This Day in History: The first trans-Atlantic crossing in a balloon

On this day in 1978, three Americans land a helium gas balloon, Double Eagle II, in France. They’d just become the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon.

Did you know that it took nearly two centuries to accomplish this feat?

The first balloon took to the skies in 1783. The world had been amazed to watch a human being float above the Earth. “[O]ur friends at Paris,” George Washington wrote, “in a little time, will come flying thro’ the air, instead of ploughing the Ocean to get to America.”

He was right—sort of. Airplanes would soar across the ocean by the early 1900s, but balloons still struggled to traverse such a long distance. In fact, at least 14 failed attempts were made before Double Eagle II completed the trip.

Some of those balloonists were lost at sea, never to be found. Indeed, two of Double Eagle’s crew were nearly among these lost aviators. Ben Abruzzo and Max “Maxie” Anderson tried to cross the Atlantic in 1977 aboard the original Double Eagle. They were blown off course by storms and forced to ditch in the North Atlantic. They could have died from exposure, but they were rescued by the Navy instead.

“Success in any venture is just the intelligent application of failure,” Anderson would say. Thus, the two pilots learned—and they made adjustments before trying again in 1978.

One important change was to add a third crew member: Larry Newman.

Because of Newman, communication and navigation would go better than it would have otherwise. Importantly, he handled the situation when Double Eagle II’s radio failed partway through the trip.

Double Eagle II launched from Presque Isle, Maine, on August 11. The crew flew in an open, unpressurized gondola, but the pilots also brought oxygen to help them breathe at high altitudes. They had folding lawn chairs and battery-powered electric socks that would help them avoid frostbite.

Nevertheless, the nearly 6-day trip was difficult. Weather data from the ground helped the crew to vary altitude at appropriate moments, yet the extreme temperature variations still caused problems. Ice would build up on the balloon at night, causing the balloon to drop. Then, when the sun rose, the heat would cause helium in the balloon to expand.

The balloon rose and fell, but one of these fluctuations was particularly bad.

“The balloon came right down from 22,000 feet,” Anderson later said, “maybe it could have been as high as 24,000 feet at the time—to 4,000 feet. We thought it was all over. . . . We had already thrown over most of our sand and lead ballast; now we tore everything out of the gondola. We threw our sleeping bags out; everything. As we plummeted down, we were all scared stiff.”

The pilots later called it the “Big Drop.” But they’d made it.

Double Eagle II finally approached Paris late on August 17. The pilots were offered the opportunity to land at Le Bourget Airfield, where Charles Lindbergh famously completed his trans-Atlantic flight, but they declined. They were worried about an emergency landing over Parisian suburbs, and they opted for a barley field instead.

The landing in Miserey, just west of Paris, was greeted by thousands. Three American balloonists had accomplished something that must have seemed near impossible.

And it had been only 200 years since George Washington first envisioned it.

P.S. The illustration is of the first manned hot air balloon flight in 1783.