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Two Priests And A Truck Driver Float Into The Sky

August 28, 2009

excelsior

I have been too long gone, but long time readers know that following this blog is like watching a game of cricket. Nothing at all happens for a very long time, then all of a sudden when you least expect it, something very boring happens.

I kid of course, cricket is fantastic – any game where you play for five days and still often end in a draw is one that this avid procrastinator can’t get enough of. To fall asleep for hours in front of the cricket and awake to find not much has changed – well isn’t that life itself?

This is my longest entry so far, and reflects the high (pun intended) esteem in which I hold those to whom it is dedicated: those magnificent men and their floating machines. Because this latest entry in The Horatio Files would like to pay tribute to the daring men who inhabit the rarified air (okay I’ll stop the lame wordplay – okay maybe a couple more, you’ll have to wait for them…) of the thrilling world of the cluster-ballooner.

I’ll admit that ‘ballooner’ doesn’t sound very cool. Not like ‘ninja’ or ‘heavy metal monk’. Perhaps the term should be changed. ‘Ballooniere‘, to reflect its French origins? ‘Balloonario‘ also has a dashing quality. ‘Ballunatic‘? But I suppose I had better start by explaining what cluster-ballooning is.

We’re all familiar with hot-air balloons. You heat air, it expands in the canopy, lifting you. When the air cools, you begin to descend, so you have to heat more air to stay afloat. Well, how about getting a little balloon that is filled with something lighter than air like helium, so it already floats? Then get another one. Then get a whole bunch more. Tie them to something. Now hop on, and away you soar…

Of course the eagle-eyed among you will instantly recognize that you don’t have a great deal of control here. Unlike hot-air balloons which have vents to control altitude, in cluster ballooning you just keep going up until the air becomes very thin, matching the density of the helium and you level out, hanging there very high in the sky, completely at the mercy of wherever the wind wishes to take you.

That’s all very good, and I hear you say that while that does indeed sound thrilling, you would at some point like to come down. Well simply pop a couple of balloons. But not too many. Otherwise you plummet to your death. This is not for the faint-hearted. You’d have to be some kind of ballunatic to even attempt it.

Let me introduce Padre Adelir Antonio de Carli. You’ll come to appreciate that one of the requisites of being a ballooniere, is that you be in possession of a fantastic name, one worthy of your amazing feats. With a name like Adelir Antonio de Carli, you can be assured that whether or not you seek it, history will nonetheless take it upon itself to find you. This good Brazilian priest, tied an imposing colourful mass of helium balloons to a modified seat, said a silent prayer and left this sinful earth and rose into the heavens…

the ascension of padre Adelir

the ascension of padre Adelir

Let us leave the good padre for a moment, as he is lifted into the wide blue yonder, and go back to the very beginning, for the history of ballooning is well worth a visit.

Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (see what I mean about the names) was kicking back in Eighteenth century France, observing laundry dry in front of a fire. He observed the sheets would now and then form pockets and billow upwards. While many men would have paid scant heed to such things and gone back to dozing in front of a cozy fire, monsieur Montgolfier was entranced, and immediately set about building a lightweight wooden frame over which he stretched some taffeta cloth, and under which he lit a fire. The contraption rose to the ceiling.

He sent for his equally fantastically named brother Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, writing “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world“. Who could resist such a summons, and the Montgolfier brothers immediately did what any man would do after making a cool contraption, they re-made it, only much, much bigger.

A public demonstration of the floating of such a craft on June 4th 1783 was naturally a sensation, and news of their amazing endeavours spread to the very beating heart of the world, Paris. In order to officially lay claim to the invention that had finally tamed the skies, they decided it was necessary to take their flying machine there and repeat their feat. In realization of the importance of such a task, Joseph-Michel did not go but remained with his family, “given his unkempt appearance and shyness“. It was left to Jacques-Etienne, the “epitome of sobre values, modest in clothes and manner…” to go forth and stake their claim.

The demonstrations were successful, and in September, at the Royal Palace in Versailles, in front of the King and Queen, they attached a basket to the balloon, and the first living things given the honour of the test flight were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. Because they were technically balloonieres, the sheep was given the fantastic name Montauciel (‘climb-to-the-sky’). Sadly the names of the duck and the rooster do not survive, perhaps because they became so well known that nobody ever thought to write them down. They flew without a hitch, for eight minutes, to wild acclaim, attaining an altitude of 1,500 feet.

Though how impressed the duck was, being able to fly much better on his own without the need of such fancy contraptions, was another fact also left unrecorded. But one can’t help feel elated for the rooster, who finally got a taste of what all the other birds had been talking about. It is a shame that his race would forever be maligned as the butt of jokes containing the mere crossing of a road, when one of its members had already taken to the skies.

It was now time to construct a hot-air balloon capable of carrying humans. A search was conducted to find two individuals with suitably fantastic names to be accorded this superlative accolade, and the winners were unsurprisingly the Marquis Francois Laurent d’Arlendes and Jean-Francois Plaitre de Rozier.

In November, the pair undertook a genteel but historic 25minute flight, covering five and a half miles at an altitude of 3,000ft. It is hard to describe how strongly this feat captured the imaginations of the locals. They, along with the Montgolfier brothers became the first flyboys to set thousands of female hearts aflutter. They were the Top Guns of their day.

you can call me Maverick

you can call me Maverick

De Rozier now constructed his own balloon, and in conjunction with a Pierre Romain, attempted the first international flight by crossing the English Channel. Sadly they were beaten to the task by another catchily-named duo, Dr. John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Undeterred, de Rozier forged ahead with his plan, but his balloon sadly caught fire and crashed, and therefore Pierre Romain (? – 1785) and Jean-Francois de Rozier (1754 – 1785) did attain a record, but it was the unfortunate one of being the very first people to have been killed in an air crash. (No doubt Icarus would dispute that).

De Rozier’s wife died eight days later, reputedly having killed herself. As we will see, being romantically involved with a balloonario is a very demanding role. As a testament to his short but pioneering role in ballooning, modern gas and hot-air balloons are known as Rozier balloons. The sadness of his passing aside, the allure of ballooning could not be contained, and the craze swept across the Atlantic, and the indefatigable Jean-Pierre Blanchard was the first to fly a hot-air balloon in America, an event watched by one George Washington, who no doubt couldn’t have helped wondering how much easier it would have been to cross the Delaware in one of those.

But the history of invention is never so clear-cut. One of the biggest controversies is the role played by a Portugese priest born in Brazil in 1685. Showing that the Portugese flying pioneers were also no slouch in the name department, Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao, was said to possess a “remarkable memory and a great command of languages“, and followed in the scientific footsteps of Francesco Lana de Terzi, who we can safely assume knew what he was on about.

His revelation came not from laundry but from watching a soap bubble float upward in the hot air surrounding the flame of a candle. This inspired him to conceive of a very, let’s say ambitious project, which he petitioned the King of Portugal to be allowed to pursue. It involved gigantic sails being stretched over a boat like frame, with bellows pumping air through tubes to the sails when there was no wind. Intriguingly, there was also a  role of two magnets in separate hollow metal balls, which were somehow to aid in propulsion.

Understandably, the proposed date for the demonstration of June in 1709 came and went, and Bartolomeu decided to scale back operations a little, and settled on a more modest design, and by August was set for a demonstration of a small paper balloon, without sails, bellows, tubes or magnets. However even then, things did not go according to plan, as it caught on fire before lift-off.

Undaunted, Bart returned two days later after having ironed out the kinks in his project, and succesfully demonstrated a paper balloon which rose appropriately majestically in the presence of the King. It rose so well that servants, fearing that it would reach the ceiling and set it on fire, were forced to destroy it.

Gusmao stamps his authority on aviation history

Gusmao stamps his authority on aviation history

Three days after that, the cocky Gusmao showcased a new design of a wooden platform containing a clay bowl which contained the fire that lifted the paper balloon. Among the dignitaries was a cardinal Conti, who later became a pope, known as Pope Innocent XIII, perhaps being unaware that proclaiming yourself the Innocent instantly makes people wonder what you may indeed actually be guilty of.

Here the story gets a little murky. Bartolomeu seems to have experimented with ever larger balloons, and then is rumoured to have flown one of these contraptions himself, crashing it but not before achieving a kilometre of flight. This would make him the first person to have flown, predating the effort of Rozier and the good Marquis in a Montfolfier balloon, by several decades.

Did this actually happen? It is hard to say, there are conflicting reports. Records from the era itself are scarce. A sceptical newspaper article in The Times, written much later in 1786, states: ” By accounts from Lisboon we are assured, that in consequence of the experiments made there with the Montgolfier balloon, the literati of Portugal had been inclined to make numerous researches on the subject; in consequence of which they pretend that the honour of the invention is due to Portugal. They say that in 1720, a Brazilian Jusuit, named Bartholomew Gusmao, possessed of abilites, imagination and address, by permission of John V, fabricated a balloon… and one day, in presence of their Majesties, and an immense croud of spectators, raised himself, by means of a fire lighted in the machine,… but through the negligence and want of experience of those who held the cords, the machine took an oblique direction, and touching the cornice, burst and fell.

The article goes on to expand on Bart’s ultimate fate: ” The inventor proposed to make new experiments, but, chagrined at the raillery of the common people, who called him wizzard, and terrified by the Inquisition, he took the advice of his friends, burned his manuscripts, disguised himself, and fled to Spain, where he soon after died in an hospital… Several learned men, French and English, who had been at Lisbon to verify the fact, had made enquiries at the Carmelite monastery, where Gusmao had a brother, who had preserved some of his manuscripts on the manner of constructing aerostatic machines. Various living persons affirm that they were present at the Jesuit’s experiments, and that he received the surname of Voador, or ‘Flying-man’

What are we to make of all of this? I have read from many sources  that it is a misconception that he was persecuted for his flying machines. While poor Bart did in fact come to the attention of the Inquisition, it was not for his experiments, but on unrelated charges (though interestingly I can’t find anywhere where it states exactly what those other charges are. If anyone knows, please let me know).

He did go to Spain, where he died of a fever. It seems to be a recurring theme that these brave balloonistas tend to end in tragedy. His surviving works from the time include sermons and a work dated 1709, which when translated is titled:  ‘A Short Manifesto For Those  Who Are Unaware That It Is Possible To Sail Through The Element Air.’

So depending on who you believe, the inventor of the flying balloon were either two French brothers, one shy and unkempt, the other of sobre values and modest manner, or it was a Brazilian Jesuit, possessed of imagination abilities and address. Whoever it was, The Horatio Files salutes them all.

Well now, let us move on. The inventors are a rare breed, but often it is those that come afterwards who push the new advances to their limits, fully highlighting how amazing the initial discovery was.

One such individual is (man I love these names) Captain Joseph William Kittenger II. He spent his teenage years like many of us, racing speedboats. In 1949, he then joined the U.S. Air Force. When Colonel John Paul Stapp set the speed record of 632mph (1,017 kph) in his rocket car, who was flying the observation plane? That’s right – the Kitt. He flew missions in Vietnam where he was shot down and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’. This is a guy who is no stranger to extreme situations.

The Kitt

The Kitt

In 1960 he was chosen as part of Project Excelsior (latin for ‘ever upward’) at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories. This was research into the effects of high altitude bailouts, from a little gondola, which is lifted by balloons. The ascent could be controlled (those meddling scientists) so whilst not strictly cluster-ballooning, it is impressive nonetheless. The plan was simple. Float up to ridicuous heights, and jump out. The Kitt was born to do this. He made three extreme jumps.

Remembering that Roz and the Marquis attained a height of 3,000 ft, you can appreciate Kittenger’s feat, when his first jump was recorded from an altitude of 76,400 feet. It did not go well. An equipment malfunction sent him into a flat spin of 120rpm (twice per second) which resulted in him experiencing 22 g-forces (or 22 times the force of gravity) – a record. He blacked out, but luckily the automatic parachute system worked.

Less than a month later, he was back in business, this time jumping from a much more sensible altitude of 74,700 feet. A cake-walk. Or cake-fall as the case may be.

His third jump was extreme, even for The Kitt. They went straight for 102,800 feet, or 19 and a half miles straight up. He went to town on the records. It was the highest anyone had ever been in a balloon. It was the highest parachute jump ever. To stabilize him and stop him from spinning, he deployed a tiny parachute called a drogue when he exited. He set the record for the longest drogue-fall, falling for an amazing 4 minutes and 36 seconds before activating his main parachute. He also currently holds the record for fastest human being without the aid of a vehicle. While falling, he reached Mach 0.9, or 90% of the speed of sound. That means he was hurtling through the air at over 1,000 feet per second.That’s not bad without an engine. And all this was after his suit malfunctioned on the way up, losing pressure in his right glove, so that his hand swelled up to twice its normal size.

Captain Kittenger goes forth. And then down. Very quickly.

Captain Kittenger goes forth. And then down. Very quickly.

So from the Montgolfier hot-air balloons to the Kitt’s space age jumpsuit, we have two ends of the scale of ballooning. But what if you want the simple charm of the old-style balloons, but something which also has the danger factor of the extreme jumps have?

Welcome to cluster-ballooning. Simplicity itself. You, a seat and a whole lot of balloons. Danger? Well, you can’t really control where you go. Allow me to introduce Larry Walters.

Mark Barry has chronicled the entire story in great and compassionate detail, and I urge those who want to find out more about Larry to check out his site at markbarry.com

The fascination of ballooning had been with Larry from childhood. “Since I was 13 years old, I’ve dreamt of going up in the clear blue sky in a weather balloon.” (When I was 13 years old, my only ambitions involved being able to grow a beard). Larry tried taking a more conventional approach to getting airborne, but couldn’t join the Air Force due to poor eyesight, and ended up in the Army. But as with all great men, he didn’t let obstacles discourage him. It took 20 years of yearning, but Larry finally achieved his dream, but it wasn’t with a weather balloon, it was with 42 of them.

He had not planned on anything too audacious, certainly nothing in the Kitt territory of extreme ballooning. Larry’s plan was to get a bunch of weather balloons, fill them up with helium, attach them to his lawnchair, cut the tethers and float above his San Pedro backyard at a height of 30 feet or so for a couple of hours, snacking on sandwiches and sipping on some beers.

For someone like me who takes the art of leisure very seriously, I would be hard pressed to imagine a more satisfying way to spend a summer afternoon. So Larry, having little inkling of what awaited him, climbed into his lawnchair, which he had named Inspiration 1. Along with beers and sandwiches, he also carried along a BB gun, to shoot out a couple of balloons when he was ready to end his aerial adventure.

You may be wondering just where exactly one gets a bunch of weather balloons. Well, it’s quite easy. You do what Larry did, use a requisition form for a film studio, saying you wanted the balloons to shoot a commercial. With that settled, Larry and his girlfriend and a couple of buddies (or the ‘ground crew’) were all set to make a dream come true.

Larry takes flight, wearing what ele but aviators

Larry takes flight, wearing what else but aviators

However, it seems that Larry, his girlfriend Carol and trusty ground crew had underestimated the lifting power of helium. With Larry comfortably settled in his lawn chair, all was set for the launch on July 2nd, 1982. They cut the first tether, and Inspiration 1 was immediately away, rising sharply, snapping the other tether.

Instead of a sedate glide up to 30 feet, Larry experienced a rapid ascent, hardly giving him time to let out a shout of surprise over his walkie-talkie. He was rising at close to 17 feet per second, and didn’t stop until he had reached an altitude of 16,000 feet. Because he was unlicensed and unsanctioned, this could not be recognised as an official cluster-ballooning record.  The highest altitude attained by cluster-ballooning is 18,300 feet achieved by Americans Mike Howard and Steve Davies, accomplished in 2001, 19 years after Larry.

On Mark Barry’s website, you can hear audio from the actual flight itself. On YouTube, you can find a news item with footage of Larry drifting imperiously across the sky. An understandably worried Carol can be heard demanding that Larry come down “now! “Perhaps I am doing a disservice to Carol, but I can’t help but wonder whether she herself managed to set a record for the highest altitude nagging.

Imagine that you are Doug Dixon, a member of an amateur radio club. All of a sudden a crackly voice intrudes on your frequency with a mayday call saying that he is airborne in a lawnchair and getting numb. Or better still, imagine that you are a TWA pilot, engaged in idle chatter with your co-pilot, when you spy out of the corner of your eye a guy sitting in a lawnchair attached to balloons floating at 16,000 feet. This is precisely what the pilot reported back to the flight tower, who could actually pick Larry up on radar!

Realizing that help was unlikely to eventuate, Larry shot a balloon tentatively, and then a couple more. Perhaps because his hands were numb, he dropped the gun. Had he shot enough balloons? Worse, had he shot too many? It was time to play the waiting game… While many would panic or be paralyzed with terror, Larry maintained a zen-like calm, and enjoyed his spectacular ride. While he had taken along a camera, he later confessed that “I was so amazed by the view I didn’t even take one picture.”

Several hours after lift-off, Larry drifted eventually drifted down over a Long Beach neighbourhood, the landing as dramatic as the take-off, with Larry becoming entangled in power lines, blacking out a small area. Suspended five feet above the ground, he was freed from his lawnchair but arrested by the waiting police, but not before achieving his lifelong dream, and how many of us can say that?

Such life lessons were not uppermost in the mind of regional safety inspector Neil Savoy. But the case was so strange that he was at a loss. “We know he broke some part of the Federal aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed… If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.

The Federal Aviation Admnistration initially fined Larry $4,000 but this was reduced to $1,500 when one of the charges, operating a “civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an Airworthiness Certificate” was dropped, due to the difficulties in establishing exactly what class of aircraft a lawnchair could be defined as.

Inspiration 1

Inspiration 1

Larry was unimpressed by such unfeeling heavy-handedness. “If the F.A.A. was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk” was his response, and one can understand his frustation, even allowing for the incredible assault on logic, or alternatively the incredible foresightedness that would need to have taken place for the F.A.A. to have been around before the first flight at Kitty Hawk.

Larry Walters had taken off a San Pedro dreamer, and landed an American Hero. He was an instant celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show and on The Late Show with David Letterman, as well as on the news and many print interviews. In one of these, he told The Times “It was something I had to do… I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn’t done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm.

He captured the national imagination, and has been referenced many times over the years in popular culture. He inspired a musical called “Flight of the Lawnchair Man”, and a play called “Up”. References to his memorable exploit can be found in T.V. shows as diverse as The A Team, Malcom In The Middle, Urban Legends, King Of The Hill, Arrested Development, Mythbusters and SpongeBob SquarePants. A motion picture has even been released about his feat called “Danny Deckchair”, to mixed reviews.

Larry quit his job and was for a time in demand on the lecture circuit as a motivational speaker. But his fame waned, and in later years he shunned the limelight and did volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service, saying “I love the peace and quiet. Nature and I get along real well.

But as we are all too sadly aware, tragedy is never far from the ballooniere, and this story too ends in sorrow. Like Kittenger, Larry had served in Vietnam, and one can only imagine the horrors that he witnessed and had to drag back with him to “normal life”.

But such theories are merely speculation. Whatever the reason, on October 6th 1993, Larry hiked to a secluded region in Los Angeles National Forest and shot himself in the heart. He never married and had no children. The poet is tempted to believe that after the euphoria of sailing through the clouds, life on earth could no longer hold any sway. But the true reason will never be known, real life sometimes being too large to fit into poetry. Larry was 44. “By the grace of God, I fulfilled my dream. But I wouldn’t do this again for anything.

Let us now return to where we started. We had left the good padre Adelir Antonio de Carli having uttered his silent prayer, and drifting up into the clouds.

the Flying Padre

the Flying Padre

While Gusmao and the Montfolfier brothers were taken with the spirit of invention, de Rozier with the pioneering of a new technology, Kittenger with expanding the knowledge of science, and Larry Walters with achieving his own personal dream, what was it that drew padre Adelir to the skies? The noblest reason of all – to help his fellow man.

Adelir, like Gusmao, was no ordinary Brazilian priest. He was dedicated and courageous in doing good works for others. In 2006 he stood up for the rights of beggars against violence, his tenacity leading to the arrest of several municipal guards. But he also devoted himself to less dramatic causes, including the one he was fundraising for with his cluster-balloon flight.

Concerned that Brazilian truck-drivers in Paranagua servicing Brazil’s largest port were often left for days waiting to unload their cargo, padre Adelir decided that what was needed was a spiritual rest-stop for them. ‘Spiritual’ is not a word which springs instantly to mind when one thinks of truckers’ rest-stops, but it is just this kind of revolutionary thinking that ensures the devoted following padre Adelir enjoys. Not only that, but this was something for which the good padre was willing to risk his life.

You might be surprised at a humble servant of God going to such extents, but as we have seen padre Adelir is no ordinary priest. In addition to his ecclesiastical duties, he is also a skydiver.  And this was not his first cluster-balloon flight either, having already completed a four hour flight from Brazil to Argentina.

He had also undergone a jungle and mountain survival course. This was hardcore priesthood. So it come as no surprise that he wasn’t messing about with his balloons. For his flight of charity, he wanted to make as big a statement as possible, and so used, in a variety of colours, 1,000 helium balloons. A cool helium grand. His equipment included a ‘parachute, helmet, water-proof coveralls, GPS tracking, mobile phone, satellite phone, flotation device chair, aluminum thermal flight suit and at least five days of food and drinking water.

His plan was to fly from Paranagua ,inland to Dourados, a trip of a mere 465 miles. By now, you almost consider it fate for the grim breath of Tragedy to buffet yet another intrepid ballooniere, and with padre Adelir it was no different. Rough winds blew him in exactly the opposite direction of where he wanted to go, and out over the vast silent ocean.

While he had undergone survival training on land, surviving the stormy seas is another matter altogether. Sadly, while he could probably kill a giant python with a box of matches and use its body to pull himself out of a ravine, it appears that the good padre didn’t receive much instruction in the use of his GPS device.

In a phone interview with a Brazilian TV network, he said that he was “very cold, but fine.” Heartbreakingly, he says that if only someone could explain how to use his GPS, he could relate his position to rescuers. However he soon lost contact with authorities, his last words being that he had to land in the sea as he was “losing height“.

The next few days saw a frantic search for the missing Adelir. But he seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. Given his occupation, I couldn’t help but think of the prophet Elijah, who had bypassed the bothersome business of death and ascended directly into heaven. The second book of Kings, chapter 2, verse 11 relates how Elijah was with Elisha when “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

Could…surely not? Perhaps the good Lord had some urgent business which required padre Adelir’s unique set of skills in heaven? The discovery of some his balloons floating in the ocean, a sight both festive and incredibly sad, seemed only to add to the mystery.

vale adelir

After five and a half days, the search was finally called off, the planes, helicopter and two boats having scoured 1,900 square miles. Were this a movie, the story would have ended here, the precise whereabouts and fate of padre Adelir Antonio de Carli being forever unknown. But, as Adelir knew only too well, life can be cruel, gruesome and devoid of happy endings.

More than two months after losing contact, a support vessel for an offshore oil-rig discovered floating in the sea the lower half of a human body. The clothing seemed to suggest that it was indeed the good padre, and a subsequent DNA test confirmed that it was so.

It appears that Adelir not only goes into cluster-ballooning legend, he’ll go into the record books as well. While he didn’t survive, he did go higher than any other cluster-ballooner, reaching 19,685 feet. In this harsh discipline, there is often a high price for glory.

But what, says the cynic, did this simple Brazilian really achieve? And for what? Some kind of holy truckstop? Firstly, let’s not look down our noses at truck-drivers. Anyone, regardless of occupation is capable of doing amazing things. (And I happen to think driving massive trucks would be amongst the most legal fun you can have on the road. Who hasn’t seen a big rig on the highway and wanted desperately to be behind the wheel? You sidle up to them in your pathetic tin can apology for a vehicle, a process which in itself takes an age as you crawl past a huge array of lazily, confidently spinning wheels, and you pull leve, catch the driver’s eye and mime the pulling of the horn. And from their Olympian height they smile benevolently at you, before casually reaching up and pulling on that cord, loosing a strange sound both booming and shrill, the raspy, echoing voice of the spirit of the open road…) Larry Walters was a truck-driver.

One way of thinking would be to say that these ballooning men who attempt so foolish and dangerous an undertaking deserve what they get. The sky is no place for us, and if we must travel amongst those forbidden clouds, it should be in a giant metal plane, capable of going where we bid it, and even then we are periodically reminded of our hubris…

But another train of thought, and one which I hope you share with me, is that these extraordinary men are answering a call that the rest of us are not only deaf to, but are perhaps also unable to fulfil even if we did hear it.

The balloonieres show that everyone can make a definitive statement about how we choose to live our lives, irrespective of our circumstances. From flights in gilded palaces in front of the King and Queen, to ones over a suburban backyard, the will to be thrilled by life can find expression anywhere.

It is the call to extend the reach of humanity, not only physically by entering the skies, but also mentally (or ‘spiritually’ as Gusmao and Adelir will insist) by not losing ourselves in the mass of troubles that confront us down on earth, but by finding ourselves in the skies. Looking down on our confused efforts, allowing the wind to take us beyond our false limitations by realizing that even the highest reaches of the heavens cannot contain the capacity we mere mortals have for invention, exploration, inspiration and compassion.

ballooniere spirit

These sentiments, like the history of ballooning itself, seems to be both melancholy and hopeful, tragic and (here’s the last lame pun) uplifting. But as humans, we seem to have an innate desire for stories with unequivocal happy endings.

So let me leave you with Ken Couch, (again wonderfully named, though I guess Ken Lawnchair would have been too perfect) a 47 year old gas-station owner from Bend, Oregon. Only 1 day after the body of padre Adelir was discovered, Mr. Couch set off on his latest attempt at an interstate cluster-balloon journey.

Like Larry Walters, his fascination had began at an early age: “When you’re laying in the grass on a summer day, and you see the clouds, you wish you could jump on them. This is as close as you can come to jumping on them. It’s just like that” He had left previously in 2007 from Oregon in a lawnchair attached to our friends those helium balloons, destination: Idaho.

I don’t know anything about Idaho or why you would want to go there. It’s probably a fantastic place. But if I did have to go there, what better way to arrive than by aerial lawnchair? Whatever reason Mr. Couch had, he was, like all his brother balloonieres, determined to succeed. He had come close in this second attempt.

An early 6.00am morning lift-off occured without incident, after having kissed his wife Susan and a quick pet of his chihuahua Isabella, who while perhaps not as instrumental as Montauciel, can nonetheless claim her small animal part in aviation history.

Travelling at a sedate pace of 25 miles per hour, he was followed by his ground crew in three cars. containing friends, family and of course Isabella, who must have thoroughly enjoyed the greatest game of fetch ever played. He was well-equipped, his lawnchair stocked with food, drinking water, water in containers which could be released acting as ballast, instrumentation to measure altitude and speed, a GPS (which he was thoroughly familiar with operating), and a video recorder.

After a mostly pleasant 9 hours, hampered only by “occasional turbulence“, Ken Couch decided to call it an admittedly long day, worried about the worsening terrain which was near the formidably named Hell’s Canyon, and having run low on water and ballast. He landed in a farmer’s field in Union, having just literally fallen short of Idaho by 30  miles, but having traversed a very commendable 193 miles.

In an eery similarity to Larry Walters, Ken Couch’s flight was also witnessed by a passing pilot, Brian Wilcox. I’m guessing that the Larry Walters event must surely have passed into pilot’s lore, and Brian must have been aware of it, but must never have thought that he would see anything like it himself in a million years.

The only moment of drama came just after the landing, when released of his bodyweight, the lawnchair was swept away, carrying the video camera along with it. It seems the sky wants some secrets for itself. [EDIT: A reader has informed me that the chair has been found! Over a year after it went missing, it was discovered by ranchers on their property, who hadn’t heard of Ken, but the Sherif they called certainly had. Ken has his own website at couchballoons.com and you can check out some amazing pics from his flights and the recovered footage will be up there when processed. -thanks to Brendon for the info.]

Was Ken disappointed after having come so close to his interstate goal? No –  Ken knows that while records and ‘firsts’ are an important part of the history of ballooning, there is something deeper and more valuable that draws men up there. Ken’s verdict? “It was beautiful – beautiful.

This appreciation is all the more remarkable given that when he made his first attempt, he popped some of the balloons, but  popped one too many and went into a rapid descent. Mr. Courch took this in his stride, and jumped clear, having brought with him a trusty parachute.

This was only considered a minor setback, and it was clear to all that he would try again. His wife Susan, the latest member of that long-suffering group, the partner of the madcap ballooniere, after having recovered from the drama of the first attempt, said that after the second one she was thinking about saying no.

However, these women have a hard-earned understanding of the breed to which their husbands belong, and she conceded “I know he’d be thinking about it more and more, it would always be on his mind. This way, at least he’s fulfilled his dream.

So with the blessing of Mrs. Couch, Larry began preparations for a third attempt. As mentioned, it took place the day after the recovery of padre Adelir’s body, an event which must surely have cast a sombre tint on proceedings. But as we have seen, this fraternity does not shy away from challenges, and we can firmly believe that the good padre would have approved.

This time, all went well. It was, you could say, plain sailing (Through The Element Of Air). Ken Couch, on July 5th 2008, after 9 hours and 12 minutes, in a cluster-balloon powered lawnchair, having travelled 240 miles, landed safely and triumphantly in western Idaho.

ken couch

No deserted field this time, members of the public who had followed his progress were waiting for him, and he was greeted with an ice-cold beer. There were media present, and Ken went on late night T.V. but unlike Larry Walters did Leno instead of Letterman. So there you have it, one happy ending.

As I wrote, when I was reading through the accounts of the balloonieres and their colourful history, I noted that they all had fantastic names. All except Larry Walters. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with it, it’s just no ‘Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao Voador the Flying-Man’, that’s all. He is instead simply the everyman’s ballooniere, the People’s Balloonario. Larry Walters is me. Larry Walters is you.

When asked by a reporter why he did what he amazingly did, he simply replied: “A man can’t just sit around“.     Excelsior!

~<>~

viva minutiae,

-sillionshine.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 3:16 pm

    Thanks for stopping by .

  2. Dan Derozier permalink
    January 26, 2010 3:10 am

    Man that was one of the most entertaining and awe inspiring articles I’ve read in the last twenty years 😉 I’m not sure if I’m related to the DeRozier of noted fame, but I sure would like to be. lol
    Thanks for the great article.
    Dan

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