A Japanese War Weapon and Don Piccard’s Famous Flight

Historic Balloon to Become Museum Exhibit in Michigan (Part 1 of 2)

During World War II, the Japanese used knowledge of atmospheric science and lighter-than-air technology to attack US mainland from November 1944 through April 1945. About 9,300 balloons strapped with explosives, called FU-GOs, were launched from Japan to ride a jet stream –30,000 feet above and across the Pacific Ocean–and hit North America.

The Japanese launched 9,300 balloon bombs to ride the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean and hit mainland United States. 300 made it, and one caused tragedy.

“They had a very active meteorological research program and they did a lot of experimentation in the pre-war era, which was military directed,” said Michael Unsworth, World War II researcher and writer, and retired history librarian at the Michigan State University. “They used their calculations and discovered that jet stream, which frankly was a big surprise to the Americans.”

However, most balloon bombs fell short into the Pacific and out of the 300 that reached the United States, Canada, and Mexico, only a few exploded, and one caused a tragedy on May 5, 1945. A Sunday school teacher and five children were killed near Bly, Oregon when, on their way to a picnic, they came across one of the balloons and inadvertently set off the bomb.

Japanese FUGO balloon carried a 33lb anti-personnel bomb

Some of these balloons were retrieved by the FBI. They were 33 feet in diameter, carried 33-pound bombs, and had a volume of 19,000 cubic feet. “In one way, the Japanese had assumed correctly that Americans are gossipy and so they would get news about the bombs hitting their intended target, but what they had not realized was that the American government planned very efficient censorship efforts, and except for a couple of brief reports, there wasn’t any mention in the US or Canadian press,” said Unsworth. This (mis)led the Japanese to believe that their balloon bombs had missed their mark, and they abandoned the operation in April 1945.

While project FU-GO failed as an effective intercontinental bombing system, it reignited a passion for hot-air ballooning in Donald Louis Piccard (born 1926), who came to be known as the father of modern hot-air ballooning in the United States. Piccard was a navy balloon and airship rigger in World War II, stationed at Lakehurst, New Jersey.  Born in the family of the world’s most famous balloonists, the son of Jean and Jeannette Piccard, he had first flown in a balloon in 1933, when he was enlisted as “crew” by his mother, who was getting her balloon pilot’s license!  In 1937, his parents made a historic balloon flight to 57,579 feet into the stratosphere and his mother became the first woman to fly to the edge of space.

Photo before taking off on the 1947 FUGO flight, shows Don’s mother holding homemade “Statoscope” for showing minute altitude changes. Don’s father observes. (The “statoscope” was a bottle with a U tube containing colored fluid – as the balloon goes up air bubbles out. As it goes down air bubbles in through the U. You can see the change with a two-foot movement. Very low tech, but very useful in flying the balloon.) Photo reprinted with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis

At the Naval Air Station, Piccard oversaw the recovered FU-GOs. “The FU-GO balloons were probably one of the most efficient and most hazardous weapons that have been developed,” said Piccard in a phone interview. “But the Japanese knew they had poor quality fuses, and so they used two. If one fails, you have the other. And those that got here, were the ones that failed. Had they used three fuses, more balloons would have gotten here,” he said.

According to Piccard, the question of war always comes down to economics. “Each FU-GO balloon cost $180 to have it in the air with those bombs, but it cost much more than that to shoot it down. And if it wasn’t shot down, it would have cost much more than that for suppression of any fires it started, so economically, it was a remarkable weapon.”

Don Piccard-Known as the father of modern hot air ballooning in US. Photo from Facebook

When the navy had finished testing the FU-GOs, Piccard was asked to haul these little known Japanese weapons to the dumpster and was given a property pass. Coming from a family with a remarkable history in balloon experimentation, his fascination for the balloon was inevitable, and so he asked his senior officer if he could keep one. “Sure. Take it,” the officer replied.

“The balloon was captured enemy equipment according to technicalities, and as part of the regulations of the time, the navy was able to give it to me for use,” Piccard said, adding that he was not interested in any of the attachments of the balloon but only in the balloon envelope. “I wanted to reuse the balloon for little bit of scientific research and development of new equipment and also to reactivate the sport and create interest in the sport of ballooning.”

He did not know how he would get it airborne, but he had dreams.

In an article published in the May 2001 issue of Air & Space Magazine, Piccard wrote, “There were no civilian balloonists active anywhere in America then. But, after the war, I became a student in aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota—then the nation’s center of balloon research… I also joined the Army Air Forces Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).”

In 1947, the US Air Force was going to be created, and some senior officers saw an opportunity for publicity in a FU-GO balloon ascension.

But twenty-one-year old Piccard lacked a balloon pilot’s license. He had flown over 40 hours in balloons but still needed two hours of solo flight to earn the first Free Balloon Pilot Certificate issued from the Civil Aviation Agency (now the Federal Aviation Administration).

“I chose the Japanese paper balloon to make that flight,” he said. “It was a very well-made envelope and very tough. Ralph Upson studied it and said I had a 50 to 1 safety factor, which means the envelope fabric was 50 times stronger than it needed to be in a sport balloon.” The tough envelope had weathered a Pacific Crossing, but to change it to a manned flight mission, Piccard made several modifications.

Don Piccard’s flight. Photo shows Foshay tower on right and the Basilica on left. The Foshay Tower was the only tall building in Minneapolis. It is now hidden by other buildings. It concerned Don, but he cleared it easily once in the air. Photo reprinted with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis

Many people came forward to get the project aloft, and the major sponsor was the Minneapolis Daily Times who got the expensive hydrogen and sand ballast. Area military units provided scraps of aluminum to make the basket, which he did with the help of workers, at the University of Minnesota medical laboratory, and the Fuller Company even figured out a glue that would hold the Japanese mulberry paper.

“They [the navy] were interested in seeing the sport of ballooning reactivated. The army, air force, and the navy have always helped the sport of ballooning because they feel it is educational for aeronautics and beneficial to the military forces. They have people who are active in the sport, and it is the same in the European countries,” said Piccard.

But wasn’t there any experienced or licensed balloonist in the military to make the ascension? “The army terminated their free balloon training program near the beginning of World War II. And the navy used free balloons for training for airships throughout that period,” he said. In any case, the decision to fly was his. “I wanted to get my pilot’s license, I wanted to advance the design of balloons, and I wanted to advance the sport of ballooning.”

The launch day was set in February—when Minneapolis is frigid with the average high at 29°F and average low at 13°F. The sky was overcast. Piccard had dressed up in a cozy fur lined Japanese air suit “worn in honor of the balloon’s own heritage” and lifted off for the first post-war civilian free flight.

“I had never flown a paper balloon before. I had never flown with hydrogen before. Nor had I ever flown with an overcast sky before, or in a balloon without a net. I had never flown alone before, but it was infinitely heavenly,” he wrote in the Air & Space Magazine article.

And yet, he had no concerns before the flight. “Or, I would not have done it,” he said, emphatically.

Most of his two-hour-and-10-minute flight was below 3000-foot altitude.

“The colder the weather, the more lift the balloon has, and the weather was very stable. There were no thermals, so it was very easy. I was very fortunate,” he said.

The wind speed was also comfortable during descent. “I came in slowly, vented the balloon down until my ground crew arrived [which included volunteers from the Corps], and they deflated it onto the ground cloth,” he recalled.

The landing, however, was not smooth. “I landed in an open plowed field that was frozen, so every furrow and every ridge of the frozen soil was another bang, bang, bang, as it landed,” he said.

Did he receive a hero’s welcome? “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said with a chuckle.

Don Piccard’s basket on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Piccard flew in this basket in his famous 1947 FUGO balloon flight as a student pilot; in 1959 to commemorate John Wise’s flight; and, in 1961 rose to an altitude of 34,642 feet, creating an altitude record for gas balloons in that category. Photo: The Balloon Journal

Piccard’s ascension in the balloon was hailed as a big event and was covered well in the US media. At that time, he was the only person in the United States with a balloon and a balloon pilot’s license.

For decades, Piccard promoted ballooning as a sport and hobby and his list of firsts is impressive, which also include original works in building hot-air balloons and super pressure balloons.

His dare-devil flight in the FU-GO balloon launched the modern ballooning era in the United States, but he could never fly old FU-GO again. “The official papers that the navy gave me to release it to my ownership were not recognized by the FAA as an appropriate title of ownership,” he explained.

But if the past four months’ developments are any indication, “FUGO-the balloon” seems to have a mind of its own and was determined to tell another interesting story–this one from its prior service as a Japanese balloon bomb and also create more buzz.

This February, Brent Ashcroft a reporter from  WZZM 13 TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, contacted Piccard while researching a local story, “When the War Came to Dorr.” Ashcroft asked Piccard to confirm if a FUGO balloon from Michigan had come into his possession and if he had made the famous 1947 flight in Minneapolis.  “Yes,” said Piccard, adding that he still had that FUGO balloon preserved in a drum in his garage for 72 years!

In North Dorr, Michigan, that nugget of information was enough for some citizens to launch a campaign to bring the balloon “back” to where it had landed, apparently near what is now the Byron Center Museum.

…to be continued in part 2 soon

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