Balloons and Airships
The winds have welcomed you with softness,
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you in your laughter,
And set you gently back again
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
Click on any photo on this page to see larger version.
Back in 1979, I ordered my first balloon, the Rising Star (seen to the left) from Raven Balloons (later Aerostar Balloons). Before it arrived, I met Jacques Soukup. That October, at the 1979 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, I witnessed a horrific ballooning accident, which put me off flying for a few years. This gave Jacques the chance to become a pilot right away, and he took it.
For this first Fiesta of ours, we found an old barnstormer balloonist, Bill Douglas (left, middle), who agreed to teach us how to fly. In return, he got to fly our big, new balloon at that first fiesta. As you can see, we came up with silly uniforms for that first event. They were so impractical that we ended up abandoning them and going with white jeans, blue shirts, red belts and a white jacket with the images of the balloons we owned embroidered on the back.
Jacques learned how to fly and then we moved to England so I could study at the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, and we took advantage of being there by buying and flying more balloons. Our first special shaped balloon, Chic-I-Boom, was the likeness of the head of Carmen Miranda (left), and she was quite a hit. In fact, she was Albuquerque's first special shape, and appeared at most Fiestas for years. Since she was a normal balloon with 'bits' added, she wasn't really a special shape, but at the time, the only other person flying fleets of special shaped balloons was Malcolm Forbes, so we felt we were in good company. She, and most of our later balloons, were built by Cameron Balloons in Bristol, UK. We became close friends of the builder, Don Cameron, and his family.
Soon to follow Chic-I-Boom was Uncle Sam. He, too was a hit, and then Chesty the Bulldog (owned by my sister the Marine). These three flew all over the UK and the USA in the next few years. We never had a problem finding Marines to crew on Chesty or Uncle Sam. They didn't like to work with Chic-I-Boom, though, for some reason.
During this time we got even more balloons, so that by 1990 we had 11 of them, including the two gas balloons. I got my own license in 1985 with my first lesson from balloon builder Don Cameron himself.
In 1986 we held our first of two balloon rallies on our property in Bucks Co., PA, which we called the Halloween Rally. This was a combination of a hot air balloon rally and the US Gas Balloon Championships, with all the balloons launching from our front field.
For the occasion, we commissioned a fourth balloon, Balloon Hilda (left). She turned out to be quite a handful to fly - she really hated thermals, which would make her 'dance' all over the sky. She also took a large crew of folks to get her inflated and deflated, especially is there was any sort of wind. We finally decided that she could only fly when the wind was less than 5 knots on the ground.
We met Malcolm Forbes at our rally, and he invited us to come to his chateau in France at Balleroy and fly at his big event there. The year we went, Walter Cronkite was a special guest.
Malcolm was a very high powered businessman, but did he know how to have fun. He was always jolly, to us, though I understand he would also be quite fierce. His event at Balleroy was famous for its extravagance and great hospitality. His fireworks display is the best I've ever seen, probably because it was launched from his front lawn and the guests got to stand there in the middle of it all. Thinking back, it was pretty dangerous, but boy, was it thrilling. There was lots to eat and drink, and the partying went on for hours. That was some event.
Normally, the only special shapes allowed to fly there were his own, but he invited us to bring Balloon Hilda specifically. This was quite an honor, and we were thrilled. We took some of our local Albuquerque crew with us (they came along on lots of our balloon trips for years), and they had a great time as well. And beware of drinking any calvados given you by a Normandy farmer - that stuff is lethal.
Every time I saw Malcolm he would comment on how much he liked my hair. I guess it was because I was still only in my early thirties and my hair had already gone quite white. Or maybe he liked me. Hard to tell.
While Jacques went off gas ballooning, I decided to get into hot-air airships. These pressurized blimps still use burners to make the air hot for buoyancy, and there was a constant tension between keeping the envelope closed up for good pressure and letting in enough air to keep the burners from asphyxiating. It had forward motion from a large propeller-fan at the back operated by a 2-stroke engine, and could be steered using ropes attached to the end of the tail.
We had already founded a small balloon museum in Tyndall, SD, and so this airship was designed to help advertise it. Her British registration mark was G-UPPY, so that's what we called her. I competed in the European Championships in her, and flew her in Switzerland, the UK and the USA. I even tried to set a distance record in her from South Dakota one winter, but the burner went out in a snow storm over Nebraska and I fell out of the sky. I managed to get the airship into a hole in the woods and neither she nor I suffered a scratch. I flew her again later that day.
I suppose one of the highlights of our travels was in 1989 and 1990 when we flew balloons in what was then the Soviet Union. In 1989 we took Uncle Sam (and another small balloon) to Lithuania where we flew her from the main square of Vilnius, flying the flag of the Lithuanian Republic (not of the Lithuanian SSR). I can't believe how big a risk we took back then. The USSR was tottering, but it hadn't fallen yet, and Lithuania was still in the fold. But the local people loved us and our balloons.
In 1990 we took our new balloon, Matrioshka (a Russian doll) to what was still called Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again) and we flew her from Catherine the Great's palace and over the city itself. We even did a balloon glow in front of the Winter Palace. That was quite a time.
I gave up ballooning in 1997, but I don't regret a moment of it!