"I told him
about my plan to cross the Channel, and he told me about his flights and his
attempt to cross the Irish Sea. Then he got on the phone and started calling
the right people to make my flight come off.
invited me to his home and I had dinner with his family. His house was filled
with trophies, plus all kinds of silver saucers and plaques. Driving back to
London that night, I really felt great. I mean, I wasn't the only nut in the
world." It was their last meeting. Four weeks ago Malcolm Brighton and
Rodney and Pamela Anderson were lost in the North Atlantic attempting to cross
from the United States to France in a combined hot-air and helium balloon that
they had named Free Life.
Baum thinks he
understands what drove Brighton to attempt a trip that many viewed as reckless.
"The feeling of crossing an ocean or channel like a cloud, at the mercy of
all the elements, and seeing land getting closer and finally skimming the last
few hundred yards, is unique. That feeling is what he was after. People still
say the idea was crazy, but it wasn't. He wasn't, and the Andersons weren't.
They were trying to find the free life."
With some of the
basic problems connected with his proposed Channel flight out of the way, Baum
turned to money matters. Needing $850, he did what anyone who owned a balloon
and was short of money would do: he phoned Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones
and asked him to sponsor the flight. Jagger invited Baum down to his estate,
Star Groves, to discuss it. After short exposure to Baum, the Stones were
persuaded that ballooning across to France was a groove trip. Jagger broke out
As he left London
for Dover on April 14, Baum felt an intense excitement—about as much as anyone
might feel who was about to cross the Channel on nothing but hot air. This was
the acid test. British newspapers and television caught the excitement. It was
the time of the imperiled Apollo 13 moon flight, and Britons seemed to sense
both the parallel and the contrast between the two adventures. An English
balloonist, Mark Westwood, joined Baum for the trip.
The weather, with
a keen sense of drama, cooperated. It was bad in the classic English fashion:
overcast, fog, mist, drizzle and rain. Five days after finishing elaborate
preparations, Baum and Westwood were still waiting. The rescue boats and the
volunteers to drive them had redispersed all over England. The media had gotten
bored. Rented and borrowed equipment was due to be returned, hard-to-get
insurance was expiring and cash was low. The air controllers, coast guard and
Royal Air Force were getting tired of warning all aircraft and ships at sea to
look for a blue and yellow balloon.
morning, April 19. Just like D-Day. Weather improves momentarily, although
thunderstorms are closing in. Wind is right. Baum says, "We go." He
calls the Rolling Stones, waking them all up. A couple of last-minute details
have been overlooked. Nobody told British Customs that the balloonists were
leaving, and passports have to be stamped. The only thing worse than explaining
to a British civil servant that, yes, you are leaving the country in a balloon
is explaining to a French Customs man that, yes, you have arrived in his
country in a balloon—and without proper papers.
flotation ring had not been filled. Try to imagine dashing into a small Kentish
petrol station with a 14-foot rubber doughnut on a Sunday morning and yelling,
"Quick, quick, I've got to fill this with your air hose because I need it
to fly across the Channel." The attendant, as it happened, was a woman. She
refused, and wouldn't even let Baum use the hand pump.
and Westwood got everything assembled and made ready to venture out over a
notorious stretch of water, in the face of a lightning storm, under a buoyant
bubble that was dependent on five hours of extinguishable flame. They waited
for a pause in the wind; otherwise the incoming sea breeze would dash the
balloon against the famous 300-foot white cliffs. Then Baum burned at full
throttle for eight seconds. The balloon rose rapidly to 3,200 feet, drifting
inland over the flat green Kent countryside in the breeze and trailing a banner
reading HUMILITY ("because there's so little of it around"). A cheer
came from 300 Britons hastily assembled below. The burner roared for five more
seconds, the balloonists lifted to 4,000 feet, and the prevailing northwesterly
nudged them toward Calais. Excerpts from Baum's notes describe what happened
Channel is lit up like a giant silver river. It's the English coastline now
that has become a faint hazy outline. Ships pass below us, tugs and tankers
headed for Ostend, car ferries between Dover and Calais, each ship like a small
toy spreading its shimmering wake a mile long.