At a recent hot-air balloon race near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., publisher-sportsman Malcolm S. Forbes, 55, set his red and gold, lighter-than-air craft down on a fairway of a local golf course and climbed out of the basket to learn he had won first place in the "hare and hounds" event. Crowds of the curious, who always materialize when a hot-air balloon drifts into view, swarmed around, offering congratulations and asking questions of the tall, trim man in gold slacks and a red shirt with a patch reading "Forbes Balloon Ascension Division," an outfit exactly matching those of the half a dozen crewmen who had followed his flight in a Mercedes bus and were now dismantling the basket and rolling up the collapsed balloon.
As paunchy tourists in Bermuda shorts snapped Instamatics and a local reporter jockeyed for position with an aging, bikini-clad blonde, Forbes squinted behind thick-lensed glasses and stood patiently answering questions. He explained that in this type of race several balloons—the hounds—chase an advance balloon—the hare—and the hound that lands closest to the hare wins; that the fuel used in the burners is propane; that there is no steering mechanism on a balloon; that the only directions the pilot controls are up and down. By the time he reached this point the balloon was stowed in the Mercedes and the crowd was beginning to thin. A well-dressed middle-aged woman worked her way to Forbes' side.
"Tell me," she asked, "does the old gentleman still fly?" Forbes looked blank for a moment. "You know," the woman said, "the one who flew across the country in a balloon."
"Oh him!" Forbes said, chuckling. "He must be close to 100 by now."
December 16, 1974
While the boys in red shirts and gold pants collapsed with laughter, someone whispered to the woman that the "old gentleman" was Forbes.
As to whether or not he still flies, the answer is: higher than ever, literally and figuratively. Sometime between Christmas and the New Year he is going to climb into a gondola suspended from a cluster of balloons and soar heavenward some 40,000 feet into the jet stream that will, he hopes, carry him across the Atlantic to Europe, thus making his the first manned balloon flight ever to complete the crossing.
For more than a hundred years balloonists have tried to make such a crossing and failed, many losing their lives in the effort, but each failure has made the dream of success more enticing. "If you are into ballooning," Forbes says, "this is the ultimate trip."
In 1972 Forbes saw a sign advertising balloon rides while on the drive to his Manhattan office from his home in New Jersey.
"It sounded like a cool idea," he says, "so I talked my chauffeur into going up with me. The next thing we knew we had both signed up for lessons."
Since then, Forbes has participated in every major balloon race in the U.S., established the world's first Museum of Ballooning, acquired more than a dozen hot-air balloons—several of them valued in excess of $25,000—and last year became the first person to cross the continental U.S. in a single balloon. En route he set six world records, in addition to wiping out a row of parked cars ("How do you explain to the insurance man," said one victim, "that you were hit by a balloon?") and narrowly escaping what might have been a fatal collision with high-power lines. "Fortunately we shorted out the power on the initial contact," Forbes says. By the time his balloon, Chateau de Balleroy, named after the castle that he owns in Normandy, finally splashed down in Chesapeake Bay, Malcolm Forbes was almost as familiar to Americans as Evel Knievel.
Needless to say, Malcolm Forbes the promoter, publicist and pitchman had as much to do with this as Malcolm Forbes the balloonist. With all the resources of Forbes Magazine and Forbes Inc. at his disposal (he is sole stockholder of both), he had inundated the press, radio and TV networks with P.R. kits, films and advance men all touting the wonders of the epic cross-country flight.
The promotion was obvious, but the public loved it. Above the plains and across the prairies, over the mountains of Wyoming and the farmlands of Nebraska, the great, graceful silhouette floated through the sky, bringing with it magic and adventure, frivolity and joy. People everywhere laughed and waved, vicariously soaring with Forbes above the clouds. And wherever the balloon touched down, traffic would come to a standstill. Children were released from school, shops closed, housewives left their laundry for a glimpse of the big man in the flashy flight suit. Resplendent in a fur parka, red leather pants and black calf-high boots, he was Captain Marvel in the flesh.
No one in the almost 200 years that men have been flying balloons has put the sport more squarely on the front pages. The introduction of new synthetic fabrics, making possible production of relatively low-cost balloons, started a small ballooning renaissance in the mid-1960s, but it was not until Forbes' flight that it really began to flourish. Balloon clubs sprang up all over the country, the number of balloons in use quadrupled, schools and instructors found themselves with more business than they could handle. And Forbes found himself thinking about other horizons to conquer. The logical one was the Atlantic.
"It never has been done," he says, "but everything indicates that it can be."
Whether he succeeds or not, one thing is certain: few ego trips will have logged more altitude and mileage. The conventional hot-air balloon in which he bounced and bounded from sea to shining sea has been replaced by Windborne, and, surrounded by scientific equipment, complex communications systems, official-sounding agencies, legions of engineers and space technologists, Malcolm Forbes is the command pilot of a space-age aerostatic creation straight out of Buck Rogers.
There are legitimate justifications for the astronomical expenditures of money, energy and time involved in what is offically dubbed Forbes Magazine's Atlantic Project. On the scientific side, the unique design of the craft will permit a variety of new atmospheric measurements. On the sporting side, at least two world records currently held by Germany, those for distance and duration, are expected to be broken. Economically, the publicity for Forbes and the various enterprises of Forbes Inc. is incalculable.
But over and above all this, Forbes wants to be first. This is his bid for a place in history, his chance at a kind of immortality. It is also his chance, once and for all, to shake the shadow of his father that still falls, though ever more faintly, across his path.
In the foreward to his book Fact & Comment, published by Knopf earlier this year, Malcolm Forbes writes: "Through sheer ability (spelled i-n-h-e-r-i-t-a-n-c-e) I have become Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Magazine...." He then goes on for 296 pages to comment on the art of writing, foreign travel, doctors, politics, wives, movie stars, cars, pets, charge accounts, films, college exams, Congress and just about anything else that has taken his fancy over the years. It has all appeared at one time or another in the two-page feature he writes twice monthly for Forbes, and it is apparent that a fringe benefit of owning his own magazine is that nobody blue-pencils his copy. His work is sprinkled with malapropisms, grammatical errors, made-up words, outrageous opinions and even more outrageous puns. All of which make it some of the most entertaining reading around these days—Hubert Humphrey once called Forbes the Bob Hope of business publications. "My father always said business was originated to produce happiness," Forbes himself observes, "and I took him at his word. I suspect that my antics and activities since taking over the magazine [upon his father's death in 1954] have kept the old man twirling in his grave ever since."
The self-deprecation is only partly genuine, a pet ploy of Forbes' that nobody takes very seriously. Nobody can, considering the growth of the magazine. Forbes did indeed inherit the business, a minuscule one in terms of its scope and success today, but he brought to it an imagination and ingenuity that transformed a lethargic publishing company of limited circulation to what is virtually an international empire.
Journalistically, Forbes was born to the trade. His father, a longtime financial columnist for Hearst, started the magazine in 1917, two years before Malcolm's birth. B. C. Forbes was the epitome of the tight-fisted Scotsman; in his later years a millionaire several times over, he boasted of never having spent more than $55 on a suit.
"The real reason he started the magazine," Forbes says, "was that he could not stand wasting any items he could not fit into his newspaper column."
The third of five sons, Malcolm at 14 was putting out his own newspaper, The City of Dunc News. "A five-cent weekly," he says. "It reported the happenings of a cardboard and cellophane city that my brother Gordon and I constructed in the basement of our Englewood [N.J.] home. The town had a population of 250 lead people, about 60 toothpick automobiles and several factories. Every evening we became part of that town, living out its activities and problems. It really came alive to us." That same year Forbes won first prize in the school district for an essay on fire prevention; was Student Council President of Englewood Junior High; was voted most humorous, best-dressed and best host; and became editor of The Scout Eagle, the first of three Eagles he edited, for the Boy Scouts, the Hackley School and Lawrenceville. "My journalistic outpourings at Lawrenceville extended so far into the night," he recalls, "that at the request of my roommates I finally wrote home for a noiseless typewriter."
From Lawrenceville, Forbes went on to Princeton. There he founded a literary magazine, was president of Elm, won letters in boxing and gymnastics, graduated with honors from the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs and was awarded the university's gold medal for "having done the most for Princeton as an undergraduate."
"I then had the choice of going to work for my father or doing something on my own," Forbes says. "The latter was infinitely more appealing, so I borrowed the money to purchase a small weekly newspaper in Lancaster, Ohio."
Those who knew him during this period remember him as an indefatigable worker who spent days, nights and weekends at the paper, living on $15 a week. In December 1942, having been turned down by the Marines, the Navy and three times by the Army because of bad eyesight, he was finally reclassified and accepted as a private in the infantry. For the next two years he continued to send his column, One Fellow's Slant, back to the paper in Ohio, first from training camp, then from battlefields in France, Holland and Germany, and finally from a military hospital where he spent 10 months recovering from combat wounds.
From these columns emerges a young man filled with wonder and curiosity about everyone and everything; a serious, idealistic, introspective young man. There is a poignant, ingenuous quality in his accounts of Army life, in his innocence, in his devotion to the little Ohio town he chose for his stage.
The stage is bigger and the props more spectacular today, but the man has not significantly changed. The curiosity and the eagerness are there still. He remains a restless dreamer, a tireless doer impatient to get on to the next challenge. He continues to immerse himself totally in whatever happens to catch his fancy.
For a period in the 1950s it was politics. "For 10 years," he says, "politics was everything." After a term as borough councilman, he ran for the state legislature, boldly opposing the political machine in Somerset County, N.J. "I rang 18,000 doorbells and was bitten by 13 dogs," Forbes says, "and I won with the largest margin ever recorded."
His whirlwind political style prompted the press to label him "The Fearless Freshman," "Fabulous Forbes," and not infrequently "too big for his britches." In his subsequent unsuccessful bid for the governorship of New Jersey in 1957, he frequently quoted Shakespeare to emphasize the deficiencies of his Democratic opponent. "One day," Forbes says, "I got a postcard in the mail which read, 'Since you are so big on Shakespeare, do you know this one: Thou art an ass'?
"When I lost the race for governor," Forbes adds, in a more serious vein, "I found that the business called for more of my time."
The erstwhile political whirlwind proved a longer-lasting power in business. He currently owns a dozen homes around the world, all showplaces maintained fully staffed, but he rarely spends two consecutive nights in any one of them. His wife of 28 years sees less of him than the pilots of his DC-9, preferring to spend most of her time with the cows and horses on an isolated ranch in Montana. Although he is invariably accompanied by an entourage of photographers, chauffeurs, managers, stewards, general factotums and hangers-on, plus various of his five children and their friends, few are his contemporaries or his equals in accomplishment. Essentially he is a loner, as he has always been, and books are his most intimate friends.
Nevertheless, when his sons became interested in motorcycling, he took up the sport with them. As the bills began to mount, he characteristically figured out the way to cut costs—he bought a motorcycle shop. Slegers-Forbes Inc., in Whippany, N.J., has since become one of the largest motorcycle centers in the world. In 1969 Forbes made a 1,000-mile bike trip to northern Quebec and back, extolling the joys of the leather-jacket life all the way. His complete engrossment with the trip was typical of the intensity Forbes brings to any project he undertakes, and at the moment there are several dozen around the globe. He also has the knack of attracting talented, dedicated people who invariably end up sharing his commitment. "If you found two or three people who were bored in our entire company," says Linda Dunklau, one of Forbes' two personal secretaries, "it would be surprising. The employees really feel like members of the Forbes family."
It is a big family and a diversified one, including the biologist who runs Forbes' Colorado game ranch, the architects who are rebuilding Zane Grey's old fishing camp in Tahiti, the cattlemen who operate his Montana, ranch, the businessman who is supervising construction of his conference center in Bali, the curators of his Victorian art and Fabergé jewel collections, the captain of his 116-foot yacht, the managers of his 196-square-mile subdivision in the Rockies, of his copra plantation in the Fiji Islands, of his palace in Tangiers, of his castle in Normandy, and of the restoration of his Old Battersea House in London. All of these people rank among the best in their fields, and Forbes' ability to absorb and assimilate through them the myriad facets of all these operations astonishes many of his associates.
It is more understandable when one recognizes that Forbes is the consummate collector. "Collecting," he says, "is like education. There is an unending horizon if you really get turned on."
As for ballooning, not everybody in that fraternity is amused by the swath Forbes has cut through the sport. Bob Hilton, of the International Professional Balloon Pilots Racing Association, becomes apoplectic at the mention of the Atlantic flight. "It's a travesty," he says, "an insult to the sport and to serious balloonists." Others point out that the coast-to-coast flight was supported by a ground crew of some 30 people, plus an airplane, a bus, several cars, a motor home and extensive electronic equipment. The fact that Forbes spent most nights in motels and three times flew home for weekends arouses further ire. Forbes is nonplussed by such criticism.
"The reason my flight succeeded and others failed," he says, "can be summed up in one word: money. The flight could never have been made without ground support such as I had. I was willing to pay for it. Nobody else has been."
Certainly this is the key to the Atlantic crossing. Nobody, until Forbes, has had the combination of money and inclination necessary to marshal the vast technological resources such a venture demands. The dean of American balloonists, Bob Waligunda of Princeton, at whose school Forbes took a portion of his balloon training in 1972, has long believed such a flight possible.
"There are two ways to cross the Atlantic," Waligunda says. "High and low. Crossing high depends on the jet stream, a pressurized gondola and a sophisticated life-support system. The jet stream is there. Any number of unmanned balloons have crossed successfully in it. The rest is a matter of money.
"Crossing low—at less than 10,000 feet—is another matter. Then the keys are the balloon itself, the pilot and the weather. The balloon must withstand the tremendous beating it will take. The pilot must have enormous experience, stamina and motivation to hang in against the elements. And the weather and the time of year must be exactly right. Even Malcolm Forbes with all his technology can't beat a thunderstorm.
"If you are talking about seat-of-the-pants adventure there is no comparison between the crossings. But the balloon and the man capable of a low crossing have yet to come along. Ballooning is still waiting for its Lindbergh. Forbes' flight is adventure of a different kind. It's a space-age, 2001 kind of odyssey."
Certainly no balloon attempt to cross the Atlantic has had the technological support Forbes has mustered. The latest, most sophisticated resources of the space age have been incorporated into the project. Some of the best scientific minds have contributed their expertise, and federal agencies dealing with wind and atmospheric conditions have lent unprecedented cooperation.
RCA, North American Rockwell, Raven Industries, Garrett and numerous other pioneers of the aerospace industry have dedicated skills over and above those that money can buy, and nothing that money can buy has been overlooked. By the time Forbes is airborne, it is estimated that well over a million dollars will have been directly invested; the amount of indirect investment is impossible to calculate.
To compare Forbes' Windborne to, say, the ill-fated The Free Life, which carried British Balloonist Malcolm Brighton and Americans Rodney and Pamela Anderson to their deaths in an attempt to cross the Atlantic four years ago, is to compare a Ferrari to a three-speed bicycle. Of the six other craft to try the crossing in the last 15 years only Thomas Gatch's doomed Light Heart bore even vague similarities to Windborne. Forbes was there when Gatch took off last February from Harrisburg, Pa. in a fiber-glass gondola suspended from 10 helium-filled balloons. Contact with Gatch was lost the next day, and although he was sighted three days later near the Canary Islands, he was never heard from again.
"There is little likelihood of such a communications failure in Windborne," Forbes says. "Its four-unit computer system is only slightly less sophisticated than the communications systems in a NASA space probe. As in space expeditions, everything is backed up by secondary systems. And by beginning the flight in Southern California instead of from the East Coast we will have all systems operative at least one day over land before proceeding out over water.
"Technical information will be relayed from Windborne to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Virginia via Synchronous Meteorological Satellite, the first non-governmental use of the system to date. Then this information will be sent to RCA's Globcom headquarters in New York City, with raw position data transmitted by Transit satellites that circumnavigate the earth every 90 minutes; all will then be fed into computers to pinpoint Windborne's position to within 20 miles.
"Voice communication will be provided by use of VHF channels over land, and high-frequency maritime and aeronautical radio. Everybody from RCA to AT&T and the FAA, and comparable communications centers in half a dozen foreign countries, will monitor the flight, not to mention our own DC-9."
Like Gatch's Light Heart, Windborne employs a series of helium-filled balloons; in the latter case, 13 instead of 10. Made of .005-inch-thick, high-strength polyester plastic film, each spherical super-pressure balloon is 33 feet in diameter and composed of 29 separate panels heat-bonded together. Although the material looks and feels like the plastic divider in a loose-leaf notebook, its strength has been exhaustively proved in meteorological balloons flown at altitudes of 40,000 to 80,000 feet for more than 700 days.
With a single balloon topping four tiers of three balloons each coupled to the main tether line supporting the gondola, Forbes says, "The malfunction of two, or even three, balloons is possible without detriment to the flight."
The gondola itself is a sphere that measures 7'8" in diameter. It is constructed of .025-inch-thick stretch-formed aluminum surrounded by 2½ inches of insulating material covered by an aluminized plastic film inset with eight¾-inch-thick acrylic windows. "Despite the thin skin," Forbes says, "the gondola's designers estimate that the shell is capable of withstanding stresses eight times those anticipated in this flight."
Inside the gondola, its primary load structure is a single 14-inch-wide mast extending from floor to ceiling and housing the entire battery of communications and life-support systems, including what is considered one of the most advanced air-revitalization units yet developed. The remaining interior space surrounding the control core is about equal to that of a small broom closet. This will be home for five to 10 days or more for Forbes and Dr. Thomas Heinsheimer, the 35-year-old California scientist and super-pressure-balloon expert who will accompany him on the flight.
"Tom has the scientific knowledge and I have the money," Forbes says, "so we consider each other essential."
There will be little room inside the gondola for exercise beyond shifting from standing to sitting to lying down on the cot-like canvas sling provided for each man. But they should not be bored, considering the vast array of complex scientific equipment they must monitor. From the moment Windborne lifts off and is carried into the jet stream until it sets down however many days later—presumably on the other side of the Atlantic—the demands upon both men will be continuous and enormous.
The real question is not whether Windborne can make the trip. The odds are excellent that she will. More pertinent is whether the command pilot can make it.
At 55 Forbes is apparently fit. He exercises daily in the gym that takes up much of a floor of the Forbes Building in New York, and between balloon races he spins around his hometown of Far Hills, N.J. or rides to his New York office on one of his many motorcycles. He still maintains a schedule that would prostrate many half his age, jetting from continent to continent the way others commute between railroad stations. But the pace is beginning to take its toll. His catnaps are more frequent. The limp acquired in World War II is more pronounced with fatigue. He drives himself like a 30-year-old man, but it is 25 years later, and time has not stopped even for Malcolm Forbes.
Moreover, just how well he will withstand the stresses of a period encapsulated in space is the one factor that none of his legions of engineers and scientists can predict: consideration of this human aspect is so conspicuously missing from the reams of material distributed to the press about the flight that the oversight seems almost deliberate. What about physiological and psychological factors?
"No problem at all," Forbes says. "The trip across country was probably far more arduous than this will be. As for mental strain, busyness eliminates most of the psychological stress. Lock me up in an empty cell on Devil's Island and I'd be crackers in 12 hours, but this is entirely different. And you can put up with anything if the rewards are great enough. The sense of achievement here is something we'll be able to measure hourly."
Forbes also brushes aside questions of personal safety, asserting that he is not a daredevil. "The odds of my making it across the Atlantic," he says, "are considerably better than those of a pedestrian making it across Park Avenue at rush hour.
"And besides," he adds, "I like being alive."