Admired as a brave pioneer and mechanical genius in lighter-than-air aviation, Tracy Lay Barnes made hot-air ballooning a safer and enjoyable sport. Barnes’ most important contribution to ballooning—the self-sealing parachute valve—advanced safety and control of hot-air balloons, consequently expanding the sport and business of ballooning in the United States and around the world.
Tracy Lay Barnes, an inspiration to thousands of people in the ballooning community, was 79 when he passed away on 20th January 2019.
Following the sad news of his demise, many fellow balloonists, friends, and organizations took to the social media to pay glowing tributes to their departed hero. The Balloon Federation of America described him as a pioneer in the sport of ballooning. Speaking with me, Julian Nott, an aeronaut of world-class distinction, said he had a long association with Barnes. “Tracy had a big influence on my early career. His contribution to lighter-than-air flight was enormous….”
Tracy Barnes was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 21, 1939. As a mechanical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, Barnes made his first hot-air balloon Old Lumpy with five used army parachutes. For the gondola, he had a flimsy lawn-chair with two barbecue-grill style small propane tanks on either side, and a burner way above his head to heat the air inside the balloon. On 13th October 1961 (some accounts say 23rd September), seated on the contraption that dangled precariously from the balloon, Barnes rose to 8,000 feet. In an interview with WSIC-TV News in 2017, Barnes said that until that time, he had never seen a balloon and had never been up in a balloon. “I had to make it all up; figure out how to do it. Make the burner, make the balloon, make something to sit in, and off I went. It was pretty crude, but it worked, by golly.”
The previous era of sport ballooning had continued from its birth in 1783 to the end of the nineteenth century. Revival of the hot-air balloon began around 1958 at Raven Industries, which led to the birth of the modern hot-air balloon. In the 1950s, Paul Edward Yost and three other General Mills employees were working on both scientific and military balloon projects in Minnesota. They set up Raven Industries in 1956, in South Dakota. More than two years later, Raven received a $47,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research. While they continued working on high-altitude scientific balloons for the government, they also tested materials, fuels, and burner systems for a hot-air balloon. One of the engineering insights was to build a hot-air balloon system that could carry its own fuel to reheat the air inside the balloon for a longer flight. In 1960, Raven Industries, came up with the modern hot-air balloon, which featured a nylon envelope, propane-powered burner, an altimeter, and a climb-rate indicator.
Ed Yost made the first flight in the modern hot-air balloon on October 22, 1960, from a deserted airfield at Bruning, Nebraska, and three weeks later followed up with another one, from the Stratobowl, in South Dakota. Consequently, Ed Yost came to be known as the Father of the Modern Hot Air Balloon.
According to Orvin Olivier, a historian for the Balloon Federation of America, who worked at Raven Industries and started flying balloons in 1974, there are lot of other people that were near pioneers who came in the late sixties, but Tracy was there real close to the beginning. “He was definitely one of the few really true hot-air ballooning pioneers in the world,” said Olivier. By the mid-1960s, Raven Industries, Tracy Barnes, Don Piccard, and Mark Semich were manufacturing hot-air balloons. For more than a decade, they experimented with technical improvements to make hot-air ballooning a safe form of flight.
Barnes’ creative genius showed even in high school. His passion with lighter-than-air flight began in 1957 as a weather balloon technician in the the U.S. Army. Despite his fear of heights, Barnes made over 100 parachute jumps with the first military sport parachute club.
Following the experimental flights, came the first hot-air balloon race, with the “Jean Piccard Trophy” that catapulted ballooning into a competitive sport. Organized by Don Piccard and sanctioned by the National Aeronautic Association the race was held at the St. Paul, Minnesota Winter Carnival on January 28, 1962. Barnes won the race that year and was also the winner in 1963 and 1964.
To break altitude records, however, Barnes constructed a hydrogen-filled polyethylene A-3 size balloon and soared to 38,650 feet on May 10, 1964. The following day, the Akron Beacon Journal reported, “Barnes’s goal was to smash the 1940 record of 23,286 feet, set by Russia’s Boris Nevernov in a small 3-A balloon.” Barnes had accomplished the feat with a balloon system that weighed less than 250 pounds including envelope, cabin, ballast, instruments, and pilot. With that flight, Barnes claimed eleven world records, for the A-3 class of balloons, which still stand today. “It was a little gas balloon with a little lightweight Styrofoam gondola. And for oxygen, he just filled up a large black bag. And he went up with that. That’s amazing. No one would do that, but he did,” said Dr. William Bussey, an inductee of the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame and founder of the Great Texas Balloon Race. According to Olivier, who has been involved in many world-record attempts, “Altitude is the scariest. Altitude can kill you. And, Tracy had a simple, crude, and untested life-support oxygen system.” Three years before Barnes’ record flight in the gas balloon, Don Piccard had set an altitude record of 34,642 feet in an A-4 size gas balloon, from Faribault, Minnesota.
From 1962 to 1972, Barnes went barnstorming around the country in promotional balloons and airships, before settling on a balloon design. In 1966, during his cross-country flight, in FireFly 90, from San Diego, California, to Cape May, in New Jersey, he had several disasters and also needed treatment in a hospital. He was lost in the Rocky Mountains for three days, had to ditch in the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, and in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, the craft struck a 4,800-volt power line as he was trying to land because of high wind velocity. “The balloon was caught by a down draft and went out of control,” Barnes had explained to the The Gazette and Daily. Recounting Barnes’ balloon crash in Wrightsville in the June 20, 2018, York Daily Record, Gordon Freireich writes, “The landing and balloon fire in Wrightsville slowed him down, but Barnes was not deterred. He ordered a new balloon from his home base in South Carolina. It took several days for the balloon to arrive in Wrightsville. In the meantime, Barnes stayed in the camper that was part of his ground equipment.”
When Barnes was ready to take off again, hundreds of onlookers had gathered by the Susquehanna River, and wished him well in his new, wonderful hot-air balloon.
Barnes achieved the cross-country hot-air balloon journey in a series of 34 flights over 200 hours from April 9 to September 11. Unfavorable winds forced him to land five miles short of Atlantic City-his final destination. In addition to setting endurance and distance records, Barnes had also reached an altitude of 28,585 feet. He was already a celebrity before he had started the cross-country flight, but this adventurous trip brought him many more accolades from the ballooning community.
Nott and Barnes became friends from the time they first met in the summer of 1972. Recounting their first meeting, Nott said, “I had flown to 36,000 feet in 1972 in a hot-air balloon, which was a world record at that time, though modest as it seems now, and as a result Tracy invited me to the 7 Up Balloon Race in Columbus, Ohio. Those were pioneering days and none of us knew anything. It was memorable for a number of reasons and Tracy was amazing. Bruce Comstock was there, and we have been friends ever since. I loved meeting Tracy because he and I both had a certain amount of experience. He had more than I had,” said Nott. They traded ideas for a long time and lost touch in 2,000 for “no particular reason.” According to Nott, Barnes’ original Firefly is a classic balloon design. “What I mean by that is a design which given the objectives and given the materials, it’s simply impossible to improve,” he explained. Balloon pilots give credit to Barnes for improved balloon flight and maneuverability, and while Barnes’ innovations added to tremendous safety in ballooning, “safety was the primary concern of all balloon manufacturers,” says Olivier.
For a safe and enjoyable hot-air balloon flight, the craft must be able to ascend and descend quickly; in short, be easily maneuverable. To ascend faster, a quick increase in the temperature of the hot air is needed, which calls for a powerful burner to heat the air inside the balloon, and to descend faster, a quick dumping of some of the hot air is necessary, which calls for a vent that can both open and close quickly, to ensure that the flight continues. “Tracy deserves credit for coming up with a better burner. He was one step ahead of everybody on that one. It wasn’t very long after that — that everybody caught on, but I think Tracy deserves credit for raising the bar on burner technology,” says Olivier. According to Dr. Bussey, the Barnes balloon and burner were superior and made the sport much safer, which forced his competitors to improve. “When I was flying another brand of balloon before changing to a Barnes, every time I hit the burner, the pilot light would go out and that was dangerous, but the Barnes burner was very powerful and had three pilot lights that did not go out,” said Dr. Bussey.
Nott who made his first balloon flight in 1969 said that early hot-air balloons simply copied what had been done by gas balloons for decades. They carried a trail rope and had a rip panel for rapid deflation on landing. The first hot-air balloon rip panels were tall thin triangles, copying gas balloons, held in place with Velcro. They soon changed to circular rip panels, but these too were held with Velcro. “It was a real pain because you had to close the rip very carefully, to make the Velcro stick. The Velcro did not stick properly if it was wet or dirty. It was dangerous and caused at least one fatal accident [Clark Lift, Birmingham, England, 1974],” said Nott.
Dr. Bussey, who started flying in 1977, adds, “Tracy created a parachute valve that pulled down to let the air out and it could reseal. You could open it and close it in flight safely. And the competitors either had that side vent or they had the top that was put in with the Velcro which went half way around. Once you opened it, you could not reseal it for further flight. Your flight was pretty much over.”
But all that changed when, in the summer of 1972, Barnes came up with the self-sealing parachute valve as a replacement for the rip panels in thermal balloons. For this, he received the first Dick Wirth Medal from the Queen of England. At that time, Nott was on the the board of the British Royal Aero Club. “We recognized the importance of the parachute vent, and we gave Tracy a medal for advancing safety in ballooning, and for giving away the technology freely to the world,” said Nott. Olivier agrees that Barnes deserves a lot of credit for adapting a parachute top to modern balloon technology. “Nobody was using that prior to Tracy coming out with it, and it took quite a while for different ballooning manufacturers to slowly adapt to their own styles. Today the entire country, rather the entire world, uses the parachute tops in modern ballooning,” he said.
On May 26, 1973, Barnes claimed the record for the first flight in an aircraft powered only by solar energy. This “Solar Firefly” was a 200,000-cubic-foot balloon, although Dominic Michaelis, a British architect and inventor of many solar utilities is recorded as having owned the first pure solar balloon in Europe. “But Dominic didn’t have the nerve to fly his solar balloon,” said Nott, who flew Dominic’s solar balloon across the English Channel in 1981. Barnes also became the first commercial hot-air balloonist in the United States by flying for KSTP-TV with a big banner.
In 1973 Barnes co-founded The Balloon Works, Inc., with Dodds Meddock and Karl Stefan, and his company became the second biggest manufacturer of hot-air balloons in the United States, behind Raven Industries. “And if you look at it on a world scale, depending on what year you’re talking about, there were three or four major balloon manufacturers and Tracy was one of them,” said Olivier. Barnes sold The Balloon Works in 1982 and took a two-year sabbatical in the mountains of Colorado. In 1984 he returned to Statesville, North Carolina, and launched another company Blimp Works.
According to Becky Wigeland, Curator of the National Balloon Museum, Barnes started work in a former women’s prison because it was empty and then moved the balloon and basket-making to a chicken coop and then to a building. “I went to Rhyne Aerodrome,” said Dr. Bussey, “I just couldn’t believe somebody would be working out of a chicken shack. All his stuff was new and fascinating to me and I felt out of place being there. And Tracy invited me and showed me how they stretch the fabric and set it. He had artists that built those beautiful baskets, although Tracy built some of the original ones. I couldn’t believe that he built beautiful balloons and beautiful baskets there!” All agree that Barnes’ balloons were unique and artistic–a testimony to his interest in science and the arts.
Nott pointed out another intriguing quality about Barnes, which was to find solutions through experiments. “In those days, we all wanted to know what would happen if we overheated a hot-air balloon,” said Nott. “Tracy did an experiment. He just went up in a hot-air balloon. He went up higher and higher, getting the balloon hotter and hotter. And wherever there was a small hole in the balloon, the hot-air would flow out through the hole of the balloon, and the hole would expand. Those insights are very valuable and Tracy being a regular parachutist was happy to do this.” His insights from such experiments also gave him the confidence to try different things. To make balloon envelopes, Barnes used the glossy and more heat-resistant fabric, ripstop polyester (Dacron) instead of ripstop nylon. “The Dacron is not as strong, but it could be heated 50 degrees more, which might perform somewhat, better,” said Dr. Bussey. Later, Barnes would invent the FlexNet Envelope.
During the 90s, Barnes designed, built, and flew two blimps Skywalker and Whispership. About his flight in Skywalker, he comments in the raw video, “It was time to call on every bit of experience that I had to get this thing back on the ground safely.” One of his new designs for a tethered blimp is in use by the British military in Iraq and Afghanistan as an aerial observation platform to protect troop sites. Barnes was granted a patent for this design in 2007. The design incorporates a collapsible tail fin that helps to inflate it quickly by a minimum number of people, even in high wind conditions.
Wigeland describes Barnes as a very kind soul and a shy and modest person. She and her husband met him in 1975 at the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship in Indianola, which brought together many balloonists and balloon manufacturers. “Some manufacturers also brought their workers and sewing machines to repair any balloons,” said Wigeland. At that event, when Wigeland and her crew got ready to inflate the balloon, they could not do so, as the strings were in a huge tangled mess. “After spending three hours trying to untangle, I walked over to the Barnes’ tent and asked for help. And this man said, ‘sure, I’ll come over and help you.’ And he came over and sat under the tree untangling all afternoon and, lo and behold, it was Tracy Barnes and that’s how I first met him,” said Wigeland.
Preoccupied by his ideas and focused on his work, Barnes acquired the reputation of being an introvert and a recluse. He was inducted into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2008 but declined to attend the ceremony at the National Balloon Museum in Iowa. “Tracy’s reaction was, ‘I won’t come. I am not into ballooning any more. I don’t do crowds, I don’t do speaking…” recalls Wigeland. But three weeks later he called her and said he was coming to donate some ballooning memorabilia to the museum. “I cleaned out my attic after 40 years. I don’t know what’s in there, I’m bringing it all, you can have whatever you want, but I’m still not coming to the ceremony,” he told Wigeland.
Olivier experienced a similar reluctance from Barnes few years ago. “The Balloon Federation of America holds a National Balloon Convention every three years and one convention was going to deal a lot with ballooning history, which I was involved in,” said Olivier. “And Tracy was an introvert; he didn’t want to come out in public. For me to get Tracy to come to the convention, was a major achievement. I asked him to send some pictures and I put together a PowerPoint for him to talk about and we did this presentation together. But once he was there, he loved it. He was a star there. He is a highly respected person in ballooning history.” Fortunately for his admirers, Barnes attended the 2017 ceremony in Albuquerque, New Mexico that inducted him into the International Ballooning Hall of Fame.
According to Barnes’ company’s website, Blimp Works manufactures blimps and balloons for advertising, tethered aerostats for scientific applications, and military and civilian surveillance. The products also include “Lighter-Than-Air Drone,” and other non-flying but valuable technologies for research and development, both for the government and private enterprises.
In 2016, Sand Dollar Productions was working on a documentary about the Carolina Balloon Fest (co-founded by Barnes and Bill Meadows) in Statesville, North Carolina. Peter Kulsziski, co-writer, director, and co-producer said that while working on that documentary, all research in the area, and every person pointed to Tracy Barnes. “We talked to Kristie Darling, the local hot-air balloon historian who personally knew Tracy. Darling said, ‘Forget it, you won’t be able to talk to him [Tracy Barnes]. He is a recluse.’ Then Tracy asked us to prepare some questions, and we finally got him in the chair. He talked with us for two hours and that started a very successful relationship. Tracy allowed us to also dig into his attic. He helped us a lot.”
The documentary “Tracy Barnes—A Lighter than Air Pioneer” is almost complete and will be released soon. On 21st October 2016, in an interview with Sand Dollar Productions, Barnes said, “Looking back, I have met so many really nice people. It’s so neat to have something so much in common with them. Most of them are pilots or related somehow to my business but each is an individual and they come from all walks of life, and it’s been great having a life with that many great people in it.”
Many people feel blessed to have known the great lighter than air pioneer Tracy Barnes. May he rest in peace. Our deepest condolences to Mr. Barnes’ family, friends, and fans.
Top featured image: Tracy Barnes was inducted into the International Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2017, at a ceremony in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo credit-Albuquerque Balloon Museum
By Sitara Maruf