One Balloon Bomber (Slightly Used)
First it carried a Japanese bomb 5,000 miles across the Pacific. Then it carried Don Piccard across Minneapolis.
- By Don Piccard
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 2 of 3)
I was the sailor assigned to haul the left-over balloons down to the Lakehurst dump after the Navy had finished testing them, so I was able to get a “Property Pass ” to salvage one and take it home as a souvenir of “captured enemy equipment.” I didn’t know how I would ever be able to get it airborne, but I had dreams. There were no civilian balloonists active anywhere in America then. But, after the war, I became a student in aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota—then the nation's center of balloon research—on the GI Bill. Both Ralph Upson, the Gordon Bennett Balloon Race Champion, and Jean Piccard, my father, were on the aeronautical engineering department faculty.
When I went to Minnesota, I also joined the Army Air Forces Reserve Officers Training Corps. The ROTC didn't have a ballooning program, but my supervisor, Colonel Walter Gerzin, though it would be an excellent extra-curricular activity because of the ROTC's historical connection to ballooning—the first officer to be qualified by Orville Wright in airplanes was also the first Gordon Bennett winner, Frank P. Lahm. With the upcoming 1947 creation of the U.S. Air Force, Gerzin saw great potential for publicity in a public ascension in a Fu-Go balloon. We didn't have Advanced Corps Air Force ROTC uniform, but we cobbled one up from my father's World War II Eisenhower jacket and a variety of insignia. It may have been the first-ever U.S. Air Force uniform.
After that, many others chipped in to get the project aloft. Mike Schoenfield, who ran the Aero Lab, taught me how to weld and rivet some old sheets to make a small car. Dana Eckenbeck donated some high tech AcroNuts to solve an assembly problem with the spun aluminum gas valve. The Fuller Company figured out how to make a glue that would hold the Japanese mulberry paper—I had to patch it from the first landing in Flint, Michigan. But most important, the Minneapolis Daily Times’ promotion department agreed to buy sand ballast and a two-thirds filling of hydrogen. (If I took off two-thirds full, I would float automatically at 12,000 feet. That would take long enough to qualify for my pilot’s certificate.) One has to drop sand to arrest any undesired descent. That means you drop sand when you are screaming down, and it flies right back in your face. The sand had to be the finest kiln-dried, so that I could drop it anywhere without causing damage or injury. Clumps of frozen sand would do more damage than the poor thing's bombs had done on its first voyage from Honshu to Michigan. At Lakehurst, we had used beach sand for ballooning. (It was surprising how often we had to go to the Jersey coast on sunny days to replenish our supply!)
While talking to the newspaper's director of promotions, I suggested that he subscribe to a clipping service so that he could justify the costs to his boss by showing how much the press would publicize the newspaper. That was a dumb thing to do, as the bill for the clipping service ended up far greater than the one for the hydrogen and the kiln dried sand ballast. It became clear that public interest in the future of aeronautics in the brave, new post-War world was much higher than I anticipated—or else it was a very slow news day—and I think every paper in the country mentioned the flight, from the New York Times, in a front page box, to the most remote country weekly. All of this to the tune of 50 cent per clip.
The Times promotion, begun weeks in advance of the scheduled February launch, was a well-coordinated build-up. The background series was a marvelous Ballooning 101 course to introduce aerostatics to the public. Weekly and then daily articles about the "Daily Times Balloon Ascension" told tales of balloon history, romance, and science.
Col. Gerzin called for volunteers from the Corps for my ground crew, and we had a great turnout. Both of my brothers and my parents joined in. I was lucky to have my brother Paul, who was six-feet-six-inches tall, because we found one hole that I had missed which needed some last minute taping, and he was just tall enough to get the job done.
Then came the big day—but we didn’t even bother to show up. That Sunday morning had dawned to a frigid Minnesota northwest howler. The next Sunday was better, though, and a great crowd stood waiting when the borrowed Army truck arrived with sandbags, ground cloth (actually a large remnant of a stratosphere balloon my mother had piloted in 1934), and hydrogen cylinders. Our magnificent ground crew, none of which, except the Piccards and Ralph Upson, had ever seen a balloon before, and the giant paper bag itself followed.
Upson took me aside and reassured me that the balloon was safe. He had done the calculations and he figured that the Japanese paper had a 50-to-one safety factor. Not bad for an old, used, patched, $220 device. I felt a lot better, but the low overcast was worrying me. I had planned to just let the balloon rise up to its natural ceiling, float for the minimum federal requirement, and then risk one crash on the frozen tundra. But it was not to be: I was going to have to actually fly the thing, working hard to control ballast and gas flow to maintain altitude.