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Across the Land on Hot Air
Donald Jackson
February 13, 1967
Balloonist Tracy Barnes called it the closest thing to bird's flight, but his bird kept falling to earth
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February 13, 1967

Across The Land On Hot Air

Balloonist Tracy Barnes called it the closest thing to bird's flight, but his bird kept falling to earth

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They found Barnes on the third day, idling in a mountain meadow near Walden, Colo., balloon intact. He had passed the time downing Nutrament, a liquid food substitute, and munching the sunflower seeds he had brought along for just such an emergency.

On June 26 he drifted into Nebraska. Coming in for a landing just north of Broadwater, he spotted a tiny grove of trees looming uncertainly up on the great prairie. Good place to camp, he said to himself, and aimed Firefly 90 for a point just short of the trees. He turned the burner off, cooling the air in the balloon, and eased down lower, lower, until—boink—he snagged a dead branch. "It was the only grove of trees within 100 miles," the ill-starred aeronaut moped, "and I hit it."

Across the Midwest his progress was steady. Spalding, Nebraska. Holstein, Iowa. Gilmore City, Iowa. Marshall-town, Iowa. The towns fairly flew by beneath him. At Rock Island, Ill., he was reported as an unidentified flying object. Then came Milford, Ind.

Firefly 90 bounced down on the Bud Felkner farm outside of Milford at about 8 o'clock one morning. "Within 30 minutes a guy showed up wanting to sell tickets to see the balloon," Barnes says. "The proceeds were to go to the local American Legion Ladies' Auxiliary Chorus, which had just won the state competition. They needed $500 to go to Washington for the national finals. I said, 'Why not?' So they charged 25[�] a person. By 9 o'clock people started to show up, and there was a girl selling tickets." By 4 that afternoon, when Barnes drifted up and out of their lives as eerily as he had enriched them, the ladies of Milford were $80 closer to their goal.

He made it into Ohio on the next jump and into Pennsylvania on the one after that. Then, once again—boink.

"I couldn't find a place to come down," he recalls. "It was too hilly and wooded. I was running out of fuel, when finally I saw the Allegheny River coming up. It looked like the only safe place to land in miles." It wasn't.

He hit the river all right, to the astonishment of an assortment of boaters, fishermen and fish, but he also hit the Tarentum-New Kensington Bridge. "There was a guard rail on top of a foundation piling. The balloon snagged on a corner of the railing and tore. The gondola just sort of tipped over in the water and I swam out. Two guys in an outboard pulled me out."

But he was on the homestretch now. By straining his nostrils he could almost smell the ocean. From Tarentum he sailed east to Allemans, claiming a hot-air-balloon altitude record of 28,585 feet along the way ("at that height," he informed the press, "you can't whistle").

Firefly 90, however, had one more boink in its kit, and it turned out to be its last. Coming down in a field west of Wrightsville, Pa., Barnes caught a down-draft and struck some power lines. The balloon bounced against the wires and caught fire. Ever calm, Barnes waited for the gondola to settle, then leaped out and began a frantic search for water. But, alas, the lines he had ripped were those which powered the water supply, and he could only stand in abject gloom while his faithful old red-and-white companion blazed away. "I felt so helpless. I was 100 miles from my destination, and I just had to watch it burn. At that point I was really afraid the whole thing was over with."

But a day later his resolution shored up again, he sent to South Carolina for a replacement—Big White by name—and in the colorless substitute he glided off from the Wrightsville ball park five days later. The Wrightsville flight took him to Elkton, Md., and on the next morning, Sept. 11, he floated over Delaware Bay and came down on the western edge of the Cape May Peninsula in New Jersey.

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