by Peter Stekel
August marks the 20th anniversary of Double Eagle II, the first successful trans-Atlantic balloon flight. One of the world's most dangerous aviation challenges, 14 previous attempts had failed with the loss of five lives: Malcolm Brighton with Rodney and Pamela Anderson in Free Life, 1970. Tom Gatch in Light Heart, 1974. And Bob Berger, the same year, in Spirit of Man.
The following account is based on events chronicled in the book, Double Eagle, by Charles McCarry and a National Geographic article written by Ben Abruzzo.
Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo had tried in September, 1977 to be the first to cross the Atlantic but were unsuccessful when their 101,000 cubic foot helium balloon, designed by Ed Yost, had to be ditched after 65 hours and 30 minutes north of Reykjavik in Iceland. A delayed lift-off, storms, and winds which blew the team off course were the reasons for failure. With Ben Abruzzo suffering from exposure and frostbite, Double Eagle had to be ditched three miles off the coast of Iceland on September 12, 1977.
Anderson and Abruzzo returned in 1978, older, wiser, and more experienced and with the addition of Larry Newman to the team. Leaving from Presque Isle, Maine, on August 11, 1978, they arrived in a farmer's barley field in France, 137 hours, 5 minutes, and 30 seconds later.
Anderson and Abruzzo, successful Albuquerque, New Mexico, businessmen, were in their early forties. Newman, a manufacturer of hang gliders, wasn't even thirty. Contained in all three was several lifetimes of aviation experience in hot air balloons, airplanes, and hang gliders. Abruzzo and Anderson decided to name their flight, Double Eagle, in honor of Charles Lindbergh, the first to successfully fly solo across the Atlantic in a fixed wing aircraft in 1927.
Anderson and Abruzzo decided to fly the Atlantic in March of 1977. Double Eagle I lifted off from Marshfiled, Massachusetts, on September 9, 1977 and set down in the sea off Iceland 65 hours and 30 minutes later. In many ways it was a successful flight in as much as the two men were able to confront and solve the logistical problems of a large exploratory adventure in only six months. Still, there were problems.
They got a late start. Ed Yost, designer and builder of Double Eagle and the only one who knew how to use the equipment to pump helium into the envelope was left stranded at the airport in Logan. No one had thought to pick him up. Crucial tools had been forgotten and Yost was forced to improvise. A storm was brewing in Northern Canada. The Double Eagle meteorologists coupled a two hour delay in departure with the Canadian storm and had reservations. Abruzzo and Anderson made the decision to go and their balloon began to leave the ground at 8:16 PM.
They started well but one crisis soon began to be followed by another. Air currents drove the balloon towards Mt. Katahdin, the highest point in Maine, but they managed to squeak by. Clouds soon blocked the night sky; rain, then snow eventually followed as they moved into the Canadian storm. The balloon fell, then rose, and fell again over the last piece of terrain offered by North America. Over the Atlantic their wet long-range radio died and they turned on their homing beacon.
Things rapidly got worse and worse. If they stayed low, Anderson and Abruzzo were soaked by rain. If they went high, the balloon would ice up and they would suffer mightily with snow, cold, and thin air. By this point, nearly 50 hours into the flight, neither man had slept much and both were soaked to the skin. They had also begun to drift north and west, towards Greenland: the wrong way.
They were able to hail a passing military plane. Anderson called for a helicopter. It was time to bail out on the mission. Double Eagle descended towards an ocean with 25 foot seas.
Abruzzo and Anderson released the envelope; the gondola plopped into the Atlantic. The rescue helicopter pulled Anderson, then Abruzzo, out of the gondola in their orange survival suits. The flight was over.
Back in New Mexico, Anderson immediately began to prepare for a second try at crossing the Atlantic in a balloon. Abruzzo spent several months recuperating from frostbite. Both men relived the flight, trying to figure out what went wrong; what they had done wrong. By spring, 1978, they decided to give it another try. Due to financial considerations and the need to reduce wear and tear on themselves, the two agreed a third pilot would be added. That man was Larry Newman.
Despite a nearly three hour delay in departing August 11, 1978 from Presque Isle, Maine, the flight of Double Eagle II was everything Double Eagle I was not. Only two events marred what could have been a perfect flight: Larry Newman's hang glider brushing against a powerline and the "Big Down." The 160,000 cubic foot balloon easily sailed past the first problem. Once over open water the crew had to contend with radios that either didn't function or worked poorly. The task of getting them up to speed fell to Larry Newman. Eventually he was able to contact a ham in England who relayed all their messages.
A storm developed on their fourth night out. Unlike the previous attempt, it turned away to the north and they had to contend only with clouds. During the evenings, ice would form on the envelope and the increased weight would cause Double Eagle II to descend. With the sunrise, and increased solar radiation, the helium would expand and carry the balloon aloft.
On August 16, Double Eagle II went through a harrowing experience. Atmospheric conditions forced the balloon to drop 19,500 feet to a low point of 4000 feet. They called this the "Big Drop," and compensated for the loss of lift by careful ballasting. Then, superheating from the sun that afternoon caused the balloon to rise to its highest point, 24,900 feet.
As they approached the coast of Ireland, they began to discard equipment. This was done, not only to function as ballast, but also because it would be impossible to do so once Double Eagle II was over dry land. It simply wouldn't be safe to toss over oxygen and propane bottles, batteries, and other hard gear onto unsuspecting people. The crew ditched Newman's hang glider, watching it fly itself down to the waiting ocean.
Once over France, they descended gradually as they looked for a good landing spot. Nobody had ever landed a transcontinental balloon on dry land before. Near the town of Evreux they spotted a barley field and easily touched down. Double Eagle II, with Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman had done something no one had ever done before: crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon.
We offer these four reminiscences, from crew member Larry Newman; balloon designer and builder, Ed Yost; Richard Abruzzo, pilot and son of Ben Abruzzo; and Patty Anderson, wife of Maxie Anderson. Sadly, both Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo were later killed in separate flying accidents.