Don’t Bounce Off The Trees

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The flight that gave me my only real fright was my solo. Any first solo is a thrill, naturally; it is the culmination of a phase of training, and it carries with it the implication that your superiors consider you sufficiently advanced in training and responsible enough to handle a piece of government-furnished equipment and to take care of your own skin. I think I observed all the rules and regulations—with one exception—and I was not guilty of bouncing off trees. Our solo flights were usually not as long as other flights, but after a while of just drifting slowly at a constant and safe altitude I got a little bored. Flying alone in a free balloon has an eerie quality about it, primarily, I think, because of its utter quietness. Since your relative movement to the wind is zero, there is practically no sound to be heard. You can see the heavy traffic on the roads beneath, you can see the chickens going wild at the appearance of the monstrous hawk above them, and you know how they are screeching, yet you hear nothing unless you speak to yourself.

The one rule I broke, and that unintentionally, was to take along the package of cigarettes and the paper of matches that were in my flight jacket. These were verboten, and I didn’t know that I had them. It is unfortunate that free balloons on occasion used hydrogen, an extremely flammable and combustible gas. It was used because the gas in a balloon can be used only once, and helium, an inert gas, was at that time quite scarce and available only for the much larger blimps. A spark could explode the balloon, and smoking was not to be considered. Well, in one of those dull moments of perfect quiet I awoke from my daydreaming to the awful realization that I had automatically and unconsciously taken a cigarette from the package, had it in my mouth, and had torn a paper match from the booklet. I threw the matches overboard and, for a few hours at least, gave up the weed forever.

The final flight in the free-balloon training was a long overnight excursion. An overnight flight is an extensive exercise in aerostatics, of course, but is also of value in other ways. It involves navigation, to the extent of keeping up with your geographic position, and it offers experience in a wider range of weather conditions. It gives the pilots an opportunity for familiarization with terrain at night and even, conceivably, for the employment of survival techniques. (I remember that the pilot took along a bottle of snakebite remedy in the event that we landed in a reptile-infested region, but I am happy to report that it remained unopened.)

That day, a Friday afternoon, we had four balloons taking off at about the same time. Theoretically we would all have followed the same course, but the four different destinations we reached indicated graphically the wide variation in the speed and direction of the wind at various altitudes. One of the four, for example, was forced to land early. At the altitude the pilot chose he found a southwesterly wind, proceeded without delay to New York City, and before bedtime was somewhere over Connecticut. His wind changed, however, and he was unable to find a current to keep him inland; he continued steadily toward Long Island Sound and landed before midnight to avoid going over the open sea, a firm prohibition. The other three balloons, taking off about the same time, found easterly winds.

There were again five of us in the balloon to which I was assigned. The basket, however, was considerably fuller, since we carried a larger supply of sand, provisions for two meals, heavier clothing, an altimeter, compass, road maps, et cetera. The obvious place to sit—on a sandbag—wasn’t very comfortable, and we found it far more pleasant to perch on the edge of the basket with both arms clasped around the guy lines that supported it. It struck me then as a somewhat precarious stance; today I would call it foolhardy.

We left a little after four o’clock in the afternoon and picked up a fresh breeze that had us across the Delaware River and over Philadelphia by dinner time. After nightfall the breeze died down but continued in the same direction. About eleven o’clock we passed just north of Harrisburg; then the wind veered slightly, and we took a northwesterly course. From that time on I doubt that any of us knew exactly where we were. We knew the general direction in which we were going, and where we could identify two checkpoints, we could estimate speed. Before midnight we had decided that we would probably land in upper New York State, and we hoped that only the no-overwater regulation would prevent us from approaching the shores of one of the Great Lakes. Early in the evening we divided the night into watches, with each of us taking a two-hour spell as pilot. The pilot’s duties were to make a record of our position, to maintain level flight, conserving both gas and sand, to keep the required minimum altitude, and, of course, to watch out for other aircraft. (We had a battery aboard, and the balloon carried running lights. A free balloon has the right of way over any other type of aircraft.)