March 1, 2013
Remember the final scene in Thunderball? After foiling a nuclear attack, 007 (Sean Connery) and femme fatale Domino (Claudine Auger) are hauled on board a passing B-17 by the Fulton Skyhook system. The aerial retrieval system consisted of a package that could be dropped to a person on the ground, who would don a harness attached to a 500-foot line. A balloon, inflated with a portable helium bottle, raised the line to its full height.
A pickup aircraft (note the “horns” on the nose) would then fly directly at the line, aiming at a marker placed at an altitude of 425 feet. As the line was caught on the forks, the balloon would release, and a spring-loaded mechanism would secure the line to the aircraft. The person was then winched up the line.
The first live test of Robert Fulton’s system was done with a pig, notes the CIA’s page on Fulton and Operation Coldfeet. “Lifted off the ground, the pig began to spin as it flew through the air at 125 mph. It arrived on board undamaged but in a disoriented state. Once it recovered, it attacked the crew.” (We aren’t surprised, are we?)
The National Air and Space Museum is in the process of conserving its Fulton Skyhook suit, which was donated to the Museum in 1972 by the U.S. Air Force. “Skyhook was meant to be universal,” says Steven Pickman, a conservator in the Museum’s Conservation Laboratory. “It fit any size adult, and was suitable for any environment.” When they first inspected the suit, the conservation team was alarmed by a white material on its surface. The haze wasn’t mold or salt efflorescence, and, in fact, wasn’t harmful at all, so the team just added storage supports and left the suit alone.
The Fulton manual notes that “The effect of the induced acceleration forces on the human body due to the aerial pickup by this system has been carefully evaluated. The recorded accelerations, from numerous tests, have ranged from 4.5 Gs to 10.2 Gs with a mean value of 5.5 Gs.” While the system was capable—in theory—of rescuing three 200-pound men at one time, the manual points out that “Since the feasibility of multiple pickups has only been proven with animals at this time, it is judged that multiple pickups of human beings will not normally be used until thoroughly tested.”
January 11, 2013
As the U.S. government was gearing up to send the first man into space in the 1950s, questions abounded as to how people would survive in this foreign environment: What kind of vehicle would best protect them? How should environmental controls be configured? Will people even survive the radiation levels, unprotected by the Earth’s atmosphere?
One way to prepare for the journey was to send biological material — plants and animals — to near-space on a balloon, with various instruments, and measure the effects. In 1955, doctor and writer Webb Haymaker followed around a Navy crew as they launched balloons from Minnesota and raced to recover the live payloads. He published the account in what was likely one of the more exciting articles to appear in the journal Military Medicine.
“Operation Stratomouse,” as Haymaker dubbed it, began with the biggest foil of balloon launches: the weather. The many last-minute “no-gos” finally started to turn the anxious crew members against each other. “Once, after a favorable forecast had ushered in utterly impossible weather, and a crew member had remarked that ‘that crowd of parasitic bandits over in the weather station ought to be sent up in one of the balloons,’ [launching chief Ed] Lewis squelched him by commenting quietly that he would be dispatching them in the wrong direction!”
Mice, those perennial lab creatures, were among the payloads to be studied for any effect from cosmic rays. Project lead Otto Winzen noted that although they had “sent balloons up for many purposes, even some with rockets dangling from them which are fired into the upper stratosphere when the balloons reach 80,000 feet… the flights to come have a particular significance because of their living cargoes.”
And those living cargoes required special packing:
They were in a flat wire mesh cage, each in its own compartment, gnawing away on pieces of raw potato, which would quench their thirst on the long cruise. The cage was placed on the platform which covers the lower hemisphere of the gondola. Then the two hemispheres were sealed airtight by means of 134 bolts and nuts, and around the sphere went a thick shell of insulating plastic and over that a layer of shiny aluminum foil to reflect the sun’s rays. The oxygen tanks were strapped into place, and filled to capacity. The gondola purred from the vibration of its cooling fans like something alive.
While certainly risky for the near-space-traveling mice, it wasn’t always a safe venture for the human crew, either.
[Balloon] Evelyn A leaped skyward, giving off an agonizing, crashing, echoing sound. As she moved swiftly in the direction of the truck, a gust of wind caused her to hesitate; her long nylon rope then lashed out to one side in an undulating movement as though it were a whip being cracked. Agile little Herk Ballman, standing at the level of the beacon, just managed to jump out of its way. An old hand at balloon launching, he had always been successful at outwitting a rampaging balloon. His close call brought to mind a launching in Europe in which one crewman had had his scalp ripped from one end to the other by a rising gondola, and another his forearm mangled and his shoulder dislocated by a swerving nylon rope which had momentarily looped itself around his arm.
Once aloft, the 175 foot-diameter balloon was quite the sight:
“There’s something eloquent about a gigantic balloon when being launched, whether it slips away tranquilly into the unknown or goes charging forward like an enraged elephant,” Winzen went on to say. “Each has a personality of its own and every one is a solo performer. From where I stand on the launch platform, I can catch from one balloon the satiny swish of a wedding gown as a breeze twists it, and from another the full resilience of a four-master after it has lurched suddenly before a gust of wind.”
The team had a C-47 at their disposal to chase the balloon, which would travel hundreds of miles away, giving the gondola payload extended exposure to near-space. Meanwhile, calls of flying saucer sightings came pouring in to newspapers and even the FBI as the balloon floated over farms and nearby towns. But Haymaker was taken with the romance of the sight:
Brilliantly lighted by the setting sun, she looks like the evening star. A little later, having taken on a harvest moon hue, she is outshone by Venus. A pity that she is expendable! Tomorrow, after she has accomplished her noble mission, a segment of her wall will be ripped out by a line attached to the top of the falling parachute, and she will wallow and sink, like a harpooned whale, and ultimately be found in farmers’ refrigerators, reduced to vegetable bags.
The Navy boys were just as excited, but less moony-eyed, as one sergeant observed “that she is ’tighter’n a bullfighter’s pants,’ and should be belching off some gas soon.” Eventually, the gondolas were cut from the balloons and parachuted to the ground, where the crew frantically searched for it before time — that is, the oxygen — ran out. “They are looking for congregations of cows, who are curious about gondolas, and for a line-up of cars along a road, for farmers, too, take advantage of extraordinary diversions such as this.”
Sometimes it was good news, such as when the gondola from Evelyn A was recovered: “There they were, all 60 mice cocking their eyes at the warden and me as though asking for food.” Other times, it was total loss, such as when the gondola on Emma V didn’t sever properly, the payload clinging on far too long for the animals to survive. Emma V continued on its flight, making newspapers around the region as the crew tried anything to get it down:
Our Emma V was described as an unruly giant. The following morning the account was continued, the caption reading, ”Balloon Dips But Evades Plane Guns”… On the fifth morning there was this surprising announcement: ”Wandering Balloon is First Satellite.” The Emma V was sighted over Bathhurst, New Brunswick, and was headed over the Atlantic for ”a high-altitude European tour.”
Haymaker grandly concluded his story about the ballooners, championing their role in future spaceflight:
Up there, in the as yet hostile and forbidding fringes of space, where it is always night, the ubiquitous mouse has gained a foothold. Before man can do likewise, or, indeed, pierce the stratosphere and travel through the black unknown beyond, he will continue to need balloon-borne animals as forerunners-unless, per chance, man himself is willing to serve as “guinea pig” for his fellowman.
August 16, 2012
In 1871, Mary Breed Hawley married “aerial navigator” Carl Myers, an inventor of balloon fabric.
As she watched her husband ascend in his balloons day after day, Mary decided she’d like to fly too. She adopted the moniker Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut (Myers was dubbed “the Professor”), and in July 1880, in Little Falls, New York, she made her first ascent, as a crowd of 15,000 gathered to watch.
The following account of a September 1880 flight is from Aerial Adventures of Carlotta; or, Sky-Larking in Cloudland (1883), and is included in the Library of America’s wonderful book Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight (reviewed in our August 2012 issue).
[After entering a storm,] “I became anxious about the safety of the balloon, which during this unchecked upward flight must be rapidly expanding and in need of attention….
“Finally…I arose above the snow-white mountains of cloud-land. Sailing above and occasionally through these topmost peaks was chilly sport, which soon ended in my attempting to ‘slide down hill,’ by letting out gas…. [T]he earth suddenly jumped up at me, and I found myself swiftly diving at a few feet elevation over a woods…. [A] gust of rain rendered the balloon too heavy to rise, and it bounded rapidly across the tree-tops…. I cast anchor immediately…
“By and by a hunter came shouting through the woods, attracted by my calls, and looking everywhere except high enough. He laughed at my situation and asked me why I hadn’t found a taller tree to land in. His companions, a man and a boy, soon joined him. They ‘didn’t see how I could be got down.’ It was twenty feet from the balloon to the trunk of the tree, eighty feet to the ground, and two and a-half miles to the nearest house, and I began to think the basket might have to be my hammock for the night which was approaching, but I resolved to escape before if possible.”
Six smaller trees below the balloon had to be felled before Carlotta’s balloon could be safely lowered.
“I found myself on the ground after hanging up there nearly two hours. We were all much fatigued, and glad to shake hands together, as we felt quite like old friends. The men said they never knew a woman could engineer a job so well before, but I guess that may be because they never before caught one ‘up a tree!’”
July 11, 2012
One hundred fifteen years ago today, on July 11, 1897, engineers S.A. Andrée and Knut Fraenkel and photographer Nils Strindberg set off to reach the North Pole by balloon. They were never seen again. As Alec Wilkinson writes in The Ice Balloon (Knopf, 2012):
Before the twentieth century, more than a thousand people tried to reach the North Pole, and according to an accounting made by an English journalist in the 1930s, at least 751 of them died. Only [S.A.] Andrée used a balloon. He had left on a blustery afternoon [in July 1897] from Dane’s Island, in the Spitsbergen archipelago, six hundred miles from the pole. It took an hour for the balloon, which was a hundred feet tall, to disappear from the view of the people who were watching from the shore—carpenters, technicians, members of the Swedish navy who had assisted in the weeks leading up to the launch.
Two years of planning had led Andrée to predict that he would arrive at the pole in about forty-three hours. Having crossed it, he would land, maybe six days later, in Asia or Alaska, depending on the winds, and walk to civilization if he had to. Ideally, he said, and perhaps disingenuously, he would descend in San Francisco. To meet the dignitaries who would be waiting for him, he brought a tuxedo.
Every newspaper of substance in Europe and North America carried word of his leaving. The headline on the front page of the New York Times said, “Andrée Off for the Pole.” A British military officer called the voyage ‘The most original and remarkable attempt ever made in Arctic exploration.’ For novelty and daring, the figure to whom he was most often compared was Columbus.
Then, having crossed the horizon, he vanished, the first person to disappear into the air.
Andrée believed he could “sail” the balloon using a drag-rope technique; while most historians feel the technique wouldn’t have worked, it’s a moot point: the drag-ropes were pulled from the balloon just minutes after launching. Two days later, clouds and fog forced the balloon down to the ice pack; the men were grounded. They set out—shivering in their wool coats and carrying crates of champagne and cans of sausages—across the ice, toward a cache of food at Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land.
They never made it. By October all three were dead, probably from hypothermia and dehydration. It wasn’t until 33 years later, in August 1930, that the men of the Bratvaag Expedition (studying the glaciers of the Svalbard archipelago) found the remains of the Andrée expedition. Escorted by five destroyers and five airplanes, the men’s bodies were returned to Stockholm on October 5, 1930.
May 12, 2011
When Jules Verne’s novel Five Weeks in a Balloon: or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen was translated into English in 1869, it appeared with this publisher’s note: “So far as the geography, the inhabitants, the animals, and the features of the countries the travellers pass over are described, [the book] is entirely accurate…. The mode of locomotion is, of course, purely imaginary…” (The Smithsonian Institution Libraries owns many early editions of Verne’s works; see a lovely on-line exhibition here.)
Verne may have been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1844 New York Sun newspaper article (which came to be known as “The Balloon-Hoax”) caused such a stir that the paper had to print a retraction.
Poe’s story—entirely fictional but presented as a straightforward newspaper article—informed readers of a three-day Atlantic Ocean crossing by balloon. (Notice that Poe’s and Verne’s balloons are both named Victoria.) Poe wrote that “The Atlantic has been actually crossed in a Balloon; and this too without difficulty—without any great apparent danger—with thorough control of the machine—and in the inconceivably brief period of seventy-five hours from shore to shore!” Supposedly, the details of the journey were “copied verbatim from the joint diaries of Mr. Monck Mason and Mr. Harrison Ainsworth,” two of the eight passengers aboard. (“Monck Mason” was based upon real-life aeronaut Thomas Monck Mason; “Harrison Ainsworth” was novelist William Harrison Ainsworth.)
The first aviators to actually cross the Atlantic were the pilots and crew of the NC-4 flying boat, which (along with the NC-1 and NC-3) left New York on May 8, 1919, arriving in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 27, 1919. Their journey was eclipsed in June 1919, when British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first direct nonstop flight across the Atlantic, flying a Vickers Vimy bomber. The first lighter-than-air crossing was made by the R34 rigid airship, commanded by Major George Herbert Scott, which left Britain on July 2, 1919, and arrived on Long Island, New York on July 6.
Five Weeks in a Balloon was made into a movie (starring Red Buttons, pop singer Fabian, Barbara Eden, and Peter Lorre) in 1962. At one point, as the balloon is about to land in the jungle, Sir Henry Vining exclaims, “It’s a forest full of trees!”
Glad we’ve got a genius on board.
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