SI Vault
Clive Gammon
August 28, 1978
Braving ups and downs and surviving the dread cold sink, three Albuquerque balloonists rode their Double Eagle II to a historic Atlantic crossing
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August 28, 1978

Across The Sea To Glory

Braving ups and downs and surviving the dread cold sink, three Albuquerque balloonists rode their Double Eagle II to a historic Atlantic crossing

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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, 3� 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. Honor�—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.

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