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One Balloon Bomber (Slightly Used)

First it carried a Japanese bomb 5,000 miles across the Pacific. Then it carried Don Piccard across Minneapolis.

It was my first solo flight: riding a Japanese paper bag across the frozen skies of the Twin Cities in 1947. But as paper bags go, this one was exceptional. In its prior service, the carefully crafted balloon had carried a Japanese bomb more than 5,000 miles across the Pacific—one of thousands intended to wreak havoc on the western United States.

Most failed—only 300 of the 9,300 launched were recovered in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and only a few of those actually exploded. (Mine fell somewhat ignominiously in a field near Flint, Michigan.) But had the other 9,000-plus succeeded, their incendiary bombs could have caused considerable damage to forests, crops, and any cities they encountered—and the “anti-personnel” bombs they also carried could have killed scores of civilians. Because the United States had no economical defense against the 30-foot-wide balloons, Project Fu-Go, as it was known in Japan, could have become the first effective intercontinental bombing system.

In the end, though, the final act of the Japanese balloon bomber program was a starring role in my own personal adventure—and one of the U.S. Air Force’s first publicity efforts. For my part, I wanted to earn the first Free Balloon Pilot Certificate issued from the Civil Aviation Agency (now the Federal Aviation Administration). Other balloon pilots had FAA Airship Pilot Certificates, which carried their free-balloon pilot privileges, but none had the certificates exclusively for such flights. I had flown over 40 hours in balloons so far, and racked up eight two-hour flights that were needed for certification, but I still needed a two-hour solo flight to complete the requirements. I chose the Japanese paper balloon to make that flight.

As a member of a family with a long history in balloon experimentation, my interest in this unique balloon was almost inevitable—my parents were involved in stratospheric research in the 1930’s; my Swiss uncle Auguste and cousin Jacques applied ballooning principles to the development of deep-sea bathyscapes and then back to high-altitude flights; and my cousin’s son, Bertrand Piccard, was one of the pilots of the Breitling Orbiter III, which in 1999 made the only free balloon voyage around the world. It now resides in the National Air & Space Museum.

I came into possession of a Fu-Go balloon while serving at the United States Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey—an airship base and balloon research facility to which the Navy sent me presumably because of the stratosphere balloon connection. It was there, during the final days of World War II, that my love affair with the paper balloons was ignited.

Project Fu-Go, also referred to as The Windship Weapon by the Japanese, began, after several years of testing, in November of 1944 and continued until the end of April 1945. The balloons were launched—in an undoubtedly eerie spectacle—from three sites on the East Coast of Honshu, east and northeast of Tokyo. Thirty feet in diameter, weighing 150 pounds, and with a volume of 19,000 cubic feet, the balloons were made of panels of laminated tissue paper from the bark of the Kozo bush. Workers rendered the bark into paper, and glued the pieces together with colored Kon-nyaku-nori, made from a potato-like Japanese root. A lacquer-type chemical waterproofed the paper. The finished product feels like a soft cloth raincoat.

Once launched, the paper balloons floated at around 30,000 feet on the jet stream. Gas pressure relief valves and a series of 32 paper sandbags, tied up like Italian cheese loafs, helped maintain the proper altitude and flight duration needed to reach the United States. The bags were released by small explosive charges—fireworks, actually—set off by barometric switches and long delay fuses. Once over the United States, the remaining sandbags would drop to lower the balloon’s altitude, and the final charges released two 12-kg incendiary bombs and a single 15-kg anti-personnel bomb.

The effort ended when the cheap pyrotechnic controls used on the balloons failed. That enabled the U.S. to retrieve some of the ones that didn’t self-destruct. Most of the balloons fell short into the Pacific. Of those that did reach the U.S., only one resulted in tragedy—a mother and five children were killed when they found and accidentally set off a downed bomb while on an outing. (They were the only casualties that resulted from direct enemy action in the continental United States during the war.) Thus, little was accomplished from the Japanese point of view in return for the estimated two million dollars required for their construction and launching.

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.

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. 

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