As a boy in Helsinki, Finland, I had been dreaming of getting up in the sky some way. Once I started to build a glider. I also built a ramjet motor and thought I could use it on the rotor tips of a helicopter. The experiments started well but the projects were too big for a young student. I had heard of Veikko Kaseva from Finland, a European pioneer in modern hot-air ballooning and thought even I could make a balloon.
I had only seen one picture of a modern American balloon. Then I saw Kaseva's balloon in the Helsinki Air Show in 1972. I had no money, so I thought why not make a balloon of the cheapest of all materials, paper. I calculated the shape of the 34 envelope strips and soon I, Jan Frjdman and my friend Jan Gstrin found ourselves on the roof of my parents' summer cottage cutting brown package paper. The paper strips were glued together with ordinary wood glue. First we put one strip on top of another and glued the right seam. Then the left seam was glued on to the next strip and so on. When the whole envelope was finished we finally attached regular package string to about every meter of the seams both vertically and horizontally. In this way a net was surrounding the whole envelope. Initially we tied all these strings to the basket! (Later we used steel wires.) The idea was that the net should carry the loads and the paper just keep the hot air inside. We called the balloon JAN2.
We even made a top valve on the envelope. A 12 foot long slit was made and a steel wire was used to keep it closed. It was activated only when we finally emptied our 23,000 cubic foot balloon.
Then we needed a burner. They did not have any hot-air balloon burners in the stores in Helsinki in 1973. Besides I was still out of money. So I had to make one myself. This burner did not use propane; it used gasoline! Well gasoline is not the safest fuel to use but the burner was easy to make. Using steel tubes I welded a burner with 6 nozzles. A spiral of tubes was built to gasify the gasoline and it had to be preheated before use. The third version of the burner consumed a maximum of 90 liters of gasoline per hour. The gasoline cylinder was made of welded steel plates. We used a car air pump to pump pressure in the cylinder.
The basket was just a round wooden platform. Three tubes went through the platform and were sealed under it by one nail on each tube. Some ropes made a fence around the basket.
The first attempt to get up in the sky was made on August 4, 1973 in Sipoo, some 30 km east of Helsinki. It was a lovely sunny day and almost all of our friends and relations were gathered. Unfortunately the first burner I made was not powerful enough. The balloon rose magnificently but was not able to carry any passengers. At the first attempt I had a stiff ring of steel tubes in the opening of the envelope, which resulted in tearing the paper. I also used a chimney on the burner to protect the paper from fire.
The next attempt with my new more powerful burner was successful. It was in the winter, on March 9, 1973. This time we tried to inflate on the ice close to our summer cottage. A tarpaulin was spread to protect the paper. We did not use any fan so one person had to support the envelope inside the balloon, while others helped by flapping the envelope. During the filling of the balloon the burner was not fixed to the frame of the basket. Some funny but dangerous situations arose when a blazing burner and people were mixed together as the envelope rose. After the balloon stood up, the burner was finally fixed to the frame.
Then I experienced the memorable first takeoff with a balloon. Then for almost the whole day we flew anchored to about 150 ft.
One sunny day the next summer we tried again. This time the wind increased and the envelope was torn during the filling of the balloon. This time even Veikko Kaseva witnessed our attempt.
Finally on May 4, 1975 we so to speak flew "successfully" again. Again many of our friends and relations were gathered and they even had an opportunity to fly. I had made the burner more powerful so the balloon carried two persons. With a total mass of 270 kg the average temperature inside the balloon was about 170C! Paper resists heat better than nylon.
During the whole day of flying we experienced one moment of danger. Well it's funny to remember afterwards but it could had ended in disaster. I had a super-8mm camera in the basket and the idea was to film the surroundings from the balloon during a quick ascent. I heated the balloon a lot with my friends holding the basket at the ground. Then they let me go. At the end of the 180 ft anchor rope were 5 persons preventing me from escaping. But the jerk was too much for four of them and they had to let the rope go. Because of the jerk the lower part of the envelope got a 6 ft hole. Then Pelle, the last guy, took off holding the rope at its very end. He went up 70 feet in the sky kicking the whole time. At this moment I was 250 feet high. All of this was documented on a super-8mm from the ground. At the time it was funny for me to see a small ant kicking at the end of the rope 180 feet down. Of course I shut off the burner and we began to descend. The wind took us some 300 feet towards the forest before Pelle was down again. Then my friends pulled the balloon towards the field with me and the basket going through the top of the trees. This was my first and only free flight with the balloon. And I just wonder what would have happened if Pelle had also let the rope go. With that wind direction, the sea would have been close.
We went on flying anchored that day and did not worry about the hole in the balloon. Then finally the destiny of the balloon was close. My mother was the last one to fly. She flew anchored until the cylinder ran out of gasoline, then descended. During the refilling, the balloon remained standing. Unfortunately the main valve on the burner was not closed so ungasified gasoline flowed to the nozzles. When we ignited the burner somebody, by purpose or by accident, opened the quick valve and burning gasoline splashed on the paper envelope. Soon the fire made a large hole on one side and the envelope fell down for the last time. In less than 1 minute 40 kg of paper was gone..... One year later I began to build a bigger balloon of paper but I never finished the project. And so my early ballooning ended.
Nearly 15 years later my thoughts went back to ballooning again. I have now been flying hot-air balloons for nine years. But this time not with paper balloons. I was the Finnish champion in 1994 and came in 11th at the World Hot-Air Balloon Championship in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1995. On April 20, 1997, I became the first hot-air balloon pilot ever to cross the Gulf of Finland.