August 17

This Day in History

General Interest

Aug 17, 1978:

Balloon crosses the Atlantic

The Double Eagle II completes the first transatlantic balloon flight when it lands in a barley field near Paris, 137 hours after lifting off from Preque Isle, Maine. The helium-filled balloon was piloted by Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman and flew 3,233 miles in the six-day odyssey.

Human flight first became a reality in the early 1780s with the successful development of the hot-air balloon by French papermaking brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. Soon balloons were being filled with lighter-than-air gas, such as helium or hydrogen, to provide buoyancy. An early achievement of ballooning came in 1785 when Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries became the first to cross the English Channel by air. In the 18th and 19th centuries, balloons were used more for military surveillance and scientific study than for transport or sport. As a mode of air travel, the balloon was supplanted by the self-propelled dirigible--a motorized balloon--in the late 19th century.

In the early 20th century, however, interest in sport ballooning began to grow, and an international trophy was offered annually for long-distance flights. Belgian balloonists dominated these early competitions. After World War II, new technology made ballooning safer and more affordable, and by the 1960s the sport enjoyed widespread popularity. The transatlantic flight, first accomplished by aircraft and dirigible in 1919, remained an elusive goal of elite balloonists.

From 1859 until the flight of the Double Eagle II in 1978, there were 17 unsuccessful transatlantic balloon flights, resulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. In September 1977, Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson made their first attempt in the Double Eagle I but were blown off course and forced to ditch off Iceland after traveling 2,950 miles in 66 hours. Abruzzo took several months to recover from frostbite suffered during the ordeal, but by 1978 he and Anderson were ready to make the attempt again. They added Larry Newman as a third pilot, and on September 11, 1978, the Double Eagle II lifted off from Preque Isle, Maine.

The 11-story, helium-filled balloon made good progress during the first four days, and the three pilots survived on hot dogs and canned sardines. The only real trouble of the trip occurred on August 16, when atmospheric conditions forced the Double Eagle II to drop from 20,000 feet to a dangerous 4,000 feet. They jettisoned ballast material and soon rose to a safe height again. That night, they reached the coast of Ireland and on August 17 flew across England en route to their destination of Le Bourget field in Paris, site of Charles Lindbergh's landing after flying solo in a plane across the Atlantic in 1927. Over southern England, their wives flew close enough to the balloon in a private plane to blow kisses at their husbands.

Blown slightly off course toward the end of the journey, they touched down just before dusk on August 17 near the hamlet of Miserey, about 50 miles west of Paris. Their 137-hour flight set new endurance and distance records. The Americans were greeted by family members and jubilant French spectators who followed their balloon by car. That night, Larry Newman, who at 31 was the youngest of the three pilots, was allowed to sleep with his wife in the same bed where Charles Lindbergh slept after his historic transatlantic flight five decades before.

In 1981, Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark, and Rocky Aoki of Japan flew from Nagashimi, Japan, to Mendocino National Forest in California in the first transpacific flight. American Joe Kittinger made a solo transatlantic balloon flight in 1984. In 1995, American Steve Fosset accomplished a solo transpacific flight. One of the last frontiers of ballooning was conquered in 1999, when Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Englishman Brian Jones completed the first nonstop trip around the world in a hybrid helium and hot-air balloon. They flew from the Swiss Alps, circumnavigated the globe, and landed in Egypt, having traveled more than 29,000 miles in 20 days.

Then, in 2002, American adventurer Steve Fossett became the first man in history to fly around the world solo in a hot-air balloon.

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