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Don’t Bounce Off The Trees

May 2024
12min read


The Providence that looks out for small children and inebriates must certainly have a protective concern for free-balloon pilots. And indeed I suppose that is appropriate, since the pilot or passenger in a free balloon is almost as helpless against the assaults of the elements as the smallest tot or the most supine wine-bibber.

I spent World War II as a lighterthan-air pilot—a chauffeur of those large, nonrigid aircraft usually called blimps, which we affectionately referred to as “large silver birds” and which the less sympathetic derided as “sausages.” The training of a lighterthan-air pilot is somewhat similar to the flight training of a heavier-thanair pilot. It takes about the same length of time, and since many functions and even flight characteristics of these two types of flying machines are similar, a large part of the training syllabus is almost identical: aerology, for example, or navigation, or power plants. Lighterthan-air training, however, had one unique element in its program—the mastery of the free balloon.

The science of free ballooning, or aerostatics, has a very practical value in operating the power-driven blimps. Although a blimp is usually “heavy” in that the total weight of its body, fuselage, crew, fuel, and armament is greater than the lift from the gas that fills it, and although it usually becomes and remains airborne through the thrust of its engines and the airfoil characteristics of its “envelope” and fins, yet this heaviness is only relative; it is slight compared to that of conventional heavier-than-air craft. In this lies the peculiar military advantage of the blimp. It can cruise at a much slower speed for use with convoys, it can hover over a given spot for careful observation or for searching out submerged submarines, and in the event of a power failure it can be quickly ballasted to a state of equilibrium and thus float with the wind until the trouble is remedied. When a blimp is in this condition, it becomes, for all practical purposes, a free balloon. For this reason the mechanics of free ballooning were a required part of the flight training I took at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the original lighter-thanair base in the country.

During the summer of 1941, when I was a cadet at Lakehurst, l made several free-balloon flights. These were always gala occasions for us. The only thing that can compare with free ballooning as a sport, I am told by friends who know them both, is skiing. The flights were usually scheduled in the afternoon after a morning of classes and on days when the weather was agreeable, without the threat of thunderstorms. The principal reason for scheduling them in the afternoon was to catch the usual afternoon offshore breeze, since of course we had to go inland, not out to sea.

The first flight I had was an ideal one. We gathered about three o’clock down at the balloon hangar near the main gate. When the balloon was filled —with hydrogen, not helium—it was “walked” out of the hangar, heavily loaded with bags of sand. The pilot, three other cadets, and myself climbed aboard the wicket basket suspended from the balloon, into an area about four feet square, which held not only the five of us but also about twenty bags of sand. The crew of bluejackets on hand then removed the bags of sand that hung on the outside of the basket until we were just a shard “light.” The pilot then tossed over a bag of sand, the sailors released the basket, and up we shot. When we had reached about five hundred feet, the pilot valved a small amount of gas (by means of a butterfly valve at the top of the balloon from which a cord extended to the basket) to check our ascent. This is a trial-and-error business. If you valve too much, you will start down again and thus have to jettison a little sand to recover the lost altitude; it takes practice to judge the correct amount of gas to valve or sand to throw overboard. And maintaining a given altitude is a continuing problem. The slightest change in barometric pressure or air temperature changes the volume—and consequently the lift—of the gas, and corrections are frequently necessary.

The day was a beautiful one, with a light twelve-knot breeze carrying us over the countryside. I don’t think the pine flats and the cranberry bogs of Jersey have ever looked so good to me. There is no thrill I know comparable to flying so leisurely at so low an altitude. The pilot introduced us to one of the sports of the game—probably a forbidden one—“bouncing” off the trees. It sounds very simple, but it is difficult to do properly, at least for the novice, and it isn’t as safe as reading “All Hands” back in your bunk. Pick out a tall tree a few hundred yards ahead, and judging carefully the altitude, distance, and force of the wind, valve just enough gas to descend to the very top of the tree. The basket rests momentarily in the cushion of foliage; then the ropes become slack as the weight is released from the balloon proper, and it immediately springs aloft. The surge of the balloon upward has enough power to carry it to another tree, perhaps two hundred yards distant, and another bounce. In the wooded area of coastal New Jersey this can be kept up for miles. Of course if you miss a tree, you have to drop a little sand and start over again.

Although we were flying at only two hundred feet, we could see for miles: the occasional deer lurking in the undergrowth of the scrub pines, the neat truck gardens, the white blobs of chicken ranches that litter the Jersey scene, and, from time to time, the pickup truck with two sailors aboard that was following us. I suspect the sailors were having as much fun as we were. Their mission was to track us and to bring us home when we landed. We would see them driving down a road, with us in sight; then the wind would shift, and the truck would have to backtrack, find another country lane, and, as often as not, discover that the road was a dead end, leading to a small sawmill or a cranberry bog.

After about two hours of floating, with each of us taking his turn as pilot, we picked a small open pasture and landed. The landing is always a tricky business. The descent must be very gradual, not abrupt, since the basket will touch the ground at the speed of the surface wind and with a force proportionace to the angle of descent. Anything over five miles an hour can result in bruises and sprains. And at the exact moment the ground is touched, the balloon must be “ripped” by pulling a cord attached to a zipper that runs vertically across its surface, thus releasing the gas almost instantaneously—it is like sticking a pin in a child’s balloon—and allowing the basket to come to a stop.

Our landing was uneventful. No one had a scratch, and the pickup crew was on hand in a few minutes to help us fold the balloon and pack it in the basket. We boarded the truck and, the sun being below the yardarm, stopped at the nearest tavern, where the pilot, as was traditional, bought beers for the cadets and the pickup crew. Then back to the station for long bull sessions with the other guys, who had not yet been so fortunate as to have their first balloon hop.

The second flight I made was pretty much like the first, as I remember, although possibly a little tamer. This was probably because the pilot that day was an older officer. I don’t recall that he let us do any bouncing off the trees; it was probably too rich for his blood, as it would be for mine now. The thing I remember best about the second flight is the landing. After we had cruised for an hour and a half, a summer-afternoon thunderstorm came up. One of the rules was that the balloon was not to be allowed to go into a thunderstorm (the wind blows toward such a disturbance); it should land before reaching it. This was a sensible rule, of course, since no control except that of altitude can be exercised over a free balloon, and the force of air movements within a thunderstorm is such that vertical control is usually impossible. In addition, the added weight of the water can cause considerable difficulty.

The thunderstorm came up suddenly, and we were headed right for it. The wind picked up rapidly while we looked for a spot to land. The area was wooded, and it was several minutes before a suitable space appeared. By that time the wind was blowing about twenty knots, the skies were black, and a few large drops of rain were falling. The pilot, an experienced flier, maneuvered the balloon skillfully into the field and ripped it just as we touched the ground. It was a good landing, but the strong wind caught the fabric of the half-deflated balloon and dragged us, like a drunken ship under sail, a hundred yards across the field before we were able to disentangle ourselves. The damage was slight, but all of us were bruised and stiff the next day. I limped around for a week thereafter.

The next flight I made was scheduled, for some reason, for about eleven o’clock in the morning. We took off on rather short notice, and we forgot to see. that there was any lunch aboard. By one o’clock in the afternoon the fun was beginning to pall a little, and the matter of “When do we eat?” was uppermost in our minds. The pilot this trip, a young man about our age, was a resourceful fellow. We were in a truck-garden area, and the red and green fields of those big Jersey beefsteak tomatoes were below us. Naturally we couldn’t land in a tomato field—it would make gallons of tomato purÖe on the spot. The pilot, however, picked a large field and gently lowered the balloon until it was skimming along, only barely touching the tops of the tomato vines. He maintained that altitude perfectly while my companions lowered me over the side of the basket, and I quickly gathered and handed up a dozen of the most beautiful and delicious tomatoes I have ever seen. We had a fine lunch. This bit of petty larceny was, I hope, forgiven by the farmer. It wasn’t as dangerous a maneuver as it sounds. If I had fallen overboard, I most likely wouldn’t have been hurt. The crew would merely have had to valve “lift” to the equivalent of my hundred and fifty pounds, and I would have been faced with a long walk home.

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.)

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.

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