draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald when he came to describe his lifelong journey toward self-destruction. And a friend who spends most of his time in front of the tube recalled that Nietzsche had once observed: "A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Ghost." Nietzsche, I think, was about to check into the asylum when he penned that thought. But I ramble—putting off the recounting of that inevitable moment when I decided to learn to fly a hot-air balloon. Indulge me.
What is there in this age of flight
To make me hug the earth so tight?
wrote a poet acquaintance some years ago, in a neat little verse called Daedalus, Stay Away from My Transom! If God had meant us to fly, he would have provided us with wings, intoned yet another ancient philosopher about the time man first took to the skies. Aphorisms pile up like lumber in my mind, so anxious am I to find some wisdom that will explain the inexplicable. I have told this story many times now, scarcely waiting to be asked, and like any good story it improves with each telling. The drama becomes more intense, the suspense heightens, ignorance diminishes as hindsight improves. The facts had better be put down once and for all before fact evolves altogether into fiction.
In the first place, I had been reading a lot of propamarkey (a word just invented to describe a combination of propaganda and malarkey) about the serenity of flying a balloon. Books about ballooning have been proliferating like bubbles in a Sardo bath, and all accounts had me believing that I, too, would drift gently over the countryside with nothing to do but count cows and pop corks from champagne bottles. Now it is time to put the hot air back where it belongs, in the balloon.
The balloon is a thing of beauty to behold. We may as well get that out of the way. It looks serene, which is how that rumor undoubtedly got started. Most impressive was the apparent simplicity of the contraption; no dirty old gears or oily transmission to offend the female temperament. The thing didn't even have tires. Beautiful. Of course, all trips are strictly one-way. Once aloft, the balloon does not return to its point of departure. Like an errant lady it must be chased and carried home.
"Quite right," said Ellen Hall, a psychiatric nurse who has been playing second bubble to her husband's balloon for a number of years. "To the male, a balloon has certain sensual qualities," she said. "It has a hoop and a skirt, doesn't it? What more does be need?" But all this is best left to graduate students looking for a thesis.
Having decided to learn to fly, I called a 27-year-old balloon tycoon named Robert Waligunda, who heads up Sky Promotions in Princeton, N.J. Waligunda (SI, Feb. 7, 1972) turned out to have more irons in the fire than a blacksmith at Belmont. He was, he said, entering a hare-and-hounds race in Canada, was committed to a series of balloon ads for Lark, might pop over to Yugoslavia for a week or two, had been appointed chairman of the race committee for the World Balloon Championships in Albuquerque, had to go to Hollywood to make a film called Flight into Silence and had agreed to take his balloon up during halftime at a football game, hoping to erase a bad image created when a lesser balloonist, previously invited, had landed in the stands. He was all for my plans to learn to fly, his enthusiasm for ballooning crackling against my eardrums. Why not, he suggested, learn to fly at Wallkill, N.Y., a lovely spot at the foot of the Catskills, where a licensed pilot named William Hughes would be glad to teach me the fine art of aerostatics. I might, he said, even get a pilot's license in time to enter a race being held at nearby Highland. Wouldn't that be fun? In my innocence, I said I thought it would, but what was this about a pilot's license? The Federal Aviation Agency, Waligunda explained, administered written examinations to all would-be balloonists. I would be expected to answer questions about the general operation of free balloons, about different sorts of weather conditions in the U.S., demonstrate an ability to analyze weather maps and solve practical navigation problems. I had not expected to have to muck about with a faceless bureaucracy like the FAA, but everything has its price.
I headed for Wallkill one bright fall morning in a gleaming rented Plymouth, my progress upstate marked by leaves beginning to change; a splash of red here, orange and yellow intermixed with green there, purplish hills looming in the distance. The Rocking Horse Ranch at Highland had booked me a room which would offer an opportunity to study the scene of my future race. When birds sing, there is no impending doom. There would be three weeks to master ground school and achieve eight hours' flying time, the minimum required to solo. I would be taking—though I did not care to be too literal about it—a crash course in ballooning.
William Dennis Hughes, former Navy heliocopter pilot, onetime fire-fighting forest ranger, crop duster and corporation pilot, now enamored of the hot-air balloon, was waiting for me off the highway at New Paltz in a white converted bread truck decorated with a painting of a red, white and blue Raven. The rear let-down door was inscribed With FOLLOW ME. I CHASE BALLOONS. I followed him to Kobelt Airport, a small private training field for pilots, and took my first look at the "lighter-than-air" craft in which I would shortly fly away. Rolled up in a lump of gray bag, uninflated, it weighed 150 pounds. I weigh 30 pounds less, uninflated. This was the only resemblance, unless you want to include my red, white and blue heart.
"When it's aloft, the wind pushes it, so it is considered lighter than air," Hughes explained. Rolled out, the nylon fabric measured 70 feet in length; it would swell to 50 feet in diameter. A spaghetti-like array of cables was attached to a fiber glass-aluminum gondola designed to hold two.