Don’t Bounce Off The Trees


I drew the 2:00-4:00 A.M. watch. At that hour of the night the wind was mild and the atmosphere extremely stable, and I recall that I had to adjust the static condition of the balloon only once during the entire watch. That one time illustrates the perfect equilibrium that can be reached and the very slight adjustments that are required to maintain it. One of the fellows asked me if he could pour overboard the rest of a half-finished Coca-Cola. I asked him if he would mind waiting a few minutes, which he agreed to do. In five or ten minutes I noticed a small drop in altitude; probably the temperature had dropped a degree. Then the man spilled out his Coke, and that was all it took. The balloon recovered the fifty feet that it had lost and continued on at the original altitude.

Toward the end of my watch everybody but the pilot was asleep, although it was too crowded and cramped in the basket to stretch out or get a very satisfactory nap. I again noticed that eerie feeling of complete solitude—high above the Alleghenies, dark, quiet, occasionally a flicker of light far beneath, and utter silence. … I don’t remember any more of the night; I must have fallen asleep as soon as I called my relief, but fortunately not while I was sitting alone on the edge of the basket, my legs and feet inside, my arms around the ropes, and the rest of me a thousand feet above the Alleghenies.

The remainder was uneventful. A beautiful morning awoke us in the Finger Lake region of New York. We all wanted to go on until later in the morning and land near Lake Ontario, but the pilot said we should stop; I think he wanted a cigarette. About eight o’clock in the morning we set down on the top of a hill. There was a clear open rounded field there. Later we saw the ruins of a cabin and a stone well and knew this had been the site of a home years before. After we landed, the others smoked and began packing the balloon while I explored the neighborhood until, a half mile away, I found a farmhouse and engaged the farmer to climb the hill in his truck and carry us all, with our impedimenta, to the nearest railroad station. I don’t remember the name of the town now. It was an attractive small town in a farming valley. We had lunch there and at two o’clock in the afternoon caught a train that eventually took us somewhere in Pennsylvania, where we made connections for Trenton.

That was my last intentional freeballoon ride. I piloted blimps for several years thereafter. Once, when we were out over the ocean, our flight engineer dozed off and neglected to throw the switch that let fuel flow from the second tank when the first was exhausted. We ran out of gasoline, the engines stopped dead, and I found myself once again in command of a free balloon. I ballasted, the engineer woke up and threw in the second tank, and in a few minutes all was well again. And I was very glad indeed for the somewhat arcane training I had received over the bogs and truck farms of New Jersey.