All posts tagged ‘Ben Abruzzo’

Aug. 11, 1978: First Atlantic Balloon Crossing Takes Off

1978: Three Americans take off in a balloon from Presque Isle, Maine. They will land in a field north of Paris 137 hours, 6 minutes later, the first people to cross the Atlantic in a balloon.

After Lindbergh’s famous 1927 flight, crossing the Atlantic in a balloon remained one of the last great unconquered aviation challenges. Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson failed in 1977 at the 14th recorded attempt at a crossing. After their Double Eagle balloon crashed off the coast of Iceland, they were pulled from the gondola by a rescue helicopter. Though severely frostbitten, they certainly fared better than the five people who had perished in previous attempts.

From the wreckage of that failed flight came a successful crossing. Less than a year later, Abruzzo and Anderson were back in a gondola, this time joined by pilot Larry Newman. Like its predecessor, the Double Eagle II was built by legendary balloonist Ed Yost. Unlike its predecessor, the Double Eagle II had a crew with experience gleaned from its first failed attempt.

Hanging from the 160,000-cubic-foot helium balloon was a 15-foot-by-7-foot-by-4.5-foot gondola carrying the three men, a VHF radio, two single-sideband high-frequency radios, one automatic-direction-finder beacon transmitter, one maritime radio, a hookup to the Nimbus 6 satellite and a ham radio — which Newman used to relay messages after all the other radios stopped functioning.

Extreme temperature variations during the trip caused ice to build up on the outside of the balloon each night, with heat from the sun causing the helium to expand during the day. The balloon would rise and fall accordingly. This led to what the pilots called the “Big Drop” on Aug. 16: Double Eagle lowered to 4,000 feet because of atmospheric conditions and then rose to 24,000 feet the same afternoon after superheating from the sun.

The tower at Shannon Airport informed the crew on the night of Aug. 16 that the balloon had crossed into Irish airspace and successfully completed a trans-Atlantic crossing. The balloonists were invited to continue on to Le Bourget Airfield, where Lindbergh’s flight landed 51 years earlier, but declined because they didn’t want to risk an emergency landing in the heavily populated suburbs of Paris.

Instead of Le Bourget, the Double Eagle II crew settled for a barley field in Miserey, 60 miles north of Paris. The men were immediately swarmed by motorists from a nearby highway who happened to witness the historic touchdown. Newman slept that night in the same bed at the U.S .Embassy in Paris where Lindbergh had slept, and the entire crew was flown back to the United States on the Concorde, compliments of Air France.

Abruzzo, Anderson and Newman went back to the sky immediately to conquer more records. Tragically, Abruzzo and Anderson both died in aviation accidents, while Newman narrowly escaped death during a skydiving accident.

The gondola of the Double Eagle II sits today in the collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The general aviation facility near Abruzzo and Anderson’s hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was renamed Double Eagle II Airport in honor of the crossing.

Source: Various

Photo: Double Eagle II floats over the coast of Normandy. Bettman/Corbis

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