Double Eagle II - A Retrospective

Larry Newman

by Peter Stekel

Larry Newman has crowded a lot of aviation history into his life. A co-inventor of the ultra-light airplane. A pilot on the first balloon flight across the Pacific Ocean in 1981. A manufacturer of experimental aircraft, Lear Jet pilot, and 757 Captain with America West for ten years. He also flew with Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo in 1978 when Double Eagle II successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

An incredible experience? "It was certainly a special experience," he recalls, "but also consistent with what I had done before. I had already won the world hang gliding championships and had been involved with aviation since an infant. This was not so much a ballooning, but an aviation related adventure. It required a lot of planning and a lot of risk. It was a good feeling but not completely new in regards to the adventure."

After the failure of Double Eagle I, Ben Abruzzo and Max Anderson cast about for a third pilot to accompany them on Double Eagle II and share in the duties and responsibilities of the flight. Larry Newman remembers the reason he ended up on the flight. "Ben Abruzzo was a surrogate father and my closest friend."

Beginning in 1974, the two men had developed a business relationship and a deep personal relationship. Newman counts off the many things they did together. "Ben had invested in my hang gliding manufacturing company. We flew airplanes together. We had bought a Lear Jet together. I taught him how to fly hang gliders. He involved me in many of his business dealings."

Newman says, "When they decided to fly again, they went to several balloonists who declined, and then Ben told me his perspective on the adventure and it fit right in with my lifestyle. He asked Maxie and Maxie said that as long as I put up a third of the money it would be no problem."

The only problem for Newman was how to drum up the cash. To fund his third of the trip, Newman came up with the idea of bringing his hang glider along. As a promotional effort, and a tax write-off for his business, Newman could fly it to the ground when Double Eagle II reached France.

In retrospect, Newman is fortunate they had to ditch the hang glider late in the flight because, "It would have probably negated the record and it would have been more of a personal stunt than actually being part of a team. And not a great promotion for my product, either."

The flight of Double Eagle II has been chronicled in many places, most notably in a National Geographic article in December, 1978, and the 1979 book by Charles McCarry, "Double Eagle."

Therefore, a blow-by-blow account isn't necessary here but a few personal remembrances by Larry Newman are appropriate.

"The first night we took off (August 11, 1978 from Presque Isle, Maine), Ben and Maxie immediately went to sleep. We had a fatiguing day preparing and an equally exciting launch, almost electrocuting ourselves when my hang glider hit a powerline immediately after takeoff." They dragged though a field and finally got airborne. "We're now at 8000 feet, Ben and Maxie are asleep; it's perfectly quiet in the gondola. That night the Aurora Borealis was intense as was a rare meteor shower so the sky was lit up with meteors the entire nighttime."

Newman had never been in a gas balloon before and only once in a hot air balloon for 15 minutes. "It was really eerie to be floating along in a soundproof room which amplified the sounds of a train, a waterfall, vehicles on the road, and some animals. It was surreal," as if something he'd dreamed about. "That was very unique."

With no rancor, Newman also recalls the mood in the gondola of Double Eagle II for the rest of the flight across the North Atlantic. "Relationships were contentious because we weren't really a team. Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson were at odds for the majority of the flight." With three pilots in the gondola, everything led to majority rule. "In virtually every instance I sided with Ben, based on what I saw as logic, and that caused a lot of friction."

Newman recalls volunteering, "To do everything when I was asked." He was never reluctant to do what was necessary. "I think Ben was the same. In my opinion, Ben was the Captain of the flight and that made it very easy for me to go along with decisions that I thought were reasonable that Ben made. I think Maxie went along as well because there isn't that much to do on a balloon and when two people begin on a task that requires three people, it's difficult for the third person not to go along."

Back in 1978 there was much discussion in some circles over the plan for Double Eagle II to fly at high altitudes. Some pilots felt the only way to successfully cross the Atlantic was to stay low to the surface of the ocean. Newman scoffs at the thought that what they did was innovative. "It's not innovative at all. It's not today and it wasn't then."

The way Newman explains it, "The physics behind gas ballooning dictates that every day the balloon will be higher than it was the day before based on the loss of ballast when sunset comes. So, a stair step profile is what happens. It's not what people look for, it just happens." Double Eagle II ended up at a higher altitude only because, "Every day we were 10% lighter than the day before. So we edged up just under 25,000 feet by the fifth day. But it wasn't anything we created or envisioned. We knew that the higher we'd go, the stronger the winds would blow but that is standard in meteorology."

Newman still meets people who tell him that they followed the flight and he thinks that is wonderful but, "That's not the same as being there." Perspective is the main reason he feels this way. "When we flew Double Eagle II, everybody on the ground had a concept on what was going on but a spectator is a spectator." Newman says that, "Even people on the ground as part of our support team are spectators. They don't really know what went on with us. The dynamics of the three crew members is a huge part of the flight." People have made comments about what they should have done but, "Nobody can know what went on unless they're there."

Larry Newman's experience with Double Eagle II, Double Eagle V (the Pacific flight), as well as a lifetime of aviation experience gives him a unique view on current round-the-world flight plans. "With crossing the ocean, regardless of how serious people think of the danger, there is the risk of perishing."

It had happened in previous Atlantic crossing attempts. In September of 1970, Malcolm Brighton and his two-person crew perished when Free Life went down 30 hours into their flight. Thomas Gatch, in Light Heart, went down in February, 1974 and died. Many others tried to cross the Atlantic and ended up wet, but alive. And Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo first flight in Double Eagle I almost ended in disaster.

"Everyone thinks that going around the world is just a matter of building a big balloon and filling it up gas and equipment and then going. But the technology isn't really here yet. It's so complex, it's like trying to fly the space shuttle without a test flight. It's not going to happen for a while; at least in my mind."

Nevertheless, Newman wishes them all the best of luck because, "Anyone who puts together this kind of project deserves success. This is not like taking a hot air balloon out in the morning and having eight of your friends help you inflate it, flying along until the winds get to ten knots, and landing it."

For Newman it is much more. "This is risking your life and essentially stopping everything in your life for years to prepare. You're facing barriers that no one really comprehends. Not even you, and it's your project. You don't know what the barrier is until you work on it." For these reasons, Newman says, "I wish them all a tremendous amount of luck and success with any mission that's attempting to fly."

As for his own twentieth anniversary plans to celebrate Double Eagle II, Newman doesn't have any. "For me it was just another adventure. While it had a positive outcome, it wasn't one of the more difficult things I've done. I don't mean that because I was anything special. I was a passenger. I didn't really understand all the dynamics of ballooning at that time."

Newman returns to a subject that all long-distance balloonists seem to mention. "I'll be the first to admit that I'll take luck over skill any day. There was a tremendous amount of luck in our success. It wasn't just skill." He says that Double Eagle V and crossing the Pacific Ocean was much more complex. "Around the world is a hundred times more complex."

"Most people look at the success of Double Eagle II because it was an emotional victory for people. Everybody, including people who had nothing to do with us, enjoyed the success of that mission. I look at it as a great event and I think of Ben and Maxie more than just on occasion. I think of those two men and what we were able to achieve together and for me that is essentially celebrating the victory. The anniversary for me is just another day in history."

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