Wallaby. From the word wolaba, meaning any one of the various small to medium kangaroos found in Australia. For James "Jim" Johnson, the Wallaby is a 23,000 cubic foot lighter-than-air lifelong dream come true. While many trace their interest in hot air ballooning to their first balloon ride, Jim Johnson traces his interest to the days of his childhood growing up in northwest Iowa.
"I was always fascinated with anything having to do with lighter-than- air," recalls Johnson, "from the smoke jumpers at the county fair, to the flights of the Piccards (Don's parents)." He remembers the high altitude experiments of the Air Force launched from the Stratobowl and how he used to think "one day one of those balloons is going to land in our south forty.
"I was also fascinated with the Shenandoah, Akron, Macon and Los Angeles, all Navy blimps. And of course," he says, "I was tremendously interested in the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin--I remember distinctly the Hindenburg because it crashed just shortly after I enlisted in the Army in 1937." At one time Johnson owned a piece of the Hindenburg given him by an old Army buddy, but through the course of service in two wars, it was lost.
While he doesn't credit it directly as an influence on his love of ballooning, Johnson spent his years in the service as a paratrooper learning to jump, fly and land parachutes. His last assignment found him in Augsburg, Germany in 1959 where he would occasionally see gas balloons popping up over the Alps. This renewed his interest in lighter than air flight.
Johnson moved to Dallas after leaving the service, working for Rockwell International and it was there that he saw his first hot air balloons. It was there that he would begin his pilot training but not before he and wife Mickey had put three kids through college and he had retired from 20 years with Rockwell.
"I remember remarking to Lesley Pritchard (upon his first flight and first hour of instruction) that I had waited 50 years for this moment," chuckles Johnson. The date was April 6, 1979 just a couple of months short of his 62nd birthday. Not exactly the age of many student balloon pilots.
Pritchard, Portis Woolley, Ronnie Long and David Medema, among the earliest pilots in the north Texas area, all served as instructors to Johnson who went on to achieve a private, then commercial pilot's license. "They were pretty patient," laughs Johnson, "to get an old man like me through the training but I made it."
In 1981 Johnson journeyed to Battle Creek, Michigan where he observed another Dallas pilot, Dr. Coy Foster flying his cloudhopper. "I was completely fascinated with the thing and I determined that someday I was going to fly that type of balloon. Something about it reminded me of parachuting and it just seemed like so much fun that it was the thing for me to do," says Johnson.
Johnson's first balloons were a couple of Barnes FireFlys but the idea of flying a tiny, one-man balloon never left him. During the early 80's Johnson and Dave Medema had become close friends. When Medema turned up with a small 18,000 cubic foot balloon at Albuquerque the talk was on between he and Johnson to build their own one-man system. Johnson says Medema was much more hesitant than he but eventually a partnership was founded. Medema, who had already built two or three other balloons, would provide the expertise with Johnson's funding the materials and labor.
Begun in late winter of 1981, Wallaby was completed in June of 1982. Certification flights took place in and around Dallas with the Wallaby eventually certified as experimental. The envelope featured the Medema designed "star" top, a variation of the parachute top to which he later sold the rights to Aerostar though it has never been used in mass produced balloons. The burner was also of Medema's design while the spring cushioned seat for the pilot was Johnson's idea. (Four 500 lb. coil springs absorb much of the shock of landing the small Wallaby).
The Wallaby debuted at Indianola in 1982 with Medema as the pilot. It was a few weeks later before Johnson would make his first long flight, a forty minute jump across Lake Cypress Springs in Texas. It was a Sunday evening and Johnson's 65th birthday and he was hooked.
Johnson and Medema remained partners in the Wallaby until 1986 when Medema sold his interest back to Johnson. During those years Johnson split his time between the Wallaby and his FireFly 7, the Aardvark. Then about "four or five years ago" Johnson decided he had no business carrying passengers at his age ("around 75") and voluntarily surrendered his commercial license for a private certificate, and he decided to fly only the Wallaby.
By the way, why the names Aardvark and Wallaby for his balloons? "I had heard all the others, you know, rainbow this and that, morning this and that, sunrise etc.," he says, "and I wanted to something totally different. I figured naming a balloon after an ant eater and kangaroos was about as unusual as I could get." Of course Wallaby also recalls an earlier time in Johnson's life when as a young paratrooper, long before he had ever been aloft in a balloon, he spent time in Australia where he met Mickey, a young Army nurse who would be his wife for the next 50+ years.
As this article is being written Wallaby will be going in for its 13th annual. Over the years Johnson has made only two revisions from the original design. First he moved from a 10-gallon Worthington fuel tank to a 15-gallon stainless steel cylinder purchased from Per Lindstrand. Second, he exchanged the original home built pilot light for a Thunder & Colt model with dual Piezo igniters. To date Johnson has logged some 140 flights in Wallaby though the flight hours logged are only about 115, understandable since most flights are of less than an hour's duration. "Strangely enough," says Johnson, "I feel safer in Wallaby than I do in a big balloon." Perhaps that is because of the unique landing style that Johnson has developed over the years.
"I don't use my feet at all in landing. I turn around and come in usually on my right shoulder at a 45¡ oblique angle. That's something I learned as a paratrooper," explains Johnson saying he preferred his landing technique to the 'tuck and roll' method taught in the service. The Wallaby's seat, fuel tank and skids, circular extensions of the seat armrests that extend level with the bottom of the fuel tank, touch down first and take the beatings. Indeed Johnson says he has never been injured flying Wallaby.
Just why the tiny, one-man balloons have never taken off as a commercial success is unknown to Johnson. "Maybe it's because they are too expensive (even as a homebuilt Wallaby cost an estimated $8,000 in 1982) and I think perhaps they are a little dangerous to fly," says Johnson. "Funny thing though," he adds, "it seems that of all the people who've seen me and the Wallaby, 50 percent are begging me to fly it while the other 50 percent say they don't want anything to do with it." Perhaps that's why the Wallaby, originally designed as a prototype for a one-man balloon which Medema and Johnson intended to sell, has always remained a one- of-a-kind.
With an 80th birthday looming on the horizon one wonders how much longer Jim Johnson will be flying Wallaby? "As David Levin said to me once," Johnson answers, "keep flying as long as you can; and I will," he says.