The sport of ballooning conveys a dreamy image to those innocents who stand on the ground and watch. To them, it is obviously an activity designed for lazy summer afternoons. One imagines the meadows and corn fields passing slowly beneath the gondola as the aeronauts drift along, the silence broken only by the pop of champagne corks. All of which is true in many cases. It is with long-distance ballooning that a harsher reality emerges—and no endeavor is as coldly real as an attempt to cross the Atlantic. Until last week nobody had ever made it.
Even in summer the winds are capricious enough to create hazards aloft, and the seas below can be the wildest in the world. Since 1958, five balloonists have died in the 11 attempts to cross the Atlantic. In 1970 Rod and Pamela Anderson and Malcolm Brighton set off aboard Free Life and were never seen again. In February 1974 Thomas Gatch disappeared with his cluster of 10 helium balloons. Most recently, in August 1974, Bob Berger set out from Barnegat Bay, N.J., crashed in the ocean and was killed. In the eight other tries the balloonists literally fell short, the closest attempt coming last month when two British balloonists went down 117 miles off the French coast. And then, on Friday, Aug. 11, up, up and away went Double Eagle.
Perhaps no team of balloonists has ever been better prepared or better advised than the three company presidents and pals from Albuquerque, Ben Abruzzo, 48, Maxie Anderson, 44, and Larry Newman, 30. Abruzzo and Anderson also had the sobering experience of having tried once before and failed: last summer they had ditched off the coast of Iceland.
But this time the aeronauts had lined up the most sophisticated communications system ever seen in this seat-of-the-pants sport. Usually, Atlantic crossings—by balloons, yachts, rowboats or whatever, and always from west to east because of prevailing winds—rely on overflying aircraft to radio positions back home. Abruzzo, Anderson and Newman were hooked into a Nimbus 6 satellite, which transmitted their exact latitude and longitude to Goddard Space Center in Washington, D.C. They backed up that system with a private Learjet, with messages from commercial airliners, low-frequency radio reports and, at times, ham radio operators.
August 27, 1978
And then there was Double Eagle II. The rig cost some $70,000 of the $125,000 expedition budget. The principal feature of the rig was a black-and-silver nylon envelope rising 11 stories above a twin-hulled gondola-boat. The gondola itself was small, 6½ feet by 6 feet. "It's a closet if you stand it upright," says Anderson. Filled with 160,000 cubic feet of helium, the envelope was 65 feet in diameter, with the top portion painted silver to reflect the sunlight and stabilize the expansion of helium as it heated. (A helium balloon is far different from the hot-air variety. The latter is lifted as a propane burner heats air in the envelope and is for short hops only. Helium balloons, inflated with the lighter-than-air gas, are for long distances; control, such as it is, is accomplished by ballasting.)
The way Abruzzo, Anderson and Newman had it figured, Double Eagle II would not touch down on the first available European soil. They wanted to really nail down a world record by sailing across Ireland, across Wales, southern England and on into France, fetching up at Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris, where Charles Lindbergh had ended his Atlantic crossing in 1927. With that in mind, they put a No. 50 on the balloon to mark the 50th anniversary of the Spirit of St. Louis flight.
Perhaps the most important factor in the adventure was Weather Services Corp. of New Bedford, Mass., which the balloonists retained. Its chief meteorologist, Bob Rice, says that meteorologists know less about their subject than any other scientists—and then dispels that image with a series of rapid-fire analyses. "Most flights fail because they deviate to the north or south," he says. "The biggest fear is of an Azores high, which can grab a balloon and drift it south between the Azores and Portugal; the craft would continue south and west and never recover. So you look for a pattern that is going to minimize the Azores influence and also protect you from any push to the north, such as a mid-Atlantic storm can bring about. You need exactly the right components in a constantly changing weather pattern."
While the aeronauts were parked in a clover field at Presque Isle, Maine, Rice set up his weather watch in New Bedford, and on Aug. 11 the components came together. "You think of storms as villains," Rice says, "but a storm system developed southeast of Greenland, which was ideal for us. We felt the storm would track slowly at 12 to 15 knots instead of the usual 25 to 30, which meant that the balloonists could stay with it long enough, probably, to get across." He flashed the word. Coordinator Jim Mitchell says, "The crew wasn't exactly shot out of a gun when the call came, but they sure were bundled up and pushed through the door."
At 5:35 p.m. Double Eagle started to inflate, its silver crest rising slowly in the air like the wrapper of a giant candy bar while the black nylon body trembled under the noise of the helium being released under pressure from tanks. The crew clambered aboard and, two hours behind schedule, took off. There was one agonizing dip afer 3,000 yards, but then the Double Eagle stabilized itself and shot upward on a northerly course for New Brunswick. Loaded into the gondola with the balloonists were 600 pounds of lead and 5,450 pounds of sand for ballast.
The 5,000 or so who were on hand for the takeoff were suitably impressed, with one exception. That was Merle Sprague, who had rented his clover field to the balloonists for $100 after Anderson had knocked at his door one day to ask about it. Sprague, who has two cows and grows hay, clover and vegetables, cast a dour New England eye on the proceedings. "Something always happens and it probably will now," he said. Someone pointed out that Sprague would become part of history if the flight succeeded. "I don't think it will," he said. In fact, his main concern was the clover patch being trampled by the most folks since John F. Kennedy had campaigned there in 1960. The more he thought about it, the more Sprague reckoned that he had rented it too cheaply. (He was later to relent and allow that it was worth it; he said his clover field had put Presque Isle on the map.)
By Saturday morning Double Eagle had crossed Prince Edward Island, although, as happens with Atlantic attempts, most of the world was blissfully unaware of the flight. By Monday evening, Aug. 14, the balloon was sailing along some 600 miles northeast of St. John's, Newfoundland, with Abruzzo, Anderson and Newman suffering the sting of intense cold in the open gondola. (On their previous attempt, Abruzzo had developed severe frostbite and had vowed never to take such a foolhardy trip again.) Meanwhile, a new storm system had developed east of Newfoundland, right behind them. And by late Tuesday came perhaps the most crucial decision of the flight.
"We felt strongly that they needed to get to a higher altitude," says Rice. "We figured if they continued low, at about 13,500 feet, they would get themselves into a westerly system; they were too close to the storm. At the same time, we realized that it would be very difficult for them to maintain themselves at 21,000 to 23,000 feet in subzero Fahrenheit temperatures, even though there would be no wind sensation since they would be traveling at wind speed. And we also knew that up there in their own little micro-climate the natural inclination would be for them to drop to a more comfortable altitude. So that was it. We radioed them, figuring that even if we didn't get them they would probably reach the same decision on their own, since we had gone over this point several times."
The message got through, and up went Double Eagle. "It was the difference between 40 Fahrenheit and minus 16," says Anderson, "and, oh, how you shiver. We had learned from going into the ocean on our first flight that you don't wear down-filled clothes; they soak up the water if you have to ditch. So it was wool or cellulose. We happened to be wearing, it's ironic, Icelandic sweaters."
The three balloonists were the kind of ethnically mixed team that delighted the makers of World War II movies. Abruzzo is the ebullient Italian who bubbles over with conversation. Anderson is the Nordic, quiet-spoken and reserved. Newman is the young Jewish lad who is a must in every such cast. In the true movie-script spirit, their wives had packed olives for Abruzzo to munch on, sardines for Anderson ("You have to remember to wipe off your mouth before you put on your oxygen mask") and bagels and lox for Newman.
All of which went overboard when Rice flashed the alert to climb. "It isn't the simple 'chuck some lead over the side' operation that you might think," says Anderson. "When the sun goes down, or the balloon drifts into a cloud, the helium contracts inside the envelope, the balloon loses lift and it descends. You must throw over the appropriate amount of ballast to control the drop. The procedure takes as long as two hours because we have to do it cautiously, by feel. After all, it's the only way we have of navigating. During the two hours of nightly ballasting we were so busy there was very little talk."
And then came Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 16, with Double Eagle almost 120 hours out of Merle Sprague's clover patch. They were at 21,000 feet over the Atlantic, drifting at a lovely 14 knots toward the coast of Ireland. They had already beaten the continuous flight-time record of 107½ hours set in 1976 by Ed Yost of Sioux Falls, S. Dak., another Atlantic adventurer who had ultimately ditched 700 miles off Portugal. And by their reckoning, the crossing would be achieved by 7:30 p.m. At that moment they hit the cold sink.
A cold sink sounds like an evil entity out of Tolkien. For balloonists, it is, in fact, evil enough; the cold mass into which the balloon drifts obscures the sun and causes the craft to lose its heating capability. Altitude is lost, both suddenly and dangerously. Anderson recalls how beautiful the cloud deck looked as they hit it. "The afternoon sun was shining right on it. But then it was as if we had suddenly gone into a whirlpool. The balloon came right down from 22,000 feet—maybe it could have been as high as 24,000 feet at the time—to 4,000 feet. We thought it was all over. In fact, if we had penetrated the cloud deck, if we had sunk right through it, that would have been the end of the flight. We would have been held there in the shadow and we couldn't have risen again. We would have gone into the ocean. But there was an open spot in the cloud deck—one open spot—and we hit it. Even at that, we had to grab hammers and axes; we almost ripped the gondola apart to reduce weight. We had already thrown over most of our sand and lead ballast; now we tore everything out of the gondola. We threw our sleeping bags out; everything. As we plummeted down, we were all scared stiff."
Two hours elapsed before the envelope picked up enough heat from the sun to raise them to a safer altitude. And then, when darkness came, the equipment started to ice. But at 10 p.m. Eagle was over Ireland and history had been made.
When the balloon reached the Irish coast, sailing along in the darkness, the news media, indifferent at the start of the crossing, were beginning to respond. In fact, the whole world woke up to the adventure. At dawn next morning, when Double Eagle reached the coast of south Wales, thousands of people were waiting for it. Now brought down to 11,000 feet, it was clearly visible through the early morning light. Ken Barnett, an auxiliary coastguardsman at Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, spotted it at 5:30 a.m. "It looked strange," he said, "a silver ball in the sky, like an inverted pear. It was a beautiful morning. The rising sun made the silver glow red and pink."
Double Eagle continued sailing along across the Bristol Channel and southern England. More thousands, many still in their nightclothes, came out to watch it floating south. A British Airways Concorde radioed a welcome. As the balloon crossed the French coast at Le Havre, local radio programs were interrupted by messages broadcast from the balloon, and the aeronauts' three wives, who had been waiting in London, flew alongside waving hello from a light aircraft. The spirit of Lindbergh was much invoked. At Deauville, racegoers at the horse track trained their binoculars on Double Eagle II as the bailoonists tried to make up their minds whether or not to land there. They decided to press on.
It was 4:30 p.m., and the possibility of reaching Le Bourget was on their minds. By this point even the electronic gear had been jettisoned, except for one radio; all the computing equipment they had used on the way over was gone, even Larry Newman's hang glider, on which he had planned to make a final descent. A little food, some water and a few bags of ballast sand was all that was left.
"We tried to vector them into Paris using different wind levels," Bob Rice says, "but we just ran out of time. That was only the frosting on the cake, anyway." Now, as the three balloonists tried to make their final objective, they dumped the last of the ballast sand over Route Nationale 13, which was already jammed with cars tracking them. And finally, at 7:49 p.m. last Thursday evening, they gently settled in the middle of Mme. Rachel Coquerel's wheat field at Miserey, near Evreuz, some 60 miles northwest of Paris.
It is safe to say that the Coquerels were about the only folks in France not entirely delighted by the touchdown. Surveying her trampled wheat, 3½ acres of it ripe for harvesting, Mme. Coquerel said, "How can I put this nicely? Who is going to compensate us for our wheat?" And as she wondered, the balloonists clambered out of the gondola to be surrounded by a crowd so hysterical that some even used their teeth to tear away souvenir fragments of Double Eagle II.
The roads surrounding Miserey had been clogged for half an hour before the landing. "As we came down," says Abruzzo, "the sun was shining, and all around were fields, beautiful fields, with thousands of people pouring into them. As soon as we touched ground, we were surrounded. I was pleased and satisfied to be on the ground but I was sad, too. We wanted to make Le Bourget, but the winds just weren't favorable. We were only 50 miles short. But we did cover 3.000 miles or so in six days, we set the world distance record and we crossed the Atlantic. We can't complain."
Maxie Anderson says, "There was no problem about the landing itself, only about the spectators. They were crazy. They were more excited than we were. They just rushed on top of the balloon and started to tear it to pieces. I suppose there is nothing left of it now. We were nearly crushed to death in the crowd. We had to fight our way through, and the French army helicopter that picked us up only cleared them away by starting its engine. We're not complaining, though. We're delighted everyone is so happy and we're delighted to be back on the ground. It makes so much difference to the way you feel. We took turns sleeping, but there was damn little room. It was so cold that no one could sleep very long in case he froze to death."
By the time the helicopter arrived there were already 5,000 Frenchmen in Mme. Coquerel's wheat (Horrifically for her, there is now a suggestion that a monument be erected in the middle of the field. Is there no respect anywhere for growing crops?). The next stop was French customs at Le Bourget, where the three men discovered that somehow their passports were missing, either tossed overboard with the ballast or lost in the brouhaha at Miserey. The technicality was overlooked; the U.S. Embassy indicated it would issue them passports.
The three aeronauts and their wives were quartered in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador on the rue du Faubourg St. Honorè—where Larry Newman pulled the short straw to decide who would sleep in the bed occupied by Charles Lindbergh 50 years before.
The frenzy of "Le Ballon" continued in Paris over the weekend. Bartenders invented cocktails for the occasion, with one popular balloonists bomb containing one part vodka, one part Grand Marnier, a shot of bourbon and a dash of grenadine, all flamed with cognac. (Not to be outdone, Ned's El Portal Lounge back in Albuquerque offered a Double Eagle Special: rum, peach brandy, Galliano and a dash of cream.)
To hear the folks in Albuquerque tell it, they had been confident all along. A local seer calling himself Agonistes Ramu said that he had conjured a "picturization" of the three men crossing the Atlantic and landing "with all the people shouting their hurrahs." In particular, he pointed out, Abruzzo was in just the right cycle. And New Mexico Governor Jerry Apodaca declared lavishly, "Through your gallant efforts you have set a record in the great tradition of the conquistadores who centuries ago ventured out conquering new frontiers."
More fun is planned for the heroes' return, including a ticker-tape parade in Albuquerque, although nobody is entirely sure where the ticker tape is going to come from or how it is going to be showered down from a dizzy height, a near impossibility in a city where the buildings are mostly two-story adobe structures.
The balloonists would not be heading home for a few days at least, although when they do they will move fast, having accepted a free trip aboard an Air France Concorde. And now they have other plans. The idea came to Abruzzo in the middle of the night on Thursday, when you would have expected him to be deeply asleep. How about circumnavigating the world by balloon à la Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg? Thirty days is what it should take, he reckons. Anderson is not entirely dismissive. "All great projects start as ideas," he points out.
"Ces merveilleux fous volants," Figaro called them last week: those marvelous flying idiots. Around the world? They're just crazy enough to make it.