The sport of ballooning conveys a dreamy image to those innocents who stand on the ground and watch. To them, it is obviously an activity designed for lazy summer afternoons. One imagines the meadows and corn fields passing slowly beneath the gondola as the aeronauts drift along, the silence broken only by the pop of champagne corks. All of which is true in many cases. It is with long-distance ballooning that a harsher reality emerges—and no endeavor is as coldly real as an attempt to cross the Atlantic. Until last week nobody had ever made it.
Even in summer the winds are capricious enough to create hazards aloft, and the seas below can be the wildest in the world. Since 1958, five balloonists have died in the 11 attempts to cross the Atlantic. In 1970 Rod and Pamela Anderson and Malcolm Brighton set off aboard Free Life and were never seen again. In February 1974 Thomas Gatch disappeared with his cluster of 10 helium balloons. Most recently, in August 1974, Bob Berger set out from Barnegat Bay, N.J., crashed in the ocean and was killed. In the eight other tries the balloonists literally fell short, the closest attempt coming last month when two British balloonists went down 117 miles off the French coast. And then, on Friday, Aug. 11, up, up and away went Double Eagle.
Perhaps no team of balloonists has ever been better prepared or better advised than the three company presidents and pals from Albuquerque, Ben Abruzzo, 48, Maxie Anderson, 44, and Larry Newman, 30. Abruzzo and Anderson also had the sobering experience of having tried once before and failed: last summer they had ditched off the coast of Iceland.
But this time the aeronauts had lined up the most sophisticated communications system ever seen in this seat-of-the-pants sport. Usually, Atlantic crossings—by balloons, yachts, rowboats or whatever, and always from west to east because of prevailing winds—rely on overflying aircraft to radio positions back home. Abruzzo, Anderson and Newman were hooked into a Nimbus 6 satellite, which transmitted their exact latitude and longitude to Goddard Space Center in Washington, D.C. They backed up that system with a private Learjet, with messages from commercial airliners, low-frequency radio reports and, at times, ham radio operators.
And then there was Double Eagle II. The rig cost some $70,000 of the $125,000 expedition budget. The principal feature of the rig was a black-and-silver nylon envelope rising 11 stories above a twin-hulled gondola-boat. The gondola itself was small, 6� feet by 6 feet. "It's a closet if you stand it upright," says Anderson. Filled with 160,000 cubic feet of helium, the envelope was 65 feet in diameter, with the top portion painted silver to reflect the sunlight and stabilize the expansion of helium as it heated. (A helium balloon is far different from the hot-air variety. The latter is lifted as a propane burner heats air in the envelope and is for short hops only. Helium balloons, inflated with the lighter-than-air gas, are for long distances; control, such as it is, is accomplished by ballasting.)
The way Abruzzo, Anderson and Newman had it figured, Double Eagle II would not touch down on the first available European soil. They wanted to really nail down a world record by sailing across Ireland, across Wales, southern England and on into France, fetching up at Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris, where Charles Lindbergh had ended his Atlantic crossing in 1927. With that in mind, they put a No. 50 on the balloon to mark the 50th anniversary of the Spirit of St. Louis flight.
Perhaps the most important factor in the adventure was Weather Services Corp. of New Bedford, Mass., which the balloonists retained. Its chief meteorologist, Bob Rice, says that meteorologists know less about their subject than any other scientists—and then dispels that image with a series of rapid-fire analyses. "Most flights fail because they deviate to the north or south," he says. "The biggest fear is of an Azores high, which can grab a balloon and drift it south between the Azores and Portugal; the craft would continue south and west and never recover. So you look for a pattern that is going to minimize the Azores influence and also protect you from any push to the north, such as a mid-Atlantic storm can bring about. You need exactly the right components in a constantly changing weather pattern."
While the aeronauts were parked in a clover field at Presque Isle, Maine, Rice set up his weather watch in New Bedford, and on Aug. 11 the components came together. "You think of storms as villains," Rice says, "but a storm system developed southeast of Greenland, which was ideal for us. We felt the storm would track slowly at 12 to 15 knots instead of the usual 25 to 30, which meant that the balloonists could stay with it long enough, probably, to get across." He flashed the word. Coordinator Jim Mitchell says, "The crew wasn't exactly shot out of a gun when the call came, but they sure were bundled up and pushed through the door."
At 5:35 p.m. Double Eagle started to inflate, its silver crest rising slowly in the air like the wrapper of a giant candy bar while the black nylon body trembled under the noise of the helium being released under pressure from tanks. The crew clambered aboard and, two hours behind schedule, took off. There was one agonizing dip afer 3,000 yards, but then the Double Eagle stabilized itself and shot upward on a northerly course for New Brunswick. Loaded into the gondola with the balloonists were 600 pounds of lead and 5,450 pounds of sand for ballast.
The 5,000 or so who were on hand for the takeoff were suitably impressed, with one exception. That was Merle Sprague, who had rented his clover field to the balloonists for $100 after Anderson had knocked at his door one day to ask about it. Sprague, who has two cows and grows hay, clover and vegetables, cast a dour New England eye on the proceedings. "Something always happens and it probably will now," he said. Someone pointed out that Sprague would become part of history if the flight succeeded. "I don't think it will," he said. In fact, his main concern was the clover patch being trampled by the most folks since John F. Kennedy had campaigned there in 1960. The more he thought about it, the more Sprague reckoned that he had rented it too cheaply. (He was later to relent and allow that it was worth it; he said his clover field had put Presque Isle on the map.)