It is with deep regret and profound sadness that we report the death of renowned aeronaut Julian Nott on March 26, 2019. Nott passed away peacefully in a hospital, on Tuesday, after suffering serious injuries in what seems to be a bizarre capsule accident after a successful balloon flight and landing. His loving partner of 30 years, artist Anne Luther, was at his side.
Replying to a query about the tragic loss, Roberta Greene, spokesperson for Nott’s family sent this information in an email:
“Julian was flying an experimental balloon that was his invention and design—made to test high-altitude technology. It was a test flight and while flying over the Warner Springs, CA area, he began to lose altitude. He landed safely and spoke to several of us, including me. He said all was OK and he needed to secure the cabin. Several hours later, while he was in the cabin, it became loose and rolled down the hillside with him inside. It was a totally unforeseen and tragic accident. Unfortunately, he sustained many serious injuries and passed away peacefully in a nearby trauma center.”
Several people familiar with the project told the San Diego Sheriff’s office that Nott’s balloon flight with pressurized capsule was part of a high-altitude weather research project being conducted by the University of Florida. According to information uploaded on Nott’s website, “Julian was changing the course of balloon history with the development of an entirely new system in which conventional ballast is replaced with cryogenic helium.”
Due to the unusual nature of the accident, which happened after the landing, there were some confusing reports, initially. However, after inquiries with the Sheriff’s office and the Federal Aviation Administration, who is handling the investigation, some of these details have come to light.
“An experimental high-altitude weather balloon landed on a mountainside near Warner Springs, Calif., Sunday afternoon.
The two people on board exited the balloon and secured it while waiting for the chase crew to arrive. At some point, the pilot and passenger re-entered the capsule and it rolled down a steep ravine. Both were transported to a hospital.”
Cal Fire crews reported the incident as soft landing around 12:45 p.m. but called the Sheriff’s office at 3:30 pm to report that people were injured, which indicates that the tragedy struck during the interval. It took fire fighters one hour to reach the tragic scene, in a remote area on the east side of Palomar Mountain near Chihuahua Valley Road and state Route 79 in San Diego County. Both victims were airlifted by a sheriff’s helicopter crew, to Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, around 5:50 p.m.
Nott, 74, was born in Britain and had a master’s in physical chemistry from Oxford University. He held dual citizenship, British and American, and lived in Santa Barbara, California.
As one of the pioneering balloonists and inventor, Nott belonged to an extraordinary class of aeronauts applying courage and advanced scientific principles to modern manned balloon designs. In 2017, at age 72, Nott set a record for the highest documented tandem skydiving jump, from 31,916 feet, which earned him a place in the Guinness World Records. The objective for Nott and Curt Johnson was to prepare in the event of an emergency bailout from high-altitude balloon flight above 35,000 feet. The jump took place at Skydance Skydiving Center at Davis, California, using a Cessna Caravan.
In his illustrious ballooning career, Nott reportedly broke 79 world ballooning records and 96 British records, and many of these are listed on the website of the FAI or the World Air Sports Federation. Nott also designed and constructed the first hot-air balloon with a pressurized cabin, which he piloted to a world record altitude of 55,134 feet. His achievements include the first crossing of the Sahara Desert; the first crossing of Australia; crossing the Alps; and piloting the world’s first solar balloon across the English Channel.
On his website, Nott writes that record-breaking is never the central objective. “Most of all I hope to use science to advance and innovate. But setting a world record is indisputable proof of the success of a new design.” Nott was equally curious and excited learning about an ancient civilization such as Peru’s vast, barren Nazca Plains with hundreds of straight lines, symbols, and drawings by the pre-Inca Peruvians 1,500 years ago, as he was about designing a balloon system that would send Alan Eustace into the stratosphere for his record skydive in 2014.
Though skeptical about the idea from Jim Woodman that the people who created the Nazca lines could have seen them from hot air balloons, Nott piloted the Nazca prehistoric balloon, made with methods and materials available to the Nazca people of Peru 1,500 years ago. Woodman and Nott, both more than six feet tall, had to straddle outside the raft-like gondola, made from totora reed. Neither had a parachute. Their balloon Condor I reached 380 feet above the Nazca plains, and Nott made a brilliant observation. “And while I do not see any evidence that the Nazca civilization did fly, it is beyond any doubt that they could have. And so could the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Vikings, any civilization. With just a loom and fire you can fly!” Moreover, recently, Nott repeated the flight for the Japanese network TV-Asahi.
For his work designing high-altitude balloon cabins, he was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Aero Club. Nott has been a Senior Balloon Consultant to World View Enterprises, a company working on commercial stratospheric balloons and passenger spaceflight projects. “I designed the balloon system that took Alan Eustace to 135,890 feet into the stratosphere,” Nott told me in late January. Eustace jumped from that altitude and fell at 820 miles per hour, 25% faster than the speed of sound and holds the world altitude record for the highest-altitude free-fall jump.
Nott’s incredible contribution to World View is apparent in a recent message posted by World View on Facebook. A part of the message reads:
“RIP to a true pioneer in our field, Julian Nott. To hear of his passing is a gut-wrenching loss for the global ballooning community.… He was also instrumental in leading project StratEx and helping World View mature and develop. Words can’t adequately convey his impact on the ballooning community. And above all else, he was a true joy, great friend, and kind heart. He will be missed but never forgotten. RIP good friend and thank you for a lifetime of inspiration.”
In the past two months, I had the pleasure and honor of talking with Nott on few occasions via phone and also corresponded by email. Just this month (March), I received an email from him, and I was going to reply. It’s a sad irony that in these last two months, Nott was paying glowing tributes to his friend and departed LTA pioneer Tracy Barnes, who had a tremendous influence on Nott’s ballooning career. While most of the discussion with Nott revolved around Barnes, I sensed a lot of excitement and enthusiasm in his voice as we briefly touched upon high-altitude ballooning technology, the balloonists of the 1960s that paved the way to an enjoyable sport, his friendships in ballooning, and future scientific applications in lighter-than-air aviation.
Despite being very busy, he was always impeccably polite, prompt, very helpful, and thoroughly professional. He connected beautifully like a friend, even offering advice and speaking his mind, which prompted me to tell him, “Thank you for your input and candor!” Given the circumstances and his sudden, tragic, and untimely death, this has been the hardest and saddest experience in writing.
Nott was very excited about a project he was working on. He said that he was giving me a heads-up and would talk about the details closer to the date. In deference to Nott’s wishes, I do not want to mention any specifics now and will research and write about Nott’s contribution closer to the event, if and when it materializes.
I agreed to follow up and said that I looked forward to working with him on his contributions to lighter-than-air flight. He was very appreciative and offered permission to use photos and information from his website. “If it interests you,” he said. After publishing the article on Tracy Barnes, I sent an email informing him that the article has been published. Within an hour, Nott replied, “Love it, thank you….”
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has described Nott as “a central figure in the expansion of ballooning as an organizer, pilot, and most of all as arguably the leading figure to apply modern science to manned balloon design.”
Nott will be remembered and missed as a friend and ballooning’s most creative and innovative exponents, who rejoiced in exploration and adventure and who changed the course of balloon history by taking it to a higher level. Like many of his ballooning predecessors, Nott fell a martyr to the pursuit of science and lighter-than-air aviation.
According to the obituary on Nott’s website, “Interment will be in the Nott Family Plot in England. In lieu of flowers, Julian’s wishes were for donations to his favorite charity, SEE International, www.seeintl.org ”
We join the family and the ballooning community in mourning the passing of Julian Nott.
Rest in Peace, Julian.
By Sitara Maruf
Related articles: Tracy Barnes: Pioneer of Lighter-than-Air Flight