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Ballooning Across the Pond



We may regard attempts to cross the Atlantic Ocean by manned balloon as relatively simple stuff these days, but it was a challenge in 1978. At that time there had been 13 documented attempts to fly the Atlantic and all but a few had ended in disaster. Several pilots hoping to be the first to cross the ocean had launched their balloons from a location near the East Coast -- and then just disappeared, never to be heard from again. The most recent nonfatal attempt at that time was by Ed Yost in 1976 using a helium filled balloon. Yost had been at the center of popularizing the sport of hot air ballooning and had also made several helium balloon flights over land. During his attempt to cross the Atlantic he was forced down at sea near the Azores in his boat-like gondola but was luckily picked up by a passing freighter and safely returned to the US. His flight was documented in a 1976 issue of the National Geographic Magazine.

On a brisk Sunday in the winter of 1976-77 I met my good friend, Maxie Anderson, between services at church. We both had read about Yost's adventure. Max startled me by saying that he and his hot air ballooning pal, Ben Abruzzo, were thinking of attempting an Atlantic crossing. They had no experience with gas balloon systems, but felt they could make the substantial transition with some overland flights. Max was the head of an innovative mining operation in the Southwest and Ben was a real estate entrepreneur in Albuquerque. The expense of such an undertaking was not an overwhelming factor for either of them and they were naturally adventurous men.

I mentioned to Max that Yost had probably made an error in his choice of balloon volume. Years before, I had worked in the Balloons and Meteorological Systems group at General Mills in Minneapolis. One of the key things we had learned was that flights of several days required compensating for the loss of lift at every sunset. Ballasting was required to keep the system aloft as sunset took place and the helium cooled. For an opaque balloon of coated nylon, about 10% of the gross load was required and to go through several successive sunsets the system would have to consist primarily of expendable material -- ballast. I had estimated from data in the National Geographic article that Yost used a system that could at best have flown about 3 or 4 days, not much duration for a transoceanic flight. "Oh, really?" Max responded. "Can you join Ben and me when we talk with Yost about fabricating a balloon for us?" This began a long relationship.

Atlantic Challenges

There are some very significant challenges in crossing an ocean by manned balloon.

First was establishing what kind of meteorological condition would be most favorable to achieve a flight in the troposphere from the US into Europe. Reliable forecasting for a week-long flight was problematic, as it still is in spite of the computer models. A remarkable meteorologist, Bob Rice, would eventually join us to work in this area so critical to success.

Second, it was very difficult for pilots to establish their position accurately over the ocean at that time. Modern handheld GPS receivers can now locate you to within a few yards. In 1977, the only viable system was OMEGA, a LORAN-like system of synchronized transmitters ringing the North Atlantic that could be used for determining location. [OMEGA and LORAN were the precursors of the modern GPS system using land based transmitters instead of satellites. -- Ed.] In testing, we found that OMEGA was unreliable, both in terms of the operation of the transmitters and having adequate reception from two or more of those transmitters at any given time.

As it turned out, one of the best sources of location information at that time was visual sightings by airliners. These could be extremely helpful when the airlines had been alerted to the flight and relayed sightings to aeronautical facilities via VHF. The use of more traditional techniques, such as a sextant, was also of limited value because we anticipated that the meteorological systems that the balloon would be flying in would often have high level overcasts. Nevertheless, Max spent a lot of time in his back yard learning how to establish his position.

Thirdly, voice communications with the balloon would be poor when they were needed the most -- when the balloon was over mid ocean. Aeronautical VHF systems were light, did not require very much power and were quite reliable when the balloon system was over land or out over the ocean for up to a few hundred miles. Contact could still be made on some of the standard VHF frequencies with airliners and this was used to good advantage in relaying messages. We discussed the use of Amateur Radio equipment for the first flight, but it just didn't happen with all the other considerations that needed attention. I regretted this in retrospect.

Lastly, it was and still is dangerous to be forced to land a balloon system in the open sea, particularly when you and your team back in the US only know the location of the balloon to within a hundred miles or so. Rescue capabilities in mid ocean are limited and take time, even if you do know the location. And if you are forced down, it is probably weather related, which would further complicate rescue.

The First Attempt -- September 9, 1977

The gondola and balloon, quite similar to Yost's, and all the other equipment was brought to a site near Marshfield, Massachusetts, south of Boston. We waited a few days for good flight conditions and Ed Yost led the launching effort. It went well and the system was in the air by about 8 PM the night of September 9, 1977. The evening launch was good in the sense that an extra half day of flight duration could be expected. The balloon lifted amid cheering family members and hundreds of bystanders. We monitored the VHF conversations with Boston Center as the balloon flew north and into the control zone around Logan airport. Max called the tower and told them that the balloon, Double Eagle, was located over the bay and directly east of the airport. The controller asked him to divert further to the east. Max again stated that this was a free balloon and directional control was very limited. Fortunately the balloon continued to the north and floated out of the control zone in about an hour.

A group of us then drove to Weather Services, Inc in Bedford, Massachusetts. Bob Rice, the meteorologist, was busily preparing an updated forecast and the most probable trajectory of the balloon over the next 24 hours. The flight had begun smoothly.

Double Eagle continued north through the night at about 5000 feet and gradually turned easterly over the ocean during the next day of flight. VHF communications were excellent and the balloon system seemed to be functioning well. This continued into the next day with many good reports on the balloon's location. Rice seemed to have a good handle on the trajectory and we tried to relax. We should have realized that all this was unjustified optimism.

The balloon gradually became silent as VHF communications with mainland stations dropped away, one by one. The balloon continued to drift northeast and, from Rice's observations, into bad weather with temperatures well below freezing. Ice would accumulate on top of the balloon and altitude control would become difficult. We had no reports on the location of the balloon for an entire day. The hours passed with no word and we became seriously concerned about the survival of Max and Ben in these conditions.

Rice and the other meteorologists at Weather Services began to consider that the balloon had drifted into a large low centered between Iceland and Greenland and that the balloon may have been forced down on the southeast coast of Greenland. Doc Wiley, W0OPC, a former Air Force officer and member of our team began exploring what rescue facilities might be in that area. The situation became very tense and we had little information we could provide about the balloon's location even if we were able to activate a rescue attempt.

Ice Crisis

Max and Ben were having a tough time on the balloon, exposed to all the conditions we feared and dealing with a balloon system that had a limited amount of ballast to keep them aloft. They realized that a great deal of ice had collected on the upper surface of the balloon and ballast was rapidly expended. (We later estimated that approximately 1500 pounds of snow and ice had gathered on the upper surface.) Fortunately, the pilots were able to contact an Air Force station in Iceland via VHF and request help. As luck would have it, there were some Jolly Green Giant helicopters at the station and they agreed to send one out to try to pick up the balloon's location. At about that time, 66 hours after the launching, Ben and Max were forced to land on the stormy ocean and release the balloon, leaving them in the boat-like gondola that Yost had fashioned for them. A few hours after the ditching, about 200 miles south of Iceland on September 12, the helicopter spotted them bobbing on the roiling sea and skillfully lifted them out of the gondola.

Max and Ben, suffering from serious exposure related problems, were transported to the base in Iceland and the gondola was picked up a few days later by a ship and returned to the US. We were incredibly lucky that both men were not lost and had only suffered cold and exposure related problems.

When the entire crew reassembled about 2 weeks later, Max and Ben said they wanted to try it again. Back to the drawing board.

New Design -- More Radios

We decided to implement some important changes for the next attempt, which was to be sometime in the fall of 1978. This included the addition of a heated chamber that the pilots could retreat to for inclement conditions. A new and substantially larger balloon would be fabricated so that greater flight duration would be possible. The next balloon system would have an initial gross weight of nearly 11,000 pounds. At least 70% of the load would be expendable materials, ballast, that could be dropped to maintain altitude with each succeeding sunset. This meant that the balloon ceiling would be of the order of 25,000 feet in the later portion of the flight so an augmented oxygen system and special altitude limiting provisions were included for the safety of the pilots.

But at the top of our list was the need to address the communications and balloon location scheme. As we amateurs have learned, with Amateur Radio you may not be able to talk to who you want to talk to, but you can usually talk to someone. We clearly needed to provide the capability for the balloonists to communicate with someone if other means failed. In this regard we became acquainted with Howie Ferris, W1HZ (now Silent Key) who lived in the Boston area. Ferris was the ham's ham by any measure. He was a technical type who worked at Lincoln Labs and fabricated his own beam antennas that were mounted on a tall windmill tower in his back yard. Twenty meters was his home. He said he'd be glad to help us in an emergency.

With regard to better locating the balloon, we added low power 1.677 MHz beacons with the identifier DE2 in CW continuously transmitted, a signal airliners could get a rough position on and relay back to the team at Bedford. Also included were:

  • an Atlas SSB/CW ham radio transceiver,
  • a marine VHF transceiver,
  • two 10 W commercial band (5-8 MHz) transceivers,
  • two 360 channel VHF aircraft transceivers,
  • a radar transponder to identify the balloon to airport radar,
  • two transmitters sending periodic position reports and also for emergency reporting through the Nimbus satellite system, a meteorological satellite program active from 1964 to 1978 that included the first satellites equipped for locating ground station positions. This locating system was the forerunner to today's GPS systems.

Of course all this equipment required antennas. VHF aircraft/marine and satellite antennas were mounted to the gondola itself. Trailing wire antenna's for HF and the homing beacon were located at the back of the gondola. A 20 meter vertical dipole was rigged to a halyard high up on the side of the balloon. Power for the Atlas was supplied by automobile storage batteries; power for the commercial equipment was supplied by alkaline batteries.

The various changes were incorporated into our plans for the second attempt. The addition of Amateur Radio brought a number of us together -- Doc Wiley, W0OPC; Sid Parks, WA5KGQ (both now Silent Keys) and myself, W5BOJO, (now WY5Z). We elected to use one of the new and compact transceivers of that time and a simple balanced antenna system that suspended the upper dipole from the top of the balloon and the lower portion from the gondola after the balloon was launched. Another change was the addition of a third crew member, Larry Newman. While Larry had an Airline Transport Rating in jets, he had no experience in balloon flying. He proved readily able to pick up on the operation of the transceiver and became somewhat familiar with procedures on the 20 meter maritime mobile net. Since he was unlicensed, this would be an emergency operation mode only and he would use Wiley's call sign, W0OPC.

These changes gave us a new sense of confidence that our plan was much more viable than for the first flight but, of course, there still were concerns and they were well founded.

The Second Attempt -- August 11, 1978

The second launching would take place from near Presque Isle, Maine. The pilots made arrangements with some of the local folks for use of a large field for launching just off a highway adequate for the helium trailer and an infrequently used hangar at a nearby light plane airport would be our site for bringing all the equipment together.

The gondola had been modified to provide more protection for the radios and instruments and a heated cubicle has been added for the pilots if it was needed. All the equipment, including the radios and oxygen system, went on the disposable list and was a part of the ballast list for each day. The ballast set aside would be approximately 1200 pounds for the first sunset, approximately 1100 for the second sunset and so on at decreasing levels related to the decreasing gross load. The least critical things would be ballasted early in the flight and the critical items would be saved until the very end, depending on the situation. We went through the communications check list and the main frequencies that would be used, priming Larry for use of the transceiver on 20 meters should it become necessary.

The launching process began on August 11, a lovely sunny day, with the balloon laid out on a ground cloth on top of a beautiful field of alfalfa. The inflation began about mid afternoon with the plan being to launch around 8 or 9 PM local time, after the gas in the balloon had cooled to ambient temperature.

We required of the order of 11,000 pounds of lift from the helium. During the inflation phase I was dismayed to note that the screech of the helium inflation nozzle was decreasing while we obviously still had some way to go to get to the right inflation point. I queried Yost about this and he assured me it would be all right. But, it wasn't. The gas in the helium trailer was now completely transferred and I could clearly see that the balloon was not filled to the proper level. After some calculations based on the region where the helium pressure in the balloon was about zero, I determined that we were about 1300 pounds of lift short of what we wanted. A real mistake. This would cost us essentially one day of flight -- a terrible loss.

Ascent into History

We were essentially committed at that point and Ben and Max agreed to go ahead with the launching, cutting off sand bags hanging around the outside edge of the gondola until the balloon became buoyant and would take off. The balloon was launched at 8:43 PM local time and lifted off with lots of cheers from the many family members, friends and onlookers who had come to watch.

The balloon ascended into the darkness and the flashing clearance light was all we could see as it climbed to the planned initial altitude of 5000 feet. The VHF system worked well and we immediately boarded our airplane and flew back to the Boston area and to the flight center at Weather Services in Bedford.

When we arrived, Rice had a plot of the balloon course over the last several hours and was in contact with the crew via positions that the pilots had passed on to aeronautical facilities. The balloon was over the Gaspe Peninsula and headed toward St John's, Newfoundland. It crossed over the city near Signal Hill National Historic Park, the site of Guglielmo Marconi's reception of the first transatlantic transmissions from Cornwall in 1901. A helicopter flew out and photographed the balloon in the late afternoon, just as it was passing out to sea at about 10,000 feet.

We continued to get reasonably good positions from the balloon into the following day, but as they proceeded to the ENE the frequency of positions and the verbal reports began to subside, just as before. Rice was optimistic that the balloon appeared to be in excellent weather and was making good speed along the expected course. Photographs taken by the pilots at this time showed them in clear skies and enjoying lunch in the sunshine, but the communications and sightings were ebbing and we naturally became anxious about their continued well-being.

An Orchestra from the Silence

As the balloon approached the mid North Atlantic at these high latitudes, and since it had not been in touch for over a day, Larry fired up the 20 meter transceiver and called CQ on the 20 meter maritime net frequency. He soon picked up Howie Ferris, W1HZ, back in the Bedford area. Howie in turn called us on the phone and patched Ben through so we could compare notes on use of ballast to this point in the flight. The news was good. We were right on the mark for ballast use. The conversation was a real boost for all of us, including the pilots. Ferris established a regular daily schedule with Larry and all this brought great encouragement to the aeronauts.

There were many amateurs listening in at this point and several began calling the balloon. They meant well and wanted to be helpful, but the frequency quickly became overloaded. A few of the amateurs, particularly Paul Van Overen, N8ACA (now NF8J) monitored the conversations. He helped immensely by asking callers to monitor so that messages important to the team could get through. Whenever we talked to the pilots we sensed that many were listening as each schedule came up.

We then went into a period of no contact on the fourth day of the flight -- and it went on for an entire day. Late that night Howie phoned me to listen to his call to the balloon at a time we had used for several earlier exchanges of information. He called with no response, once, twice. A minute passed. Nothing. Paul, NF8J, in Michigan called -- again silence. Then as though it had been orchestrated, there were calls to the balloon followed by listening intervals from amateurs in South America, England, Scotland and a ship in the Mediterranean. The frequency was essentially clear during this time, unencumbered by interference (QRM), but certainly there were many amateurs listening. We were disappointed at the lack of contact, but amazed at the self imposed order of the many stations standing by.

We continued to monitor the frequency and later that night Art Davies, G4JY (Silent Key) made contact with the balloon. His signal was like that of Ferris, just booming through, standing nearly alone on the frequency. He relayed a message from the pilots that they had experienced a major descent from their floating altitude of just under 25,000 feet to very near the surface of the ocean over the period of just a couple of hours. Essentially all the remaining ballast and equipment had been dropped and fortunately they had been able to recover from the descent and were now approaching the coast of Ireland.

The balloon crossed into airspace over Ireland at 10:02 PM on August 16 and the pilots were greeted by a radar observer who noted their arrival. Art continued with his contacts, forwarded many messages to and from the balloon during the last half of the flight and was of critical assistance. The next morning the balloon crossed the English Channel on a southeasterly course and went into France over La Hague. We again had VHF communications through Paris-Orly Airport south of Paris.

Happy Ending in Miserey

The balloon landed in a barley field near Miserey, France, about 60 miles northwest of Paris, at 7:49 PM after a flight of 137 hours and 6 minutes covering a distance estimated to be just over 3107 miles. The pilots were immediately besieged by several hundred onlookers who had become aware of the flight and saw the balloon approaching at low altitude. The balloon material, a tough coated nylon, essentially disappeared as souvenir hunters arrived. Only a relatively small portion was returned the US along with the gondola.

The pilots and crew were well treated by our French hosts in several receptions and celebrations. The mayor of Paris met with the group and gave them the key to the city. Also the American Ambassador to France, Arthur Hartman, opened the embassy, the former home of the Rothschilds, to the pilots and crew for a wonderful dinner marking the event.

For those who might like to read more about this remarkable achievement, see Double Eagle by Charles McCarry. It is filled with many details and well captures the spirit of this effort and the critical role of Amateur Radio. Also of interest would be the QST article about the flight.

All photos courtesy Rich Schwoebel, WY5Z, except as indicated.

Rich Schwoebel, WY5Z, was first licensed about 1952 in Minnesota as KN0DYS, then again in the early 1960s as WB5OJO and around 1998 as WY5Z. He first fell in love with Amateur Radio when he got a Hallicrafters S-38 as a boy growing up in North Dakota about 1946. Today, Rich has a PhD in Engineering Physics from Cornell University and worked at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico from 1962 to 1995. Rich became involved in high altitude balloon work while in undergraduate school in the Twin Cities area from 1949 to 1957 and has often been involved in various high altitude balloon related activities since then, including the Double Eagle flights. Rich is now a Trustee of the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum and chairs the Collections and Displays group.


Rich Schwoebel, WY5Z



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