon fatalities. Hughes had done his work well. I was paranoid on the subject of power lines. Nervously, I kept on blasting, and suddenly the sun was shining, the sky a translucent blue. Fat, puffy clouds stretched out below me like an endless white shag carpet. I had broken through the overcast, but at the wrong end. Even I could identify these clouds—or thought I could. They were cumulonimbus—rain clouds. Pilots call them Q clouds. Sentences from my handbook, which had set me yawning, now went off in my mind like preset alarms. Airplanes entering turbulent Q clouds had even been torn apart upon encountering updrafts and downdrafts with velocities as great as 3,000 feet per minute. At all costs, I remember being told, avoid flying into Q clouds.
The sun was hot. I removed my jacket and for the next 40 minutes played a game called cloud hop. Up and down over the clouds I went, putting off the inevitable decision I. would have to make: stay up and hope the clouds would suddenly part like the Red Sea, or go down, saying to any luck dispensers nearby, "Begorra, I'm Irish." I tried to think of something to sing, as the first tongues of panic licked out, but the only song that came to mind was one I had heard on the car radio that morning on the way to the airport, "I'll be your longhaired lover from Liverpool," which seemed inappropriate.
Suddenly, a hissing noise replaced the whoosh of the burners. I knew what that meant. The pilot light had gone out. Flameouts are not unusual. Waligunda and I had experienced one during our flight in Batavia. You simply relight the pilot and get on with the business of flying. I applied the striker to the pilot. Nothing happened. No reassuring burst of flame, only the sibilant hissing. In order to reach the burners, I had to stand on one of the fuel tanks, reducing my leverage since my body was now involved in keeping its balance. Again and again the striker failed to ignite the pilot. When the air cooled I would begin a terminal descent, and this time the key word was terminal. Tongues of panic again, quickly quelled, but with effort.
The balloon seemed to be suspended, motionless, but this meant nothing since there is no sensation of movement in an object traveling at the speed of the wind. Hughes had told me, I remembered, not to open the cruise valve too much, which would create too strong a flow of propane that would be difficult to ignite. I turned off the cruise valve, cracked it once gently. Whoosh! A battle won. There was still the war. One fuel tank was almost empty. I had now been up for more than an hour. I switched to the full tank. Eventually, of course, I would descend when I ran out of fuel. No one had excused me from the law of gravity. It would be better, I realized, to go down in control than to wait until I had no choice. If I had to land blind, what then? It did not bear thinking about. I did not believe—correction—I almost did not believe that my life was going to end in, of all things, a red, white and blue balloon. So like her, my friends would say. She probably forgot everything I taught her, Hughes would say. I thought if I ever got down alive I just might punch Hughes in the nose. (On the contrary, Alice told me later, Hughes had said, "She is very cool, she will bring it down.")
Down and down, back into the thick, gray nothingness and still on down, until mountain peaks (or were they white clouds now turned black?) lay dead ahead. Back up I went to find a different air current that would hopefully change my direction, and found a thermal that set the balloon to spinning upward, turning ever so gently, like a merry-go-round just getting under way. Wait it out. Released by the thermal after what seemed an eternity, I started down again, my rhythm changed to short blasts, enough to keep me aloft, not enough to gain altitude. The balloon and I, our fate intertwined, the balloon, inanimate, uncaring, and I, my heart thudding, peering ever downward.
My eyes, straining, did not believe those first few lines of light, a gray blanket slowly rolling back until there below me, the earth, emerging wondrously, in an instant of realization, a panorama of color, its greens, golds, blues and browns filling my eyes. I was down, out of the overcast. Not ripped to shreds. There was no ground fog. There never had been. I had passed through a low, 1,500-foot ceiling, mistaking it for fog. Now I was down, but not quite. There was still the business of landing. We sailed along, my balloon and I, over a golf course. Directly below me, a foursome concentrated on one man's putt. I gave them a friendly blast. No one even looked up. Incredible. The only calm man in the world, I am convinced, should the Bomb ever be dropped, will be the man on a golf course, putting. I considered landing on the course, decided against it. "Try not to land anywhere where property may be damaged, or people incensed," my instructor had said. I forgot that he had also said, "In emergencies, no rules apply." The golf course vanished behind me. Now that I had a horizon against which to measure my flight, I could see that the balloon was traveling fast, much too fast. The wind had come up during my two-hour ordeal. Fields over which I passed were relatively small, near access roads ringed with power lines. I tried to go down in a pasture. The wind tore at the gondola, rocking it so violently I was thrown to the floor. We almost crashed into a cow.
Up and over to the next field, but with my fuel almost gone there was not enough weight in the gondola to keep us down. The air currents were strongest near the ground, bouncing me about like a Raggedy Ann doll, with no time or balance to reach the crown rope that would deflate the envelope. "One more time," I said aloud, exerting all my strength, or what was left of it, to keep the maneuvering vent open, and down we went. The balloon touched ground momentarily, lurched and dragged and bounced again toward power lines.
I looked at the approaching lines, fascinated, thinking how they stretched across the horizon, sheet music without the notes. With the burners on full, we barely cleared them. I sailed over a ranch house. The farmer and his wife below waved. I did not wave back or drop a postcard. Over a highway and into trees on a gust of wind that almost took me above them, but not quite. There was a sound of ripping as branches caught at the fabric. Straight ahead was the gray, twisted skeleton of a dead pine tree. Its sharp, needleless branches reached for me. You win, I said silently, and sat down on the floor of the gondola, forgetting to remove my right hand, which was gripping the edge. I braced myself for the crash. It came.
The gondola shuddered to a stop. It was perched on a dead branch of the pine tree about 70 feet above the ground. The wounded envelope had deflated and lay tangled across three trees. The fingers I had left exposed were badly cut and numb, but I was still in one piece, dazed and exhausted but thankful, almost happy. There was a sound of crackling overhead. I looked up. The tree was on fire, the flames fed by the balloon's burners. The end of a perfect morning. Hastily, I turned off the fuel. Should sparks reach the fuel tanks, I would go out, not with a whimper, but a bang.
I decided to leave the gondola, fed up with it anyway, and crawled out. The fire, with no further encouragement from the burners, went out gradually. The first three branches on which I tried to find a foothold snapped off. The fourth, about a foot long, held.
"Help!" I called once, without much conviction.
"Cheep!" answered a bird from a near-by tree.
"Shut up," I replied, feeling as absurd in his home as he might have felt in my living room.
Help came from a motorist who had slowed down to watch my erratic progress into the woods. When the balloon failed to emerge, he had decided to investigate. I heard him crashing through the underbrush, and called out to direct him.
"My name is Clayton Barkman," he shouted up to me, introducing himself formally, like a man arriving for a social function that was unexpectedly being held in the top of a tree. He went off to get more help. I trusted he would not be gone too long. My perch was precarious, and my injured hand, useless for hanging on, was beginning to protest. Mr. Barkman moved with dispatch, and soon the woods were full of saviors and merrymakers. A siren wailed, and the Greenville Rescue Squad, done up in white jumpsuits, came hurtling through the woods in an ambulance. The local fire chief, who happened also to be a telephone repairman, ordered lumber and a power saw and started up a neighboring tree, also dead, with crampons on his boots, a lineman's belt around his waist. More sirens, bringing the state police in cowboy Stetsons. Housewives came, accompanied by children, and gaped upward. Men in lumberjack shirts gave advice. With the red, white and blue canopy of the balloon stretched overhead, the thing began to have the feel of a small but lively Fourth of July celebration.
Fire Chief Bob Carl threw me a rope with instructions to lash myself to the tree in case the branch holding me so reluctantly should snap. Another rescuer, Ronnie Bauman, began to climb the tree in which I was perched. More firemen, or volunteers, appeared and spread a circular net directly below me. They held it chin high. Looking down, I saw mostly ears jutting out from heads. They looked like teacups arranged around a table.
"Jump! Jump!" called the children, bloodthirsty little savages.
"What were you doing in that balloon all alone?" asked Bob Carl, as he made his way upward, hand over hand.
"I was taking my flight test."
"I would say offhand you flunked," he said, viewing the wreckage above me. My feet were going to sleep.
The lumber arrived in due course, was sawed into two-by-six planks and roped up, plank by plank, to Carl and Bauman, who nailed them to my tree and an adjoining one.
"Keep talking," said Carl, "so I'll know if you faint." I would not dream of fainting at a height of 70 feet.
"Where am I?" I asked. The FAA will forgive me, I hope, for not getting out my map and plotting my course.
"This is Greenville, about 25 miles from Albany," said Carl. That meant, at roughly 25 miles per hour, I had traveled some 50 miles from my point of departure. Even Hughes had never gone more than 31 miles in a single flight. I had probably set a distance record for a solo test. I might even be eligible for Ballooning magazine's "lead balloon" award at the end of the year, an honor given to the balloonist who makes the worst landing.
"What is the population of Greenville?" I asked, thinking it wise to keep up the chatter.
"Just look down and count. We're all here," said Carl. "Keep talking."
"I'm embarrassed to cause you all so much trouble," I ventured. It had been a two-hour wait for the people below. Carl laughed. "We haven't had so much excitement since the last bear was spotted," he said. Finally the ladder was ready, and, leaning against Ronnie Bauman, I crept down, plank by plank. When I reached the last plank there was still 30 feet to go.
"Want to jump?" asked Carl. The children looked expectant. The teacups around the net braced themselves. I looked down into a vast sea of upturned faces.
"I don't think so," I said. Carl and Bauman made rope slings, one for around each leg and another around my body and under the armpits. Carl lowered me, dangling, to the ground. As I touched down, a cheer went up.
It took Hughes two days to get the balloon out of the tree, after which it was sent to Raven headquarters in South Dakota to have its fabric stitched. I was taken off to a hospital in Catskill, N.Y. I don't know how many stitches the balloon required. I got 24.
I did not, after all, pilot a balloon in the race at Highland, but I may go on to get my license anyway, if I can ever pass the written exam and if the tycoon can weather another of my flight tests. There is much to be settled between me and the balloon.
"There will be no more solos for a while," said Hughes, who arrived in Greenville as I was being dangled down on a rope. There was some talk by the state police about issuing me a parking ticket, but no one knew exactly how to write it up, and it has never arrived.
"The next time," said the tycoon, when we got together later, "we'll track you like Apollo, supply you with a portable telephone, and have you followed by helicopter."
In the meantime, I've been grounded. It's the only way to fly.