UP IN THE HANDS OF THE LORD
The free balloon hasn't changed much since the world's first aeronaut, Pilatre de Rozier, ascended over Paris in 1783. Yet even in this day of greater aerial wonders there is some old magic in a balloon that draws people to it?perhaps because each ascent captures a little of de Rozier's first adventure. This is a word and picture report by an SI staff writer who lived through a balloon adventure last week.
In the pre-dawn of Sunday, Oct. 24, in Valley Forge, Pa., crewmen of the Balloon Club of America started gas flowing into the vast, lifeless fabric of experimental balloon N9073H. For four hours they moved around it, setting sandbags against its rising strength, until at 9:40 a.m. it stood over them, tugging in the wind, seemingly impatient to be away. The ground crew cast it free and suddenly its impatience was gone. It slowly lifted its crew away from the land, floating with the wind.
The pilot of this flight was the ex-Navy balloonist Don Piccard, son of the stratosphere explorers, Jean and Jeannette Piccard. With him was a crew of four: his wife, Joan, a veteran aviatrix, Connie Wolf, and two new crewmen, Tony Bryan and I, both making our first ascent.
As balloonists keep saying, there is nothing else like it. Our balloon drifted through absolute stillness, hanging in the sky on a simple law of physics. Traveling at the exact speed of the wind, we felt no wind.
To photograph the others, I rode four feet above them, crouching, quite frankly, like an apprehensive gibbon on the wooden load ring from which the basket hangs. Hooked on a net line, actually I was safe enough so long as I watched my hands. A half foot in front of me were the control lines: one cord to hold the "appendix"?the balloon's safety vent?another to operate the gas valve in descent and, third, the rip panel line, a bright red tape purposely different in color and feel so no one would mistakenly pull it in mid-air. Pulling it opened a 20-foot gash, suddenly releasing all the gas?a device used only on the ground to prevent dangerous dragging.
The voices of the four in the basket below me broke cleanly and sharply as sounds do high on a mountain. When no one spoke, our senses stretched out, and we could hear the small, particular noises of a toy world below?the shuffling of traffic and trains, barnyard chattering, gunshots, a dog barking. "You think of all the houses and people," said Piccard, "but then think of all the stumps in the woods and all the ants in each stump." His wife Joan spotted a new housing development where the builders had left trees, real trees, standing.
We could not feel it, but from the map and our racing shadow we knew we were riding a 30-mile wind across Philadelphia suburbs, then across the Delaware River. At 10:25 we were 4,000 feet over New Jersey. "Artists' paints on a palette," mused Joan Piccard, looking down at refinery tanks by the river. We said little for the next 10 minutes, until Joan had a more prosaic, wifely thought. "Don, I think the orange cat is locked in our utility room."
It was 10:38 by my watch?not yet an hour. Ahead there was a glint of water. At 10:40 exact I would ask Piccard our location and altitude and enter it in the log.
A whoof-whoof sound came from above us. I looked down at Piccard. He looked at me. "I didn't touch anything," I said. We all looked up.