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.