Hangar Flying

Maiden Flight
by Dan Bryan

In the early 1970's, a brand new Piccard balloon was purchased and sent to Anchorage, Alaska. The guy that bought it had recently moved up there. He had flown some six times with an Alaska pilot, and he had a license. He wanted to take his wife up for the first flight in his new balloon.

For the event, he selected a park in the outskirts of the city that was simply a clearing surrounded by tall trees. He did not get a weather report, a report of winds aloft, nor did he launch a pibal. He simply announced that he was going to launch his new balloon at 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and a dozen people showed up to watch.

At the launch site, the winds were blowing quite strongly - not enough to prevent the flight, but enough so that one should lift off really hot, to compensate for the inevitable false lift. In this early Piccard balloon, similar to an early Avian Balloon, the burner had a lever that was not spring-loaded. You had to turn it on, and you had to turn it off.

The old soup can burner was suspended in the center of a load ring, which gathered wires from the mouth and from the basket, much like an old gas balloon after which it was patterned. The burner was attached to two 20 gallon tanks of propane.

These early balloons had other problems associated with their design. Occasionally a thermal would catch one while it was on the ground. The crew would frantically try to keep it from lifting off. They would hang on to the basket for dear life. Meanwhile, the thermal was twisting the envelope, and the load ring was turning, screwing the pilot and his passengers down into the bottom of the basket.

There was no superstructure above the basket to prevent overturning. Sometimes, when one of these balloons would land, the pilot and passengers would find themselves in the "doghouse", completely underneath the basket, being dragged along the ground. It wasn't much fun.

This morning in Anchorage, the low time pilot turned on the relatively inefficient burner, and prepared to launch. His only passenger, his wife, boarded. With the inexperienced crew that he had, he did not weigh off hot enough. He went up fast at first, but then slowed, and before he could clear the trees, he was into them. The basket hit the trees at the downwind side of the clearing, and it flipped the two aeronauts into the evergreen treetops.

The balloon took off to the north by itself with the burner three- quarters of the way open. A cloud ceiling at 5000 feet made the balloon disappear, interfering with good chase procedures. Off went a pilotless, unmanned balloon on its way to never never land.

After retrieving the pilot and passenger from the trees, the loyal spectators headed off in the general direction that we thought the balloon was going. But the Knik Arm, an arm of Cook Inlet, was directly ahead. We had to go around it, then head up into the hills. We kept driving around in the vicinity of Hatcher Pass at 4000 feet, looking for the balloon to descend and land. Visibility was not the greatest, since cloudbase was only a thousand feet above us.

After five hours, everyone had about given up on finding the runaway balloon. We were heading down out of the mountains, when we suddenly passed a forest service fire truck heading up the mountain. We turned around and began to chase. After a bit we came upon a small ski chalet on fire, with what was left of the new Piccard draped across its roof. Most of the balloon was already melted. The pilot light had succeeded in setting fire to some liquid propane that had spewed out, and in turn set the house on fire. When it was finally put out, 80% of the house and all of the balloon was gone. The only thing salvageable from the balloon was one of the 20 gallon tanks.

Some cross country skiers had not seen the balloon land, but they had seen the fire, and had reported it. The burner of course had been on constantly. This would make the balloon climb at perhaps 1200 feet per minute, and get continually hotter. Even at 900 feet per minute for 45 minutes, the balloon could have achieved an altitude of 25,000 feet. But that might not have happened, since the top may have burned out sooner, and the balloon would then have descended, streamering. There was not enough left of the balloon to determine what had actually happened. The forest service found the registration number, and traced the balloon to the owner. Not only did he lose a brand new Piccard on its maiden flight; he had to pay to build a brand new chalet. It was an expensive flight for him, especially since he did not have any insurance. It put him out of the ballooning business for quite a while.

He should have launched a pibal, so that he could see how much the wind was blowing above the trees. Then he should have used three knowledgeable crewmembers to weigh off, getting really hot before lifting off, and popping well out of the clearing, overcoming the inevitable false lift.

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