by Peter Stekel
In October of 1976, Ed Yost broke seven world records when his 60,000 cubic-foot Silver Fox flew 2474 miles across the Atlantic Ocean before ditching 700 miles from Europe. In his characteristic clipped style of speech, Yost recalls how he got involved with Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo, and Double Eagle I. "After the Silver Fox flight which I made, there was that National Geographic magazine. I got a call from Max Anderson; he said they were interested in doing the same thing. So they wanted to know if I was interested in building a balloon and teaching them how to fly it."
They discussed design and construction of the balloon that became Double Eagle I, including the open gondola. "The only thing different between Double Eagle I, Double Eagle II, and the Silver Fox was that the gondola was a little bit wider and the balloon envelope was much larger," remembers Yost.
Yost recommended an envelope of nearly 83,000 cubic-foot (later increased to 120,000 cubic-feet), silver on top and black on the bottom. The silver top would reflect sunlight and limit the expansion of helium during the day and the black cone would absorb heat in the early morning and late afternoon. The double catamaran gondola of steel tubing and fiberglass would be fitted with ballast bags, a rain cover for inclement weather, built-in toilet seat, trail ropes, and other necessities. Cost: $50,000. The flying lesson was $3000 more. Yost can afford to chuckle over that. "I'd hate to even get involved these days. If you don't have a million dollars you're not even on board."
In 1977 Anderson and Abruzzo went to Amarillo, Texas for their flying lesson with Yost. They used a 16,000 cubic-foot helium balloon made of clear plastic, taking off after sunset. "We did everything," Yost recalls. "We did calm launches, up and down, balloon control, highway landings, night flights."
Abruzzo and Anderson had flown hot air balloons but Double Eagle I would be a helium balloon and they could expect many differences. Yost found them to be interested students and not diffident. "All students are students!" Yost says, and lets it go at that.
When Double Eagle I didn't make it across the Atlantic in September of that year, Yost was amongst the spectators who felt the disappointment deeply. He had been there. And when you see a balloon you've built go up into the air on such a fantastic voyage, Yost says, "Damn right," if you ask him if it's a wonderful feeling. "It's the years I've been in this business," he says. Since 1950 Yost has been building balloons and he's been flying them even longer. "After 40-50 years you learn a little bit," he says simply.
Still, despite the failure of Anderson and Abruzzo's first flight, Yost says nothing stands out in his mind about Double Eagle I or Double Eagle II. "They were pretty straight-forward."
With a straight helium balloon, "You build up altitude every day because of the ballast you have to drop at sunset to survive the night. Then, the next day your floating altitude is higher each day." But, "Whether you fly over land or water, water is easier to fly over because you don't have all the disturbances from mountains and all sorts of crazy stuff like that."
Yost told them about weather, something that finally stopped Double Eagle I. "I don't think this is up to the flight crew. You have to choose the best meteorologist you can find and you have to trust when they pick out and tell you to fly. If they put you in the wrong weather system you're not going to get there."
As little as we know about the earth's atmosphere today, even less was known twenty years ago. Today, meteorologists feel confident in making three-day forecasts. Twenty years ago, only hubris inspired predictions more than 36 hours in advance. Yost points to the difference with the comment, "With all the satellites and global positioning navigation, this is duck soup nowadays." One thing hasn't changed though. "Once you're up in the air, forget it; you're going to have to live with it because you're stuck with whatever you've got."
Delays in getting the Double Eagles into the air have caused discussion through the years. Some feel that Double Eagle I would have been successful if the pilots had gotten into the air earlier. Yost remembers, "They made mistakes themselves. They ordered the helium for Double Eagle II and they ordered exactly what they required." When the helium arrived, "The pressures were so low (10-20 pounds) in the helium trailer that it took forever to fill." He concludes, "So, they made their own problems."
This brings up the subject of luck, something that all long-distance balloonists seem to mention frequently. "I think it is always luck on that sort of thing. That's what they're going through on the round-the-world flights at this moment."
Pressed, Yost continues that luck is only a part of the equation. "Larry Newman has been in the aviation business all his life. So have I, since 1939. You really, really, learn the atmosphere from one end to the other and all the factors you're going to encounter. You just don't take somebody who's never been involved in this sort of thing and throw him into this."
For that reason, Yost reasons that the round-the-world pilots are overconfident. "Oh, how true," he says. "Everything looks so simple, I guess, before and after. I think they're pretty inexperienced really."
With the focus on the twentieth anniversary of Double Eagle II and on accomplishing the last major hurdle to aviation, Yost doesn't feel the need repeat his own Atlantic crossing. "I only did it one time and that was enough. My whole goal was not to cross the Atlantic in the first place." Germans balloonists made two flights in the early part of century and he wanted to beat the distance and time in the air. Yost says, "World records are not made flying across the Atlantic. That's an accomplishment," to be sure. "They're made by time in the air and in distance. That's the reason I made a very small balloon because every record you beat above you, you get those categories too."
Ben Abruzzo, Max Anderson, and Larry Newman may have envied Ed Yost his solo flight. "It's a lot of work but you don't have to put up with that additional weight," he says. "You can carry more ballast and stay up in the air longer too." Also, "If you're alone, you don't have to have an argument making decisions to save their life; these sorts of things."
Flying solo isn't a cake walk though. "You're always busy getting ready for then next sunset. You can't imagine all the work involved." He got six hours of sleep in one hour increments every night. "I had a timer go off every hour, check the instruments, and then go back to sleep." That's some rest.
According to Yost, how Double Eagle II will be remembered is still open. "I haven't the slightest idea. Only time will tell."