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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.

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.

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