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."
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.