Anyone who has followed Senior Writer Coles Phinizy's career may question the wisdom of assigning him to cover the first World Hot-Air Ballooning Championship (page 28). Not that Coles isn't knowledgeable on the subject, or lacks enthusiasm. When he talks about flying he tends to soar and swoop a bit himself, threatening at times to vanish over the horizon. No, the problem is that Coles and air don't mix, and there is ample evidence around Phinizy's office to support this maxim: a smoke-blackened seat-belt buckle, a barograph chart graphically depicting a 4,200-foot fall, charred camera parts. And when Phinizy is asked whether he has been involved in any as yet unreported aerial disasters—thus excluding the small-plane-into-a-clump-of-Georgia-pines one, the midair-crackup-of-two-light-planes-on-takeoff-from-a-Mexican-jungle-airstrip one, the parachuting-in to-"a-large-body-of-water"-on-a-classified-mission one, and the 4,200-foot-drop-into-a-New-Jersey-barley-field-when-the-balloon-in-which-he-was-riding-burst one—he answers, "Well, I've scratched off two doubles, you know."
Eventually the meaning of this gnomic response becomes clear: not only has Phinizy experienced all the aforementioned falls from the air, but twice in his 18 years as writer-photographer-editor for SI he has happened to cancel his reservations on flights that went down in two-plane collisions. One of those crashes was in 1956 over the Grand Canyon, the other in 1961 over New York's East River.
For most anecdotists, two brushes with spectacular death would be material enough. When Phinizy tells the stories, however, he manages to work in many incidental disclosures: that he dropped the only three passes ever thrown to him at Harvard, that a great balloonist once chewed out a passenger for spitting in flight "because it changed the buoyancy," that there are 200 to 250 hot-air balloons in the United States today and two in Ireland and two in Finland ("I've got the figures right here"), and that the late Mike Todd could be an unmannerly man. Todd, who was inspired by a 1955 SI cover picture illustrating a Phinizy ballooning story to include balloon sequences in Around the World in Eighty Days, once invited Coles to a big dinner party and then asked him—"right in the middle of the main course, we were through the shrimp"—to leave his seat—"right across from Liz Taylor, I had a great shot of her bosom, just missing the centerpiece"—and move down to the foot of the table to make room for a late-arriving "bald-headed Henry J. Kaiser."
Phinizy figured he had made enough descents in his life already and was not about to be demoted at a table by Mike Todd. He walked out of the dinner.
March 5, 1973
In next week's issue, Phinizy—to make the kind of narrative leap he is himself inclined to risk in conversation—will report on a feisty female in the world of aerobatics. This is a competition in which a small plane is flown through a vertiginous series of maneuvers. In six or so minutes of flying the pilot is right side up for only two. Like ballooning, it is a subject with the kind of ups and downs and ins and outs nobody can get a better reading on than Phinizy.