Across the Atlantic on Balloon

By Mahesh Paudyal

Among the riskiest adventures human beings have  undertaken till date, the attempts to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon is one of the most thrilling and sensational. It might sound bizarre, but it happened in reality. It didn’t however come overnight. Before the ultimate successful flight in 1978, fourteen previous attempts had failed with the loss of five lives: Malcolm Brighton with Rodney and Pamela Anderson in Free Life, 1970, Tom Gatch in Light Heart, 1974, and Bob Berger, the same year, in Spirit of Man.

Two young men Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson made unsuccessful attempts in 1977 on their balloon name Double Eagle I.  The balloon lifted off from Marshfield on 9 September and crashed into the sea after a flight of 65 hours, just off of Iceland. The two were rescued by a rescue helicopter.

After this failure, they added a new man Larry Newman into their crew, and the dream came true in 1978. They flew the distance in 137 hours, covering 3,120 miles in their balloon named Double Eagle II. The cross-Atlantic balloon flight was finally successfully accomplished!

Their success was insured by the lesson they had learnt with their experiment with Double Eagle I. With Double Eagle I, they got a late start on that fateful day on September 9, 1977. Ed Yost, designer and builder of Double Eagle I, and the only one who knew how to use the equipment to pump helium into the envelope was left stranded at the airport in Logan. No one had thought to pick him up. Crucial tools had been forgotten. A storm was brewing in Northern Canada. The Double Eagle I meteorologists coupled a two hour delay in departure with the Canadian storm and had reservations. Abruzzo and Anderson made the decision to go and their balloon began to leave the ground at 8:16 PM.

They started well, but one crisis soon began to be followed by another. Air currents drove the balloon towards Mt. Katahdin, the highest point in Maine, but they managed to squeak by. Clouds soon blocked the night sky; rain, then snow eventually followed as they moved into the Canadian storm. The balloon fell, then rose, and fell again over the last piece of terrain offered by North America. Over the Atlantic their wet long-range radio died and they turned on their homing beacon.

If they stayed low, Anderson and Abruzzo were soaked by rain. If they went high, the balloon would ice up and they would suffer mightily with snow, cold, and thin air. By this point, nearly 50 hours into the flight, neither man had slept much and both were soaked to the skin. They had also begun to drift north and west, towards Greenland: the wrong way.

They were able to hail a passing military plane. Anderson called for a helicopter. It was time to bail out on the mission. Double Eagle descended towards an ocean with 25 foot seas.

Abruzzo and Anderson released the envelope; the gondola plopped into the Atlantic. The rescue helicopter pulled Anderson, then Abruzzo, out of the gondola in their orange survival suits. The flight was over on September 12, 1977.

Back in New Mexico, Anderson immediately began to prepare for a second try at crossing the Atlantic in a balloon. Abruzzo spent several months recuperating from frostbite. Both men relived the flight, trying to figure out what went wrong; what they had done wrong. By spring, 1978, they decided to give it another try. Due to financial considerations and the need to reduce wear and tear on themselves, the two agreed that a third pilot would be added. That man was Larry Newman.

The three set of on 11 August 1978 from Presque Isle in Maine.  Despite a nearly three hour delay in departing from Presque Isle, Maine, the flight of Double Eagle II was everything Double Eagle I was not. Only two events marred what could have been a perfect flight: Larry Newman's hang glider brushing against a powerline and the "Big Down." The 160,000 cubic foot balloon easily sailed past the first problem. Once over open water the crew had to contend with radios that either didn't function or worked poorly. The task of getting them up to speed fell to Larry Newman. Eventually he was able to contact a ham in England who relayed all their messages.

A storm developed on their fourth night out. Unlike the previous attempt, it turned away to the north and they had to contend only with clouds. During the evenings, ice would form on the envelope and the increased weight would cause Double Eagle II to descend. With the sunrise, and increased solar radiation, the helium would expand and carry the balloon aloft.

On 16 August, Double Eagle II went through a harrowing experience. Atmospheric conditions forced the balloon to drop from 19,500 feet to a low point of 4000 feet. They called this the "Big Drop," and compensated for the loss of lift by careful ballasting. Then, superheating from the sun that afternoon caused the balloon to rise to its highest point, 24,900 feet.

As they approached the coast of Ireland, they began to discard equipments. This was done, not only to function as ballast, but also because it would be impossible to do so once Double Eagle II was over dry land. It simply wouldn't be safe to toss over oxygen and propane bottles, batteries, and other hard gear onto unsuspecting people. The crew ditched Newman's hang glider, watching it fly itself down to the waiting ocean.

Afterwards the flight ran very smoothly from this point on and by the time they had reached the coast of Ireland all 3 knew that this was going to be a successful attempt.

Once over France, they descended gradually as they looked for a good landing spot. Nobody had ever landed a transcontinental balloon on dry land before. Near the town of Evreux they spotted a barley field just outside a small town called Evereux in a large Barley field 137 hours, 5 minutes, and 30 seconds later and easily touched down. Double Eagle II, with Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman had done something no one had ever done before: crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon.

Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon. They had broken all the previous attempts and had achieved something that no one else had ever done before!