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 3 of 3)
After a flawless take-off, with only a half a bag full of sand baptizing a poor spectator’s fine fur hat, I cleared the Foshay Tower and headed for the cloud base. You can’t see the Foshay Tower now, as it is hidden by all the newer buildings, but then it scared me. It was all I could see. Next the cloud base threatened. I did have an Air Force Twin Beech escorting me to keep other rubbernecking airplanes away, but he wouldn’t be able to help if I let my craft seek its own level in the overcast. So alternately valving gas and dropping sand dust—always back in my face—I worked my way across the concrete chasms and cliffs. (Fifty years later Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones used a long plastic sleeve to drop ballast from the Breitling Orbiter III on the global balloon flight, solving the sand problem.)
I had never flown a paper balloon before. I had never flown with hydrogen before. Nor had I ever flown with an overcast sky before, or in a balloon without a net. I had never flown alone before, but it was infinitely heavenly. I had more sand on board than I could ever possibly need. There were no thermals to disturb the absolute dream of pure flight. I was cozy in my fur lined flight suit (also a captured Japanese war souvenir, worn in honor of the balloon’s own heritage). All I had to do was learn how to fly it. Hydrogen has different expansion characteristics from helium, but it worked out surprisingly well and soon I was over open country.
I came down low and rode on the automatic buoyancy equalizing effect of a drag rope. Crewman Ben Minnich grabbed it and got a free ride at windspeed across a frozen lake. I hit a row of Poplars, he let go, and I swooped up and over to greet my first high tension power line. I cleared the wires handily, but the pictures show that I was below the level of the steel towers on either side of my path.
Then we had a long drive straight down a country road, with the centerline directly under my path. Imagine someone coming the other way and meeting my escort of ground crew and the public coming three abreast up the two lane road. They fanned out through the town of White Bear Lake at a forty five degree angle to the street grid. Some cut across vacant lots, some did worse. The police stopped the army truck and threatened to lock them up for causing it all. I wondered why hadn’t they been warned of our project.
My crew extracted themselves from the White Bear police department and actually had my ground cloth ready for the deflation when I landed—after a quarter-mile drag across the frozen furrows. It was like driving down railroad tracks in that aluminum basket. All the local reporters were there, too. The St. Paul paper got there, but late, after all the others had gone. They did, however, get the best picture: the happy pilot sitting under a tree stuffing angel food cake into his broad victory grin. My father always carried angel food cake on balloon flights—you never knows when you might need it—and had baked one especially for my solo. The press all reported on “The Piccard Flight” and the Daily Times reported on “The Daily Times Flight”. The competing press had morning editions, but the Times was an afternoon paper, so we got scooped by everyone else.
I never flew old Fu-Go again. The FAA refused to issue a registration certificate for her, as I had no bill of sale from the manufacturer. I got my free balloon certificate, though—as well as the distinct thrill of putting a sinister and silent wartime weapon to a slightly more peaceful use.