Looking Back: The First Crossing of the Atlantic by Men in a Balloon

On August 11, 1978, three American balloonists Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman lifted off in their balloon Double Eagle II from Presque Isle, in Maine, United States, to take on the challenge of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Abruzzo and Anderson had also attempted the feat in the previous year, but they were caught by storms, blown off course, and had nearly died from exposure. On that first attempt, they had to ditch the balloon in the North Atlantic and were rescued by Iceland’s Coast Guard. Undaunted, they had taken off again, this time with Larry Newman, an accomplished hang glider.

The Double Eagle II during its transatlantic flight in 1978. From the National Air and Space Museum collection

Crossing an ocean in a balloon is a dangerous physical challenge that requires great courage, endurance, skills, resourcefulness, and luck. Sixteen previous attempts to cross the Atlantic had failed and five balloonists had perished in the adventure. Nobody had attempted the crossing for the second time except for Abruzzo and Anderson.

They launched in an open unpressurized 6 x 8.5 ft. gondola, suspended beneath a helium gas balloon, about sixty-five feet in diameter and ninety-seven feet high. Fully inflated the balloon stood as tall as an eleven-story building. The gondola was packed with 6,240 pounds of equipment, food, water, and ballast.

The Double Eagle II gondola on display at the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington DC, USA. Photo credit-LTA Flight Magazine

Wearing heavy clothing against the cold, they also had to use oxygen masks whenever the balloon climbed above 15,000 feet. Weather data from their ground crew helped the pilots to vary the altitude of the balloon and take advantage of changing wind conditions. However, the high frequency radios did not work, and Newman communicated with mission control through a network, set up by an amateur radio operator in England.

The flight tested the pilots’ resolve, patience, and friendship and they went through many tense moments. Half way through the flight, their balloon was caught in an avalanche of air and plunged from 23,500 feet to about 4,000 feet. The drop was arrested by throwing off food, water, and other important and expensive items overboard. As they struggled against storms and cold, they tossed 95% of the equipment and ballast, including Newman’s hang glider.

Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo, and Larry Newman on arrival in France.
Courtesy of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (AAAIBM)

They  brought the huge transatlantic balloon down  in a barley field, in the village of Miserey, in France, on August 17, 1978 – six days after leaving the United States. Sleeping three-hour shifts, they had maneuvered the aircraft for 137 hours, 5 minutes, and 30 seconds and had flown 3,120 miles. Their supplemental oxygen was over, and they had only 250 pounds of ballast.

Thousands of people and journalists greeted them as they landed, and the pilots rose to international fame. On August 26, when they returned to their hometown Albuquerque, in New Mexico, 15,000 fans had gathered to greet them, and 60 hot-air balloons lined the route from the airport to the Civic Center, while six balloons floated overhead.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter sent them a congratulatory telegram. “On behalf of the American people, I salute your triumphant adventure,” it said. In June 1979, the U.S. Congress presented gold medals to Anderson, Abruzzo, and Newman in recognition of their singular accomplishment. Along with achieving the long-cherished dream of balloonists to cross the Atlantic, they had also set new records for both duration and distance.

But the Atlantic crossing was not the last of their ballooning adventures.

In 1979, Abruzzo and Anderson took off in Double Eagle III and won the Gordon Bennett gas balloon race. And on November 12, 1981, Abruzzo and Newman along with team members Ron Clark and Rocky Aoki accomplished the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean in Double Eagle V.

 

Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman and Maxie Anderson with their medals from the U.S. Congress. Courtesy of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (AAAIBM)

Sadly, Anderson and Abruzzo, both passed away in flight accidents. Maxie Anderson and Don Ida were killed in Germany, on June 27, 1983, while competing in the Gordon Bennett balloon race. And, Abruzzo died when the plane he was piloting crashed in Albuquerque on February 11, 1985.

Like some of their predecessors, Anderson, Abruzzo, and Newman had taken ballooning to a new level, and other balloonists followed suit to meet greater challenges of distance, altitude, stamina, and speed.

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